Unity: closer than anyone thinks

Connolly Association president Moya St Leger argues that Irish citizens remain unprepared for unity

IRELAND COULD unite within ten years. All the indicators suggest as much. These include the steady demographic shift in the North; the assurance of Her Majesty's Government that Britain has "no selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland; the pledge of both the Irish and British governments to support legislation to bring about a united Ireland if both parts of Ireland vote in favour of it, and the fact that political obstacles have been removed to this end.

Yet in the Irish Republic, at home, in the office, on the street, in bars and restaurants, in cabs and buses, not a word is said. Ninety years after the Easter rising - republicans excepted - a nation remains resolutely silent on the one historical imperative for which their forebears fought and died.

There is some talk of a united Ireland in the North but virtually none in the Republic. This has been noted by the Connolly Association. Since an end to partition is closer than it has ever been, in London we have been swapping our own theories on why so few in Ireland wish to comment.

In Dublin recently, a brilliant young film-maker was unequivocal in her view: "United Ireland? You can keep the north. We don't want those troublemakers," she said.

Understandable. Twenty-five years of bombing and shooting in the north caused people in the Republic to draw back in fright and distance themselves from their northern neighbours. Nationalism became associated with violence, so republicans were banned from radio and TV, and military parades at Easter abandoned.

Hostile media coverage of the IRA campaign mimicked the biased reporting in the British media. The representation of the IRA as a bunch of depraved criminals, whose thuggery bore no historical resemblance to the armed struggle of the 'old IRA', suited certain political elements in the Republic who were nervous of Sinn Fein's all-Ireland focus.

The unremitting anti-republicanism of the mainstream Irish media left no room for dispassionate political analysis and debate. The respectful stance of successive Irish governments vis-à-vis Britain persuaded the Irish that any talk of a united Ireland was tantamount to siding with terrorists.

People were led to believe there was a moral gulf between the 'old IRA' who fought in the war of independence and the Provos, as if a fundamentally different moral standard could be applied to the Soloheadbeg ambush of the RIC in 1919 and the mortar attack on the Newry RUC police station in 1979.

This schizophrenic attitude became the default mindset of the majority. It led to a reluctance in the south to acknowledge the north as part of a country with shared ancient Irish roots present before the colonial period. A casualty of this disconnection is the younger generation, who grew up with no strong feelings about the border.

Another young Dubliner, an IT consultant, summed it up. "The north isn't our concern. Let the politicians get on with whatever they're doing, we've got better things to do with our time". He admitted to having little interest in Irish history. The tales of a handful of over-nineties reminiscing about the 1920s in country snugs never reach the ears of the Celtic Tiger generation hanging out in their trendy bars in the cities.

The under-forties in the Republic cannot empathize with the powerful emotions and zeal which fuelled the war of independence and the civil war. Never having experienced British hegemony, they see no point in challenging the status of the north, even less in discussing it.

Undeterred by the nation's waning interest, Albert Reynolds an astute businessman turned politician, who had never let the border impede his commercial activities, decided the conflict had to end.

By entering into talks with British prime minister John Major, the taoiseach risked his political career in an effort "to overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions".

The seismic movement of the political ground triggered by the Reynolds-Major talks resulted in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Five years later, the multi-party Good Friday agreement received the consent of 94.39 per cent in the Republic.

The factor now most likely to hasten Irish unification is the country's vibrant, hi-tech economy. The OECD ranks Ireland 4th in the world in terms of GDP per capita, higher than in the UK. And who better to sum up Ireland's this dynamic movement than Roy Hattersley who, as British deputy minister of defence in 1969, sent the troops into Northern Ireland?

"The hopes of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera will be realised courtesy of the global market and the European Union. The inexorable pressure of economic reality is dragging the six counties closer and closer to the Republic," he has commented.

Some Protestants in Northern Ireland's business community already locked into the global economy are wondering whether unification would be such a bad thing after all - provided they can keep their British passports!

The grindingly slow process of re-establishing the assembly and facilitating the north-south bodies should not impede a nationwide debate in the whole of Ireland about the future.

Preparing the ground for a united Ireland is laborious and takes time. The constitutional issues are relatively straightforward, but it is not premature for the Irish people north and south. to start talking about the daunting practicalities of unification and, crucially, who will fund it.

Accommodating six extra counties will pose a huge challenge for the Republic's institutions and the British civil servants eventually tasked with cooperation in the process. Public discussion is needed in Ireland on how to tackle uniting the administration, the judiciary, education and local government.

The merging of health care facilities and transport infrastructure, not to mention the replacement of sterling and all that entails, require meticulous forward planning. A national debate requires the input of idea from professionals in all fields. Germany is managing to overcome the epic obstacles of the merger, but it is an ongoing process.

A divided Ireland has not been written in stone and acting as if devolution is the end of the road, while being a diplomatic stance to adopt vis a vis unionists, will not stem the inexorable tide of history.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-05-17 10:17:58.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Moya St Leger