At last, an honest and open account of whether (or not) Ireland can ever be one?

For all the obsessive public chatter about a prospective united Ireland, there are two questions that almost never get asked: why do we need one and how would anyone go about making it happen?

Neither relate to the one that currently dominates: ie, what would it look like? It is a question that can be too easily parked (pending further progress) to be of much use to anyone serious in the here and now.

In fact, it is one of those issues which I tend to drop in the ‘cannot be serious bin’ each time it comes up. By its very dominance it has rendered much of the conversation exclusively an insider’s one.

Therein lies the problem facing those who ardently want this as an outcome to Northern Ireland’s now 100 years plus journey: a timespan never anticipated by either the UK or Irish governments of the time.

Few writers have the courage and the ambition to probe these questions as thoroughly as they need to be if they are going to stand a chance of coming even to a limited fruition as Malachi O’Doherty.

In a new book Can Ireland Be One, published this week, Malachi takes his own considerable personal experience and background and subjects the matter to a useful sceptical inquiry of his own.

It is a compendium of references, some on the subject like Kevin Meagher on why a united Ireland is inevitable, others like Orwell probe the nature of nationalism, and Hubert Butler southern Unionists.

What plays out is both the power of the unity story within what has become known as the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (or CNR for short) community, and its scope for repelling others.

The ethnographer Frank Burton showed in his 1970s study of a nationalist community in turmoil, The Politics of Legitimacy, how divergent stories can emerge from the same incident.

Malachi goes back to Butler’s writing to show just how differently our two main communities chart what was until partition was a shared history of the island:

He recalls a culture which had perhaps been disgraced by landlord excesses, defeated by the Land League, had its property passed over to tenants by the Land Acts and then had seen the rest of its significance destroyed in the Civil War.

There were 139 country houses destroyed in the fifteen months from January 1922, ‘many of them treasure houses of great beauty, with fine libraries, whose owners had shaped Irish history.’

Ireland from this perspective, had sunk with its independence into willful amnesia in which a heroic and brilliant contribution was written out of history’.

Such perspectives feel incongruous to the debate now pulsing through some parts of nationalism, which goes like “the water’s great, come on in”: contradicting their own ‘gombeen’ narrative on the south).

That incongruity deepens when you consider many of us from the CNR community (including my own, and I suspect Malachi’s, Donegal family) benefited directly from the activities of the Land League.

It is hard to see beyond the zero-sum of Irish constitutional history to gain an understanding from Butler’s deeper historical perspective of just how narrow a sense of Irish nationhood we’ve inherited.

As Malachi puts it in one tersely named chapter towards the end, Why Bother:

Much of the Irish sense of identity is founded on the narrative of struggle. But a difficulty with that narrative is that honouring and preserving it may be incompatible with the unity of the people.

The real limits on nationalism’s obvious ambition of uniting the island under the single  banner of the Irish republic are imposed by its own inability to examine its own flaws, and severely curb its appeal.

The unspoken assumption behind well resourced marketing campaigns like Ireland’s future is based on the idea that demography is destiny: popular within nationalism since the onset of the peace process.

At times, despite this caution, Malachi seems to endorse this line of thinking, suggesting that change of some description is inevitable. Change of all sorts lies in the restless character of human nature.

It’s also a key driver in demographics. A recent article in The Economist on the changing demographics within Israel provides an example of why linear assumptions about the future are flawed:

The convergence of birth rates between Israeli Jews and Arabs suggests demography will be far less important than either Israeli doom-mongers feared or Palestinian nationalists once hoped. Since neither community is likely to swamp the other with babies, both will still have to work out how to live together peacefully in their disputed slice of the Middle East.

The truth is that whilst the drop below 50% in the number of those declaring themselves Protestant (much predicted in the press in the 2001 census) was accompanied by a growth of just 0.8% in Catholics.

This was little to do with narrowing of birth rates, since at school age Catholics have far outnumbered Protestants for 20 some years, but more about how peace has changed how people see themselves.

By 2011 a number of people who formerly saw themselves as Protestants felt able to jettison that label in a way they didn’t in 2001, and it’s fair to assume a significant group of ‘Catholics’ did the same.

If the gap is narrowing between the tribes, it remains the same between Catholics and that magic 50% +1. So Malachi usefully questions whether religion remains a political signifier for constitutional preference.

In the 90s it was a favourite quote within the gay community that there were three communities in Northern Ireland, Protestant, Catholic and Gay such were the external pressures upon them at the time.

Malachi raises a key uncertainty over which the loudest advocates of a united Ireland seem only too willing to ignore:

Do migrants and gays want rid of the border? Do they have any agreed thinking among themselves about it? What hope would there be of mobilising them as coherent political forces arguing for Irish unity?

If I were a gay man or a Somali migrant I might ask, what hope do I have of being accepted in this country which can’t even manage to find empathy between unionists and republicans, all of them white and Christian and born within a few hundred miles of each other on the same smallish island?

Empathy is important, not least because of the need to create the prospect of a peaceful transition, a vital ingredient in convincing northern (and southern) sceptics of the desirability of the project.

And Malachi doesn’t repeat the most common mistake of nationalist commentators to estimate the virtues of British identity at zero. Patrick Hannan calls it ‘a useful fiction’ holding (if barely) a nation together.

It’s not clear what narrative threads would be strong enough to bind a future island nation built on the bare minimum of 50% + 1 (should the opportunity arise) of consent from Mizen to Fair Head?

Nationalist discourses also ignore how Britishness is contested in a way Irishness isn’t. Orwell, the radical British patriot of his time was, at his death, pronounced to be ‘the wintry conscience of his generation”.

Malachi talks in the book about how religion is no longer the significator for politics in the way that it used to be. That’s largely true for the east where post unionist parties are growing in strength, less so in the west.

For generations in Northern Ireland, we’ve seen divergence in demographic patterns, particularly in the distribution of mixed marriages. In 1991 mixing biased towards the more prosperous east.

In the west mixing was higher in Limavady (with its reputation for good community relations) (5%) than in Strabane (2%). Today in West Tyrone 1.5% state they have no religion. In East Londonderry it’s 4.4%.

The pattern repeats across Northern Ireland. In South Down where traditionally mixing was higher than other Catholic majority areas can only muster 3.4% non religionists where it’s 12% in North Down.

I cannot speak to the causes of this divergent pattern, other than to argue that the difference is consistent and real. In North Down, even during the Troubles 25% of Catholics were in mixed marriages.

This will shift perspectives not just as individuals but as a demographic group since they’re subject to different socio economic pressures which seem only dimly understood by more strident nationalism.

A nationalism that’s strongest in those majority Catholic where progress towards majority seems to be working apace,  but which is not reflected in wider demographic figures.  It’s a poor place to start.

As recently as April the Liverpool survey showed that some 22.7% of nationalists (and 23.1% of those who were neither) neither agreed nor disagreed that a united Ireland would deliver economic benefits.

One important absence in the book and within the wider discourse, is any careful consideration (beyond the obvious negatives) of the influence of southern nationalism in north south development.

In 1953, Fine Gaeler Ernest Blythe argued “we should encourage a policy of persuasion [in relation to partition] as against a policy of pressure” at the time of a much larger political convergence on the economy.

In June 1959 The Irish Times wrote:

Mr Lemass is the most hard headed and least sentimental of our statesmen, with an intuitive understanding that the true approach to the North is by way of deeds, rather than of threats and blandishments… it is not hard to guess that his approach to the Six Counties will be along the line of economic co-operation.

Today there is an echo of both Blythe and Lemass in Micheál Martin’s Shared Island Initiative, the only serious north south/east west policy initiative to emerge since the Belfast Agreement.

Oddly that initiative has been written out of most journalistic accounts of significant post conflict change. Yet it is the only policy which even attempts to answer the how question cited above.

In this chaotic age of social media, it’s nigh impossible to raise the issue of practical change. As Malachi notes, that is part of the self undoing of nationalism the world over. He quotes that “wintry conscience”:

Orwell listed the attributes of nationalism. It was, he said, obsessive, unstable and indifferent to reality. He wrote that every form of nationalism was blind to simple truths that contradicted it.

Feels a lot like where we are just now. If you genuinely care (one way or the other) about the future of the island, this book’s one of the few on the subject that’s actually worth the money.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.