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Orangemen, welcome to a united Ireland!

Gerry Adams’ promise that unionists will have respect and power in a future republic shows the naivety of identity politics.

Jason Walsh

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Despite its reputation as a confident and successful political movement striding towards its historically inevitable goal, Irish republicanism’s ‘cultural turn’ shows that Sinn Fein has no strategy to bring about a united Ireland.

Writing in the Guardian, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams recently argued that Ulster unionists would be better served by a united Ireland than they are by being a part of the UK (1). He noted that ‘unionists make up fewer than two per cent of the population [of Britain]; they cannot hope to have any significant say in the direction of their own affairs. As 20 per cent of a new Ireland, unionists will be able to assert their full rights and entitlements and exercise real political power and influence.’

It’s a fair point – Ireland’s system of proportional representation would likely make the unionists kingmakers in any future united Ireland. The only problem is, they wouldn’t really be unionists anymore, so where exactly do Adams’s musings go?

Having long abandoned the traditional republican claim to be the legitimate government of Ireland in order to transform itself into a ‘partner in peace’, Sinn Fein has become another identikit nationalist party in republican clothing just like its forebears Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, both of which emerged from splits in the IRA during the Civil War of the 1920s.

In place of these claims Sinn Fein now seeks to bring about a united Ireland by stealth – cross-border bodies, devolved policing and an island-wide integrated economy will apparently do the work no one else has been able to do through either violent or peaceful means for the last 89 years.

Some unionists will, no doubt, argue that Adams is simply being insincere and speaking out of both sides of his mouth. This is unlikely to be the case. In fact Adams’s views are unsurprising and it has long been the objective of republicanism to bring together the Irish people, regardless of religion. But religion really isn’t the issue. There are plenty of figures from history who were both Protestant and republicans of various stripe: revolutionary Wolfe Tone, Irish president Douglas Hyde and, more recently, former Irish Times editor Dougas Gageby, several high-profile commanders of the Belfast brigade of the IRA, INLA co-founder Ronnie Bunting, and Sinn Fein councillor and former lay preacher Billy Leonard. The orange and green conflict has never really been black and white.

Political identity, however, is a rather more tricky subject. One can easily be a Protestant and a republican, but one cannot simultaneously be a unionist and a republican, and, today, mainstream Protestant opinion remains fundamentally unionist. Therein lies the problem for Sinn Fein.

Despite their treatment at the hands of the British press, republicans have never actually wanted to ‘push the Prods into the sea’. However, this does not mean Sinn Fein has a viable strategy for gaining significant amounts of erstwhile unionist support. Republicans spent so long fighting the British state, a state that unionists plainly identify with, that they have no means of moving past the ‘new dispensation’ of the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to achieve a united Ireland.

Republicanism is faced with two immediate problems: firstly, unionists will never be particularly happy about dealing with Sinn Fein because of the fallout from the IRA campaign. This means that even if the party could construct a genuinely political argument it would fail to be persuasive because it simply won’t be listened to.

Secondly, republicans have, on the whole, seen unionism as a form of false consciousness – ‘they’re not really British, they just think they are’. While this has a certain logic to it, it’s not particularly helpful at the present moment.

The republican focus has always been on the British state and its presence in Ireland, deferring the question of the Ulster unionists to an unknown point in the future. While this meant Sinn Fein could claim it was, in theory, open to Protestants and sought to represent all of the people of Ireland, it also meant that for the last 30-plus years it has never seriously had to face the question of what to do about the unionists (who form a minority in an all-Ireland headcount, but a majority in Northern Ireland).

Given that the Good Friday Agreement demands two separate referenda on unification, one in the North and one in the South, a united Ireland will only occur when it is in the interests of the bulk of Northern Protestants, many of whom are already completely depoliticised, unionists in name only – but this doesn’t make them republicans and it won’t be easy to change their minds.

The question cuts to the heart of what it is to be a republican today. In an era in which Sinn Fein has accepted, temporarily it would doubtlessly argue, British administration in the North of Ireland, how can one make a principled argument for a united Ireland that doesn’t simply ignore approximately a million people who need to persuaded of its virtues?

There are a number of ways a united Ireland may become a reality, all of which hinge on engaging with unionism – but what if unionists simply don’t want to be engaged with? And one doesn’t have to go to the fringe hinterlands of loyalist extremism to find evidence that they don’t.

Responding to Adams, unionist politician Chris McGimpsey penned his own screed in the Guardian in which he delighted in the economic difficulties faced by Ireland – the barely concealed glee resulting from the fact that many republicans felt Ireland’s then-booming economy would bring about a united Ireland like some kind of deus-ex-machina in a Greek drama (2). Alongside the point scoring, however, McGimpsey did make one important point: ‘An Ulster unionist is someone who, by definition, believes in the efficacy of the Union.’

Speaking at Westminster on the day his Guardian column was published, Adams elaborated his vision for cooperation, saying: ‘This means that Orange marches, albeit on the basis of respect and cooperation, will continue in a united Ireland if that is the wish of the Orange.’

As it happens, the few Orange marches that already do take place in the Republic of Ireland every year generally pass without incident – but Orangeism is by its very nature, if not necessarily hostile to Ireland as a polity, then at the very least fiercely pro-British. Would allowing marches and some kind of accommodation on future dual citizenship really be enough for these staunch crown loyalists?

Here one can see the key problem of how the conflict in Ireland has been settled: instead of being an essentially political battle, both sides have reduced their daily demands to the realm of culture. The Belfast Agreement and the Northern Ireland Assembly are anti-political in the sense that they park the national question in order to allow the parties to get on with the profoundly un-ideological business of ‘governance’. This has created relative stability in Ireland, but it actually makes the politics of answering the national question more difficult. Offering the continuance of unionist ‘cultural identity’ in an Irish Republic just doesn’t cut it.

Despite the shouting about flags and emblems, the name of the police service, Orange marches and the made-up language of Ulster Scots, the question of culture really ought to be secondary to political questions about democracy, sovereignty and equality. The culture wars in Northern Ireland are, and were, really only significant in so far as they have been a cat’s paw for obtaining political power.

No doubt Gerry Adams was speaking in good faith when he outlined a vision for a united Ireland that had a place in it for Orangemen. The problem is, unionism, however hollowed-out it is, remains more than merely cultural.

It’s the politics, stupid.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

(1) A united Ireland is possible, Gerry Adams, Guardian, 15 July 2009

(2) The absurd quest for a united Ireland, Christopher McGimpsey, Guardian, 16 July 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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