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A Northern majority for Irish unity is not too remote to be of relevance

Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 27/12/2002

“Before I state my particular thoughts on Northern Ireland, I would caution that you will be guilty of utter foolishness or outright deceit if you disagree with me.”

What does such a statement say about an author? Is not the righteousness of an argument itself key? Could an author’s supposed threat of intellectual ignominy for dissenters somehow render true a proposition that otherwise seems false?

These questions crossed my mind while reading the first sentence of the following paragraph from “It is time we saw the beam in our own eye” (Sunday Independent (Dublin), 22 December 2002) by Ruth Dudley Edwards:

What only fools and knaves can now dispute is that as Garret FitzGerald pointed out yesterday a majority for Irish unity is too remote to be of any relevance. This is the moment for the Irish Government to tell the Shinners the census was a reality check and it’s time to shut up about a United Ireland. The good news is that the nationalists’ own goal has had positive results: while unionists will henceforward more confidently resist unreasonable nationalist demands, they are in a mood to be more constructive. In the midst of rejoicing on the Shankill Road, one Ivan Johnston spoke for many when he told Suzanne Breen that Catholics “should now accept they would not comprise a majority in the North for the foreseeable future and acclimatise to life within the UK. Then we could forget all this silly squabbling and start addressing the stuff that matters. We all have to live in this wee place in the end.”

As someone who has publicly opined that the reunion of Ireland, if it ever occurs, is indeed probably one, two, or more generations away, I would nonetheless disagree with the assertion that “a majority for Irish unity is too remote to be of any relevance.”

However, I would accept that Northern Nationalists might, in theory, decide en masse both (a) that the war has been lost - there will be no reunion in 2016, 2026, or perhaps ever - and (b) that, since those in favor of union were the “winners” and those against it the “losers,” the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach should be vigorously adopted. After reaching such conclusions, Northern Catholics could throw their political support to whichever Unionist party offered to support most strongly social projects or programs important to those former Nationalists. Conversely, persisting, in the long term, with a “loser” political party solely because it is composed mainly of Catholics would seem an unenlightened and ultimately unprofitable position.

But, while such political transformations are not impossible, the chances of them actually occurring nonetheless seem rather low.

Why? Precisely because “a majority for Irish unity is [not] too remote to be of any relevance.” Dr. Richard Bourke’s “The Good Friday agreement’s built-in flaw” (Financial Times, 18 December 2002) ended with the following thoughts on this point:

[I]t is the sheer burden of expectation that … poses a problem: the mere anticipation of an Irish union provokes consternation on one side, while it fuels revolutionary ardour on the other. This is hardly a recipe for long-term moderation in the political life of Northern Ireland. Indeed, it makes a nonsense of the idea that the Good Friday agreement should be greeted as a durable settlement.

It would not be unprecedented in Irish history for a group to decide that they could accept, if need be, remaining out of political power, even for generations more, as the price of their continuing to oppose the political union with Britain. That eventuality would seem more likely than the other scenarios theorized above.

Furthermore, in his “Census results: a blow to republican strategy?” (Irish Echo, 25 December 2002), Jack Holland reminds us that the now demonstrably long span to reunion via the ballot box may itself create immediate pressures on militant Republicans:

The 1991 census results were used to argue that the Provisionals could concede on consent because within a short time Catholics would be in a majority in Northern Ireland. The 2001 census was supposed to be a prelude to the population breakthrough, and was eagerly anticipated.
The IRA, now more than five years into its latest cease-fire, are part of a settlement that involves the republican movement’s recognition of a Northern Ireland parliament, with no commitment from the British to leave absent a constitutional referendum, the outcome of which, if it is held within the next 20 years, would almost certainly leave Northern Ireland where it is. Meanwhile, the Provisional leadership will come under pressure next year to disband the IRA (though not in those terms). Will Adams and his supporters now be able to deliver the dismantling of the IRA with little or no prospect of a United Ireland happening within their predicted time-frame? [Emphasis added.]
Though [author Ed] Moloney agrees that the census results “totally destroys the leadership strategy,” he believes that for the Provisionals it is too late to turn back.
…[However,] most observers also feel that, revolt or not, the new head count will present real problems, especially for senior IRA members who thought they’d live see a united Ireland in their lifetime.

As that discussion suggests, the recent census results effectively pose a pretty tough dilemma for those senior IRA members: in light of current conditions, which course of action today would show their political “strategy” to have been less of a bad joke?

A. The IRA’s standing down, thus establishing their post-Sunningdale violence to have been entirely for naught. Cf. Anthony McIntyre, “Victory 2016 Plus 40 - Remember To Read The Small Print,” The Blanket, 19 December 2002:

The unpalatable intellectual morsel to be chewed upon and digested by those who think about the matter is that the very purpose of the IRA’s armed struggle and its stated goal of a British declaration of intent to withdraw was to bypass and repudiate the demographic argument - the latter being a British term for withdrawal. From long war to long wait, we may be excused for musing that with better leadership the war may have been bypassed as far back as 1974.


B. The IRA’s not standing down, with Direct Rule Mark II as Northern Ireland’s novus ordo seclorum and with a likely permanently stalled “campaign.”

Thus, for the various reasons described above, “a majority for Irish unity is [not] too remote to be of any relevance.”

Dr. Bourke’s “burden of expectation” point also warrants consideration of related “dual majority” comments voiced before the recent announcement of the census results on Northern Ireland’s current religious composition. For example, the obviously intelligent Jeffrey Donaldson made the following erroneous statement, as reported in Bimpe Fatogun’s “A united Ireland could be a reality” (Irish News, 16 December 2002):

Speaking at the weekend, UUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson also stressed the need for majority consent from within the unionist community for any change to the status of Northern Ireland.
“Nationalists can’t have it both ways.
“They can’t claim the consent of the majority isn’t sufficient for a system of government and on the other hand claim that massive constitutional change would only require the consent of an overall majority,” he said.

For over fifty years (see Westminster’s Ireland Act, 1949), the British policy on “union” has been that the majority in Northern Ireland rules. Indeed that policy was built directly and expressly into the Good Friday Agreement, the very agreement which mandated that - in order to establish, in the meantime, devolved local government in Northern Ireland - there would have to be specified levels of “cross-community” consent in that devolved government. Thus, Mr. Donaldson’s assertion that Northern Nationalists “can’t have it both ways” in this respect is both utterly unfounded and entirely contrary to objective facts. If Unionists had wanted otherwise, they should have voted against the Good Friday Agreement and tanked the entire deal; quite obviously, with 71 percent approval at the GFA poll, they did not do so in adequate numbers.

The often insightful commentator Roy Garland similarly erred in his “Clouds on the horizon but spring is near” (Irish News, 23 December 2002). Although I wouldn’t doubt his basic sincerity, I was nonetheless taken aback - in a historical sense - by his assertion that

it was people favouring Irish unity who first made me aware of the inequity and undemocratic nature of majoritarianism. The achievement of political consensus for change was also essential.

With typical forthrightness, Mr. Garland added regarding reunion: “Unionists perhaps need to be wooed but they may never be won.”

In the late 1700’s, Unionists were completely unconcerned with the iniquitous and undemocratic annexation of Ireland to Britain, effected to achieve their desired ends, but it might fairly be noted that that was before even trains, telegraphs, or photographs had been invented.

More difficult to explain away is what happened, in more enlightened times, less than a century ago. For generations to that point, Unionists had fully and indeed gleefully accepted the British Constitution (which, if anybody had ever bothered to write it down, would have read in full: “Parliament rules”). They supported that constitution because it had long tended to protect their position in favor of union, though they were a political minority in Ireland. However, around 1910 or so, Unionists decided - in the face of the Westminster Parliament’s impending Home Rule order - to threaten war against the British government in order to prove their loyalty to that government and the English crown and, perhaps more to the point, in order to skirt the democratically manifested wishes of the majority both in the United Kingdom and in Ireland itself.

Today, as the concept of majoritarianism may be beginning, for a second time, to favor the cause of Irish Nationalism, “scales” are suddenly falling from the eyes of some Northern Unionists. A majority in favor of reunion is simply not enough, they say; there must now be a “political consensus.”

Although, in just this past week or so, many Unionists may be seeing the demographic changes as less threatening to their position, perhaps they will nonetheless come to consider and understand (if not admit aloud) the strident hypocrisy of beating their breasts for many decades about how “the majority rules” on the border issue only next to be heard bleating, when their own long pro-union majority is diminishing, that a new majority against union would not suffice to break the political ties with Britain.

Perhaps those Unionists who do not aspire to rend the prevailing “social contract” entirely, as their forebears did in the early 1900’s, will instead take a more honorable leaf from Dr. Paisley’s political philosophies: “I would say that if the majority of the people in Northern Ireland want to become part of the Republic, well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s it.” (Quoted in P. O’Malley, The Uncivil Wars (1983), at 196.)

But God help the people of Ireland if a majority in the North ever chooses reunion and recalcitrant Unionists then take up arms in violent opposition. In such circumstances - and with Britain at that moment looking very much like the proverbial bat flying out of hell - Ireland will fight and Ireland will be right, but not before far too many more lives there have been squandered.

Maybe - rather than planning surreptitious trips to Florida, Eastern Europe, or elsewhere to gather weapons for such a day - intelligent Unionists should decide that now is an opportune moment in history to use best their apparently diminishing demographic leverage by trying to spark a first-ever effort to resolve honestly and genuinely Northern Ireland’s long and painful constitutional conflict. If they did so, Nationalists and Republicans might muster the courage to meet them squarely across a discussion table. If such an effort failed, not only would Northern Ireland be no worse off than it is today, but no political party in Northern Ireland would be any worse off.


Washington, D.C. lawyer Paul A. Fitzsimmons wrote Independence for Northern Ireland: Why and How (1993), available from Newshound.




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Index: Current Articles

5 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Hammering Dissent
Anthony McIntyre


Maria Duce non Dulce (et decorum est)

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Amnesty International & Israel: Say It Isn't So!
Paul de Rooij


A Northern Majority for Irish Unity is Not Too Remote to be of Relevance
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


2 January 2003


From Pig to Man and Man to Pig
Tommy Gorman


Up the IRB, Down the Amazon

Seaghán Ó Murchú Gem of Exploitation
Liam O Ruairc


The Tyranny of Christmas
Anthony McIntyre


Eat, Drink, Be Merry
Brendan O'Neill


The Silence of the Left
Henry McDonald


When the Falls & Shankill Marched As One
Davy Carlin




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