United Nation: The Case for Integrating Ireland by Frank Connolly (Gill Books, £14.99)
How do you solve a problem called Identity? It’s a state of mind. It’s not rational. This does not lend itself to controversy. It’s not based on prosperity or scarcity (it’s not economics, silly). It is simply. And it is the overriding, seemingly intransigent factor that torments anyone who presents a logical case for the political unity of the island.
Over time, beginning with the plantations of course, and then, especially, since the failure of the United Irishmen uprising to forge a lasting unity between Presbyterians and Catholics, the sectarian division has taken root. A division, by the way, both endorsed and manipulated by the British state.
Yet, and this is the rub, the modern British state would be only too happy to get rid of the little orange state it founded a century ago. The fact that he cannot do so is entirely due to the fact that he fomented bigotry and thus created a large community of people who identify as British, and for whom successive British governments, and the overwhelming majority of the British people, don’t give a damn.
Although the 883,768 people in the six counties who identify as Protestant (according to the 2011 census) know this, they stubbornly continue to see themselves as British. This situation, to quote Winston Churchill – that great imperialist who helped broker the Anglo-Irish Treaty that divided Ireland – is truly “an enigma, shrouded in mystery, within an enigma”.
How then can Irish nationalists convince these 883,768 people that they will not be cast out in a united Ireland? that they will be free to follow their religious beliefs and, if they wish, to continue to identify with a culture which in many ways is hostile to that of their fellow Irishmen?
THE BIG QUESTION
It’s a big question – indeed the big question – that haunts Frank Connolly’s book because its major assumption is that the reunification of Ireland is inevitable. It offers no definitive answer, if any, to the identity crisis of the unionist population, but the value of its investigation lies in the deployment of a range of arguments by people who, in various ways, point to the conditions in which identity could fracture. Or, in some ways, already being fractured.
For Connolly, Brexit is the key to effecting change, a belief that makes this the most optimistic book. He is surely right that the debate over Irish unity has intensified since Brexit. Reunification is on the news agenda like never before.
It’s “no longer a question of if, but when and how,” says Connolly. And, in support of his argument, he collected around 20 interviews with a range of like-minded people.
“Zoom out from the noise of the last [Brexit] disagreements… and the truth is that the unionist split will one day have to bow to the inevitable: Irish unity. It’s time for Protestants in Northern Ireland… to speak up,” he added. @JaneFerguson5 writes: https://t.co/33vik3b6Hl
— The Atlantic (@TheAtlantic) June 29, 2022
Critics might well deride the exercise as little more than an idealistic echo chamber where a vocal minority foolishly convinces itself that it is speaking on behalf of the silent majority, which has no time for his beliefs. But this view misses the point by a mile.
What Connolly and his chosen commentators understand is that Brexit – particularly its special Irish component, the Protocol – has rebounded from the DUP’s anti-EU stance by putting reunification front and center.
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald may be exaggerating somewhat, saying that this unity “is spoken of in every town and city in Ireland as a realistic, achievable and necessary future”. But even if she’s literally wrong, she’s got plenty of money in metaphorical terms because, again, as she puts it, Brexit has ‘changed the conversation’.
This conversation comes through in Connolly’s book, especially in interviews with progressive trade unionists, such as the former editor of the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen. Denzil McDaniel agrees that young trade unionists are open to a united Ireland, as are trade unionists “who are very unsettled by Brexit”.
Tonight in Áras an Uachtaráin, the President and Sabina Higgins celebrated the many groups, organizations and individuals who contribute so much to our rich music and arts scene across the country and in particular through traditional Irish music. pic.twitter.com/CTfGxu4ngG
— President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) June 29, 2022
His view was echoed, to some extent, by another trade unionist interviewed, Ian Marshall, who spent two years at Seanad and campaigned against Brexit. In his interesting contribution, Connolly quotes him as saying: “When I talk to Loyalists in East Belfast, they focus on the same things the Republicans want: improving education for children, opening up opportunities, driving tourism and foreign direct investment, let’s encourage business.
Among these factors, education is certainly the most important of all, and it is the lack of education within Loyalist communities that hinders the wider social and cultural development of young people. They are the ones who consistently treat Britishness not as a badge but as some sort of defensive (and sometimes offensive) weapon. Identity for them is a manifestation of their siege mentality.
With this in mind, McDonald’s recognizes that it is “civil society outside the political bubble [that] must be fully engaged”. If identity as a negative factor is not only to be challenged but also transformed, then addressing the poor state of education in working class loyalist areas is paramount.
When people talk about education, however, they quite naturally think of the schools that young people attend. But there is a broader type of education, one that takes place in public discourse, on radio and television, on social media, in which it is possible for the inflexible and indifferent to open their minds to a new vision.
Chapters Parnell Street today with United Nations is going well, thanks to Charlie and the staff pic.twitter.com/geIQ7bvObI
— Frank Connolly (@connolly16frank) June 29, 2022
Sometimes it has nothing to do with the debate. The people of the six counties have long dismantled the border in a way that makes a divided Ireland absurd. As the poet Paula Meehan points out, artists have always considered “the arts as an area without borders”. The word “joint” has become commonplace since the peace process – joint tourism promotion, joint business ventures, joint agricultural ventures.
These many acts of informal cross-border collaboration contribute to breaking down the boundaries of minds. More formally, we learn that northern farmers exported an additional €1 billion worth of goods to the 26 counties in the first 10 months of 2021. Trade is good. A unified economy would be even better.
Returning to the theme of the book, actor Stephen Rea tells Connolly, “A walled island makes no sense. The energy wasted maintaining it could be used for other things.” But it’s what he says next that hits home: “The British government will always stand with the trade unionists. They hate them but they are going to use them to take over Sinn Féin.
When will trade unionists touting their “British identity” realize this hard and realistic truth?
US readers can order United Nation directly from Irish publishers by clicking this link.