Dr Ruairi Hanley believes a United Ireland may well come about when fair-minded Unionists cast off Orange
intolerance and realise they share common links with the South.
Gerry Adams recently made a high-profile speech, in which he called for a referendum on a United Ireland. Apparently, there is provision for precisely such a vote in the Good Friday agreement.
Naturally, this suggestion has not gone down well with the closet Unionist element that still lurks within Fine Gael and the media. Meanwhile, the rest of the country appeared largely indifferent to the proposal for a ‘border poll’.
This muted response struck me as somewhat strange. In decades past, the very words ‘United Ireland’ would have been enough to stir passions across the land. Alas, these days the entire concept seems to be treated with a form of benign indifference by those who would once have welcomed it.
My own view on the matter is simple. Those who live in the North are as entitled to call themselves Irish as I am. Partition was inflicted on this island with the sole aim of subverting the democratic desire of the Irish nation to rule itself. It had the effect of creating a sectarian state — one which actively discriminated against the religious minority for almost 50 years.
In modern times, it has become fashionable to pretend that Northern Unionists are a bunch of misunderstood, cuddly Care Bears who never disliked Catholics, only terrorists. This view has been reinforced by an understandable desire to condemn the Provisional IRA and its atrocities. As a result, few pause to recall the culture that predated the onset of the Troubles.
The B Specials
It must never be forgotten that during the long years they were allowed to run their Province, Unionist-led governments treated Nationalists as second-class citizens. Backed up by their own militia (the B Specials), the establishment ensured that uppity Fenians received roughly the same degree of respect as Black people in the American Deep South circa 1960. Sectarian bigotry and Orange supremacy was not only tolerated, it was openly endorsed by the state.
Those who doubt the accuracy of this statement need only look to the words of various Unionist Prime Ministers. Let us take, for example, Basil Brooke (PM of Northern Ireland 1943-63) who made the following speech to a group of Orangemen: “Many in this audience employ Catholics, but I have not one about my place. Catholics are out to destroy Ulster… If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work on our farms, we are traitors to Ulster…” (It should be noted that these remarks long preceded the campaign of the Provisional IRA.)
Imagine for a moment if the leader of any modern European country had made a similar remark about Jews or Muslims? I would venture to suggest that they would be subjected to international condemnation. Yet on the North of this island such commentary, and the bigotry that justified it, were considered perfectly acceptable for decades.
Most media commentators now like to assume that all of this is in the past. However, those forced to endure triumphalist Orange marches every summer, preceded by bonfires where Tricolours are burned by the hundred, would probably beg to differ.
The truth is that the peace process has thankfully ended the IRA campaign. But is has failed to deal with one of the main triggers for almost 30 years of carnage — specifically, the hate-fuelled mindset that defines a significant proportion of the Loyalist population of the North. As we saw recently on the streets of Belfast, these people haven’t gone away, you know.
Meanwhile, here in the South, nobody cares which church each citizen attends. Protestants have risen to high political office and to the bench of the Supreme Court. We live in a secular Republic where religious affiliation is almost never used to discriminate against anyone. In this context, we can be said to have achieved true equality for all faiths.
Unfortunately for some Northern Loyalists, equality is something they can never accept. Their entire culture is supposedly based around a British identity, but in reality it has always been more about asserting their superiority over Fenians. In their world, to accept the idea that Catholics might have an equal right to their own cultural ‘Irish’ identity is to accept defeat. For Loyalists, supremacy is the key to existence.
Across the world, in different countries and cultures, these types of intolerant and extremist movements regularly emerge and slowly decline. Over time, they are marginalised and forced to accept the need to treat everyone else with respect. One need only look at the segregation that once was enthusiastically supported across the Southern United States to see a good example of this. Who would have dreamed in 1960s Alabama that America would one day have a black President?
Hard-line Northern Loyalists have yet to reach even the start of that learning curve. Instead they riot, sing abusive songs about the Pope, and scream ‘No Surrender’ at police, while destroying their local economy and employment opportunities. The sheer stupidity and nihilism of this behaviour is hard for outsiders to fathom.
Such a mindset cannot be reasoned with because it simply will not change. Eventually, the majority of fair-minded Unionists in the North will cast off the shackles of Orange intolerance and learn that supremacy is no longer compatible with living in a civilised democracy.
At that point, they might well look to the South and realise they have far more in common with their fellow Irishmen than they ever allowed themselves to acknowledge.
It is difficult to know how soon that day will come. But when it does, I believe a United Ireland will inevitably become a reality. So bring on the referendum.