Every election in Northern Ireland is a plebiscite for loyalty, a referendum for Irish unity. As such, the question of a united Ireland is always in conversation. It was addressed in August 2015 by Alex Kane here and Andy Pollak here, both cultural protestants from Northern Ireland. The two took the opposing view to the other.
Alex Kane wrote in the Irish News, August 21 2015, 'Why I would not stay if north became part of a united Ireland':
"There’s another problem for unionists: how are they accommodated in a united Ireland? Irish republicans ‘stranded’ in Northern Ireland in 1921 were always able to keep their dreams and ambitions alive. They were always able to believe that partition would end at some point."Alex Massie echoed this point when he considered Scottish unionism:
"I understand many Unionists would just like it all to go away. But it isn’t going away and won’t do so either. The game is rigged and everyone knows the nationalists get to play by different rules. They need only win once and then they get to keep the ball forever."Back to Alex Kane, who continued:
"That’s not the case for unionists who find themselves on the wrong side of a border poll, though. I can’t image that a newly united Ireland would make provision for them to re-run border polls. And nor can I imagine that unionists would be provided with vetoes and petitions-of-concern to protect their interests. Would the Orange Order still be allowed to parade? Would political/electoral unionism be swallowed up in a Dáil where they were mostly irrelevant? Would the symbols and touchstones of unionism be quietly erased? Would the Union Flag be allowed to fly in Sandy Row?
Unionism isn’t going to disappear in the event of Irish unity, yet I have the distinct impression that there are key elements of Sinn Fein who would want it to disappear. That’s why they don’t really talk about it. In their vision of a united Ireland the door to unionist aspirations and ambitions would be closed. Their citizenship would disappear. Their identity would disappear. Having observed Sinn Fein’s constant attacks on unionist signs, symbols, touchstones, benchmarks and values since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I certainly wouldn’t anticipate an outburst of tolerance in a united Ireland.
The other thing worth remembering is that an entirely independent, sovereign Ireland hasn’t existed for a long, long time. Indeed, some historians would argue that it hasn’t ever existed. So I have no idea what it would look like and nor does anyone else. No one has any idea if it would work. And it’s a pretty safe bet that there would be hundreds of thousands of people—a very significant minority, in other words—who wouldn’t regard themselves as willing, unambiguous citizens of the new state.
So the new state would begin with much the same divisions and competing identities as exist at the moment and would, I suspect, have the same sort of separatist terrorist campaigns from time to time. The ‘who are we’ question is never going to disappear from Irish politics.
But as I say, no one has presented me with a strong enough case for changing my citizenship. Plus, there are so many imponderables and unknowns about a united Ireland that, at this stage anyway, the multitude of risks outweighs the supposed benefits."
He finished by writing:
"What if I’m wrong, though and a border poll takes Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom sooner than anyone expects? Would I accept the result; would I stay? I’m a democrat and I always have been, so I would accept the result. But to be honest, I don’t think that I would stay."Andy Pollak wrote an article, 'The Republic is a good place for Protestants now':
"As someone from a Northern Protestant background happily resident in Dublin, I know there is little or no point in trying to persuade my co-religionists that they should agree to do away with the border and become part of my society. I may have the nicest Irish house in the world, but the truth is that the vast majority of Northern Protestants and unionists want to continue to live in their British houses, however uncaring and untrustworthy their landlords are.
However for the purpose of provoking a little thinking (and because so many Northern unionists are still woefully ignorant about the South), I am going to argue in this column that in 2015 the Republic of Ireland is a good place for Protestants to live. Ireland, in the words of former Irish Labour Party leader Ruairi Quinn, is now a “post-Catholic society”. The old Roman Catholic Church which they so feared is a shadow of its former self. Priestly vocations have collapsed, graphically illustrated by the dramatically shrinking lists on the graduation boards at St Patrick’s seminary in Maynooth. One rarely sees a dog collar or a nun’s habit in the street these days. Some might say that one of the final nails in the coffin of old-fashioned, priest-ridden Irish Catholicism was the extraordinary ‘Yes’ vote – against the instructions of any bishop who was brave enough to oppose it – in the marriage equality referendum in May.
Anti-Britishness, one of the hallmarks of political and popular debate when I first moved to Dublin in the early 1970s, has all but disappeared. Indeed opinion polls show that young people in particular feel they have more in common with the English than they do with the Northern Irish of whatever religious complexion.
Garret Fitzgerald used to say that Irish society had changed more rapidly than any other society in Western Europe in recent times. Nearly 10% of the population are now foreign-born, and while the influx of Poles has served to swell some Catholic congregations, immigration from the US, Africa and other regions has often done the same for Protestant churches.
The Church of Ireland and other Protestant churches are now growing again, helped both by immigrants and Catholics often disillusioned by a lack of spiritual and moral leadership (most scandalously by child-abusing priests) in the majority church. I would estimate that around three quarters of the worshippers at my own Unitarian Church in central Dublin are from an Irish Catholic background. Senior Church of Ireland figures such as the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and the head of the Church of Ireland College of Education are former Catholics.
Irish Catholicism is itself becoming more ‘Protestant’, with far more emphasis on liberty of the individual conscience and participation by grass roots members than in the previously authoritarian institutional church. What used to be dismissed scornfully by conservative Catholics in the 1980s as ‘a la carte’ Catholicism is now what many people practice: Mass attendance along with the pill; confession along with divorce; gay marriage along with the Eucharist.
In politics, the kind of kowtowing to the Catholic hierarchy that went on in the days of Eamon de Valera, John A. Costello and Sean MacBride is now utterly unthinkable. In 2011, in an unprecedented attack by an Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny accused the Vatican of downplaying the clerical rape and torture of children in the Cloyne diocese in Cork to protect the institutional church’s power and reputation. Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore followed this by closing the Irish embassy to the Vatican as a cost-cutting measure (although it has since reopened as a one-woman mission).
These days there are a significant number of high profile Southern Irish people from a Protestant background, some of them icons of Irish modernity: Bono in rock music, Katie Taylor in sport, Chief Justice Susan Denham in the law, Graham Norton in broadcasting and David Norris in sexual politics. Two cabinet ministers – Jan O’Sullivan and Heather Humphreys – are Protestants (twice the number of Protestant women ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive).
As we approach the centenary of 1916, the role of Protestants in the struggle for Irish independence is being re-evaluated in a more inclusive fashion. In his recent book Vivid Faces, the eminent Oxford-based historian Roy Foster (himself a Southern Protestant) has brought to life fascinating Protestant nationalists, republicans and radicals such as Rosamund Jacob, Cesca Trench, Kathleen Lynn, Alice Milligan, Darrell Figgis and Bulmer Hobson. The guns smuggled for the Irish Volunteers through Howth and Kilcoole were brought in by the Protestant yachtsmen Erskine Childers and Conor O’Brien. The historian Martin Maguire, who has written extensively about Southern Protestant history and culture, has identified over 80 men and women from that tradition who were active in the War of Independence.
A 2005 study of society North and South¹, based on social survey data from European Values Surveys, found that the two societies shared a great deal. By European standards they both enjoyed high levels of income, welfare provision, individual life satisfaction and social capital. They were both stable democracies governed by similar legal systems which had withstood the tests of time. The old divisions based on religion seemed to be fading as both societies were edging – and the authors emphasised the qualified word ‘edging’ – towards a more secular, post-Christian future. At the same time both societies continued to share more conservative views on family and sexual morality than most other parts of Europe (the May referendum may indicate that this has now changed in the South).
None of the above is meant to persuade my unionist readers to give up their Britishness – I wouldn’t be so foolish. However if I could do two small things I would be content: firstly, to suggest to them that the Republic of Ireland isn’t such an alien place these days – in many ways it is an open-minded, tolerant and liberal society (indeed strikingly more so than the North); and secondly, it wouldn’t do them any harm to admit that they too have a little bit of Irishness in their make-up and it might be interesting, at the very least, to visit the South to explore that small part of themselves. The Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson (a former UVF prisoner) puts it well when he says: “We have to recognise that the Irish Republic has a very special relationship with Northern Ireland. It’s not just a foreign state. We were brothers in a previous time. Partition was like a split in a marriage: one brother went with the father and one went with the mother. We need to recognise that the Republic is not a priest-ridden or an IRA-ridden state. We have to get beyond that. There is a different political dispensation in the Republic now and it’s not to our disadvantage”."Andy Pollak also wrote about Northern Ireland's prosperous Catholics:
"Northern Ireland's high-flying Catholics are not necessarily the ones old-fashioned Catholic nationalists would hope for and old-fashioned Protestant unionists would contemplate with dread and terror."