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Moving towards and beyond idea of unity

(, Irish News)

Michael McDowell TD, Irish minister for justice, equality and reform is renowned for straight-talking on the IRA and understandably some unionists are quite taken with him on the premise that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

However, the minister is also a republican who believes Irish unity is "inevitable". Admittedly his kind of Ireland would be pluralist, open and inclusive as symbolised in the Irish tricolour. He believes republicanism tied to "armed struggle" is illegitimate and contradictory and rejects the assumption that IRA violence has been an "expression of nationalism". Rather it is dangerous nonsense "on the edge of fascism".

Yet at the Meath Peace Group McDowell said unity was "inevitable". But while unity is a legitimate aspiration it can only come into being when people freely consent to it and consent implies choice and unpredictability.

The view that unity is inevitable is dangerous because it suggests people have no choice. This is emphatically not the case because, even were the population profile to change in favour of Catholics, there is no necessary correlation between religion and politics. McDowell is maybe reinforcing the fears of those timid unionists who regard the peace process as no more than a non-too-subtle means of manoeuvr-ing them into an alien state.

While admitting that a "single unitary state" is not immediately on the cards, McDowell assumes it might "be accommodated in stages" or via "a federal or confederal arrangement". He even disarmingly suggests Northern Ireland could remain part of the UK, but quickly reverses this apparent generosity by adding that it would only be "for a while". McDowell was speaking primarily for a republican audience and reassuring them of the viability of non-violent and democratic means.

Peaceful means are indeed the only acceptable way to unite people but unity remains aspirational rather than inevitable and any attempt at unity by stealth seems doomed to failure given the ingrained suspicions and resistance of pro-union people.

Many unionists want a new relationship between the peoples of the island but don't want unity and, given the consent principle, they can refuse. If Irish government ministers were to try manipulating a 32-county state via stages, which approach appears to be IRA strategy, this could rekindle ancient fears and not an inch mentalities.

For McDowell the agreement was a decision "to draw a line across history". But the Good Friday Agreement has an unhelpful contradiction at its core – the 50% +1 recipe for Irish unity – a hangover from days when majorities grabbed everything. This maintains, rather than draws lines across, the conflict and is not in tune with the Irish Constitution's new Article 3 injunction that unity be achieved "in harmony and friendship". As minister Dermot Ahern asserted the Republic cannot welcome the north into its bosom if this entails a feuding and/or recalcitrant population.

If Mr McDowell and others want a pluralist, open and inclusive 32-county state majority-takes-all mindsets must be rejected. If we are serious about inclusion, the mechanisms for achieving it must also be inclusive. To ride roughshod over a large minority as implied in the 50% +1 formula is the antithesis of pluralism. If reconciliation is desired, people must be reconciled to the implications of the fact that many don't even see themselves as Irish let alone part of an Irish nation. McDowell refers to federal and confederal arrangements without defining the context. However, as London-based political analyst Simon Partridge points out in a recent contribution to a UCD book on new territorial politics across our islands,* the British state has been radically altered and today the agreement's East-West Council of the Isles links a devolved UK with an independent Irish state.

This takes us beyond traditional notions of sovereignty and recognises the enduring connections between the peoples of the isles. The council has the capacity to transcend petty squabbles and usher in a new era of goodwill and cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Northern Ireland as a political entity can continue to exist, but in a dynamic relationship with an Irish state and a devolved Great Britain. In this context the goal of unity may prove unproductive and irrelevant.

August 2, 2005

* Renovation or Revolution? – New Territorial Politics in Ireland and the United Kingdom, Eds John Coakley, Brigid Laffan and Jennifer Todd.

This article appeared first in the August 1, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News