Irish Republicans need to include the northern protestant identity in their vision of a united Ireland to prize them away from unionism, writes Felim O'Hamill
THE NORTH has experienced a period of relative peace, the erosion of the British constitutional guarantee and unionist power, the unstoppable equality agenda, cross border initiatives, relative prosperity, demographic changes and the emergence of an increasingly confident Catholic middle class. The south has experienced the Celtic Tiger, the secularisation of society, and, dare I say, the success of the twenty six county soccer team.
All of Ireland has experienced for the first time in recent modern history the stemming of emigration and the influx of a variety of ethnic minorities. All these factors have combined with international influences - most notably, globalisation and the EU - to produce a convergence north and south, of social, cultural, economic and political structures, influences and interests.
It is no longer the case that Protestants in the north can clearly identify their interests as being wrapped up in a six-county state based on sectarian privilege and propped up by Britain. Britain, under pressure from nationalist Ireland and the international community is slowly removing the props of unionist, Protestant power and supremacy.
The question for republicans is not so much how they can further encourage the dismantling of unionist and Protestant power and privilege. They've been quite good at that up to now.
The question for republicans is how they can construct and promote a non-sectarian non-ethnocentric republicanism, which can be attractive to and in the interests of the majority of the population in the south and the north. This should be a recognised necessity if the goal of a 32-county republic is to be achieved.
As it becomes increasingly clear that British interest in holding the north is diminishing, the task for republicans is increasingly to nation build and, in particular, to build the type of nation republicans want - an Ireland of equals, which hopefully means socialist, an Ireland not dominated by one ethnic group but recognising all as equally entitled to full citizenship and protection, an Ireland that is independent.
It is also clear that if republicans are to be successful in achieving a united Ireland, their politics must be attractive to, not just nationalist Catholics in the north, but also to at least a section of Protestants.
It is also arguable that for a united Ireland to become a reality it will need the support or at least acquiescence of a majority of Protestants in the north. Whilst it is clear that the Protestant community has many social and cultural aspects which unites it and keeps it separate from the Catholic northern community and from the southern population, on a political and economic level, it is increasingly unclear to northern Protestants that their interests lie in separation from the people of the rest of the island.
Increasing globalisation and the Celtic Tiger are making the idea of separate economies on the one island anachronistic. UTV, once a bastion of the old unionist order now sees its interests as much in the south as in the north, as do many other traditionally unionist companies. Economic reality means that, increasing numbers of middle and higher class Protestants will see their economic interests lying in an all-Ireland economic environment. The question is how republicans can influence the social and cultural influences, which might prevent them from taking the political step and voting for a united Ireland.
Among the northern Protestant working classes also, the old economic certainties no longer exist. The old, traditionally Protestant, industries are in decline or are increasingly being challenged through the equality agenda. They are also increasingly becoming foreign or southern owned. While it remains the case that Protestants are still marginally better off economically than Catholics this masks a reality of great poverty and deprivation amongst many Protestants. It is increasingly the case that Protestant and Catholic working classes are sharing the deprivation, which exists in the north - this tendency will increase with the success of the equality agenda.
However, if the economic interests of the Protestant working classes no longer appear to coincide with the existence of partition, what keeps them unionist? It is arguably too simplistic to say that economic interests are no longer the major issue they were in the past. There is the major British subvention to this part of the world every year, which doesn't include the massive injection of funding for employment in defence. The safety net of the welfare state is also something that cannot be ignored. If Protestants, and in particular the Protestant working classes, are to even contemplate a united Ireland they must believe that their economic well-being and standard of living would improve as a result.
However, arguably it is the social and cultural aspects of unionism (and conversely of nationalism), which prevents most Protestants nowadays from embracing the concept of a united Ireland. Historically, Protestants have politically, economically, socially and culturally viewed themselves as one community united in defence of their shared interests against those trying to destroy them. This has been despite the fact that the Protestant community represents a multi-faceted spectrum of opinion, views, interests and religions.
The social and cultural dimensions of Protestant allegiance towards unionism have strong historic roots. The historic refusal of Catholic Ireland to embrace the invader, the Protestant, the oppressor, reinforced the social and cultural bonds between these diverse groups of Protestants.
This process was reproduced and reinforced by the social and cultural apartheid of the reality of living in the north, as well as the reality of living in a partitioned Ireland. For Protestants to embrace the idea of a united Ireland as opposed to unionism they need to embrace it socially, culturally, economically and politically. This means that their concerns, needs, expectations and dreams on those levels need to be addressed by republicans.
It means breaking down the existing social and cultural apartheid. If a homogenous melting-pot of cultural difference doesn't yet exist (and it may not even be desirable) then there is a need to consider the multi-cultural character of any new Ireland.
This means that republicans need to re-assess how they can contribute to breaking down social and cultural barriers, which exist between themselves and most Protestants. It means being able to show Protestants that in a new Ireland they wouldn't be outsiders - and that they are not outsiders now as far as republicans are concerned.
Republicans have long claimed to be the inheritors of the universal principles espoused by the United Irish movement and the French Revolution, where concepts of citizenship transcend ethnic identities, the common name of Ireland person replaces the ethno-religious divisions of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.
Yet emerging from one major ethnic group and being based there usually leads to an overly identification with that one ethnic identity, its needs and concerns. Is it either desirable, appropriate or possible to promote a universal, as opposed to ethnocentric, concept of citizenship while being indelibly linked to just one ethnic community?
Ultimately, if republicans are serious about creating a republic based on universal concepts of citizenship they need to transcend the old ethnic divisions. This means recognising that there is a difference between an ethnic identity, British, Protestant, Scots Irish, and a political philosophy - unionism. Unionism is a political idea - nothing more. There is no historical imperative which prevents Protestants from being non-unionists.
Even if the concept of Britishness is taken as one aspect of the culture of northern Protestants there is no requisite that this should dominate political thinking. Many British people live in many different countries throughout the world without feeling a need to promote a union of that country with Britain. Why should it be different in relation to Ireland? In the 1790s it was Protestants in the north who led the way in promoting the new doctrine of republicanism.
The current challenge to republicans is to construct and define a republicanism, which can again attract a sizeable northern Protestant component.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Felim O'Hamill