wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.
An old saying tells us: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Following closely from that apt thought, a world of difference must inevitably exist between, on the one hand, arguing a political case based upon some vaguely plausible change in the status quo and, on the other hand, arguing a political case based directly upon a demonstrably counterfactual proposition.
An argument of the latter variety was attempted by Irish Nationalist politicians almost two decades ago. In the early 1980s, a group worked together - in the midst of an ongoing military/paramilitary battle in Northern Ireland - to develop the New Ireland Forum Report, mapping out various means of governing a 32-county political state in Ireland. With Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Irelands Constitution still as much in force as they ever were (i.e., not much) and with the Good Friday Agreement a decade and a half away, these Nationalists apparently felt they could publicly propose, with a straight face, three basic forms of all-Ireland governance and do so notwithstanding the fact that, at that point, Northern Unionists could outvote Northern Nationalists by a ratio of about six-to-four. Many will remember Mrs. Thatchers diplomatic-as-ever but painfully accurate out, out, out response to those proposals.
Roughly two decades on, Mr. Ciarán Irvine makes a similar all-Ireland governance argument through his recent articles under the joint heading Accommodating Diversity: Towards A Second Republic: Introduction and A Basic Framework. Notwithstanding that he therein makes a few interesting theoretical points, no less plain than regarding the New Ireland Forum efforts is that Mr. Irvines arguments turn heavily on a blatantly false proposition: the notion that the possible structure of an all-Ireland government is a matter of some interest and concern because reunion might take place in the short- to mid-term. (Cf. Anthony McIntyre, Ph.D., a dissident Irish Republican and an editor of The Blanket, in his recent article The Price of Ever Becoming: If anything is certain it is this - there will be no united Ireland by 2016. There will be plenty of talk about transition and moving into the final phase of struggle and so on, but just as the 19th century art critic said of Berlin, it is always in the process of becoming but never in the state of being.)
Today, unlike in the New Ireland Forum era, there is no armed movement promising to deliver imminent British governmental withdrawal from the North. Unlike in earlier times, there is no psycho-constitutional imperative, whether actual or merely ostensible, driving the Republic of Ireland towards assimilation of the northern six counties. Unlike before, the Good Friday Agreement - approved in 1998 with almost universal support by Catholics in Ireland, North and South - expressly validates that which was established through force of arms in the early 1900s: a Unionist veto over reunion. (Cf. Mr. McIntyres article By The Left ... Right March on recent calls for a Green Paper addressing a reunion government: As if a paper because it is green will have any bearing on future unity; as if there is anything in the GFA that was not in Sunningdale which sets the context for a united Ireland; as if any Dublin governments interest in the North has ever extended beyond pacifying it as a means to halting the spread of our virus of instability into the South.)
However, like fifteen years, thirty years, fifty years, and eighty years ago, one point remains unchanged today: the vast bulk of Northern Protestants, probably in the order of 95 percent or more, remain quite uninterested in the political reunion of Ireland, and this group still composes a majority in Northern Ireland. As a result of these numbers, it seems hugely unlikely that a Northern majority in favor of reunion will suddenly emerge. If, hypothetically, it took as little as another decade for Northern Irelands population to reach numerical parity between Catholics and Protestants, it would still take another eighteen years thereafter for parity to be reached among Northern Irelands voters; at that point, a full generation away at least, almost every single Catholic voter would have to support reunion before reunion might take place. Relatedly - in that Britain is not being forced out of Northern Ireland physically and as Northern and Southern Catholics have now given their assent, through the Good Friday Agreement, to the political philosophy of consent - it is not at all clear that the British government might decide at any point to abandon a pro-Union majority in Northern Ireland.
Thus, like it or not, Irish political reunion is at least three decades away, if not four, five, or six.
Nevertheless, like the Forumers of bygone days, Mr. Irvine argues: [T]hose unhappy with the current anti-democratic structure[ in Northern Ireland] should be concentrating on developing a comprehensive framework - theroetical [sic], constitutional, institutional and legislative - for a Second Republic that we can all call home. Mr. Irvine then goes on to discuss what he ultimately (if perhaps immodestly and/or inaccurately) characterizes as a solid[ constitutional] blueprint for the future of[ a politically reunited] Ireland.
Assuming what may indeed be the case - i.e., that Mr. Irvine knows what Mr. McIntyre and many others know about Northern Irelands constitutional future - one might well ask: Why does Mr. Irvine not forthrightly acknowledge the situation as it actually exists vis-à-vis reunion in the course of his discussing extremely theoretical suggestions about 32-county governance? Put metaphorically, even if Mr. Irvine might choose to argue that beggars would wish for brown horses rather than black horses, why should that speculation be of any interest to anyone else?
One answer that crossed my mind when I first read his two Accommodating Diversity articles was that Mr. Irvine simply wanted to take the opportunity to demonstrate conspicuously, not least to Northern Unionists, Republicans desire for a workable and an equitable 32-county government.
Yet, while I believe Republicans do typically desire equity through 32-county governance, no claim by them to any intellectual high ground was furthered by an even more recent article by Mr. Irvine, entitled Pointless Pontificating. A cursory review thereof might leave a reader with the belief that, in light of its title, the article was written by an appropriately self-deprecating author worthy of a truth in advertising award. A closer examination reveals, however, yet another Irish Republican who disingenuously purports to know little or nothing about Unionists and Unionism.
Mr. Irvine begins his Pointless Pontificating by professing that he cannot fathom what Unionists actually want in light of another pointless demand for Sinn Féins expulsion from the Stormont Assembly and yet another bout of agonised infighting and grandstanding within the[ir] ranks:
So what is the point of this demand, Mr. Irvine purports to ask, besides mindless pandering to the backwoodsmen?
It will not be news to Mr. Irvine, however, that Unionism in Northern Ireland is and has been in severe turmoil regarding the fundamental question of whether to continue with the Good Friday Agreement experiment. See, e.g., Chris Thornton, Belfast Telegraph, 26 May 2002, Trimble warns of poll nightmare:
In making another pointless demand for Sinn Féins expulsion from the Stormont Assembly, anti-Agreement Unionists are in fact: attempting to keep the temperature up on this issue, if not to raise the stakes; setting out their stalls for the election in May 2003, if not sooner; and, generally, trying to effect change in the political status quo (for example, by trying to force the IRAs disbandment). Pretending not to understand that which is in fact easily and readily understood is an especially poor way to try to demonstrate intellectual honesty.
Still worse than that feigned ignorance is Mr. Irvines supercilious attitude, in the course of his Pointless Pontificating, towards general Unionist opposition to a 32-county state:
That Unionists in Ireland closely associate their heritage and traditions with the isle of Great Britain, that they broadly view themselves as British, that they often have a real and strong (albeit, to Republicans, an obsequious if not serf-like) loyalty to the English monarchy, that they have considerable trepidations about going from a majority position in the North to a small minority position in a 32-county state, these facts are just not worth Mr. Irvines public consideration. Instead, he moves directly to the most important point: the fact that Unionists opposition to reunion is nothing more than an unfounded construct of their distorted psyches:
How easy indeed it would all be if Unionists would just stop wanting what they have and if they would instead simply accede to what Irish Republicans dont have but want. Clearly the sterile political logjam on this issue is entirely one-sided. (These insights by Mr. Irvine also raise the question of whether that logjam is the source of the wood Unionists need in building their bigger windmills.)
Crowning his argument, if I may use that term, Mr. Irvine says: [L]ast but not least[, Unionists accepting reunion would effect] the permanent nullification of both Physical Force and Provisional Republicanism in one fell swoop. A powerful consideration, of course: Give Republicans what theyve been fighting for and theyll have no further need to fight. The logic of that thought, if not its morality, is certainly compelling.
As Ive written, in The Blanket and elsewhere, on the topic of a possible six-county republic via negotiated independence, some might reasonably ask whether - against an if wishes were horses standard - my own arguments thereon are little different from Mr. Irvines on reunion. In at least one key respect, I think the independence argument is decidedly different: it does not start out from the proposition that one side entirely wins and the other side entirely loses the constitutional battle, with the minor constitutional details thereafter addressed. Instead, negotiated independence could proceed only if each side ultimately made socio-political sacrifices which could only be viewed as genuine and reciprocal; as earlier stated:
Thus, the independence argument presents, in my view, a political case based upon a vaguely plausible change in the status quo, as opposed to a political case based upon an initial and demonstrably erroneous proposition, as presented in any head-in-the-sand lets just all be friends while we implement a united Ireland argument.
Naturally, the possibility of six-county independence may never be formally examined, and, even if it were examined and put to a vote, Republicans and Unionists might, at the end of the day, choose to reject that approach. For example, a person like Mr. Irvine might immovably view possible six-county independence as merely a Stormont Mk III:
If some Republicans are themselves unable to see, or acknowledge, substantive differences between a fair and workable six-county republic and a six-county devolved government within the United Kingdom, perhaps no amount of discussion would be enough to persuade them to reconsider.
And, of course, young Republicans like Mr. Irvine might ultimately say: Wed just rather wait for reunion than consider any negotiated six-county republic. Fair enough. However, a young adult like him today will very likely be quite elderly, or dead from old age, before that reunion occurs, if indeed it ever occurs. Moreover, it does not stretch the imagination to contemplate that, between now and any such reunion, and [d]espite the acceptance in the Good Friday Agreement of the principle of consent, the border question [will remain] paramount. Normal left-right politics [will] never ha[ve] a chance to develop. Editorial, Belfast Telegraph, 28 May 2002. Could it even be that, in the meantime, things like street fighting and other communal clashes will continue to be routine occurrences?
In all candor, I wonder occasionally whether some Christians in Ireland foresee judgment day as involving their standing before the throne of God and being asked but one of two questions, depending on which foot they dig with: (a) Were you above all else loyal to the English Crown? or (b) Did you struggle above all else towards a 32-county Irish state? If there are indeed such people, they are unquestionably fools. (If they dont believe me on that point, they should ask their own clergymen.) Über alles political beliefs are, to my understanding, antithetical to Christianity; to whatever extent such beliefs are held by Irish Republicans or by Northern Unionists, those people do a grave disservice to their neighbors and their society. Although stating these thoughts may be roughly as effective as giving advise to doorknobs, such people should replace their über alles views with honest, straightforward discourse, with as much empathy as they can muster, and with minds open to the possibility of radically reevaluating their own positions.
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives
INDEX: Current Articles
6 June 2002
Other Articles From This Issue:
An díomhaointeas ag cothú drochiompair
Wishing for reunion but walking yet apart
Paul A. Fitzsimmons
2 June 2002
Killing of Children
Is To Be Done? What Is To Be Thought?
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
To contact the Blanket project with a comment, to contribute an article, or to make a donation, write to: