Reconciliation or Conversion?

Andy Pollak has written another impassioned plea for reconciliation in Northern Ireland as a precursor to any border poll. In an ideal world that is obviously very desirable. But there is also a danger that we confuse political reconciliation with social, community, and or religious reconciliation.

For many nationalists, division was caused by partition, and reconciliation can only begin when partition has ended and that scar has healed. For many unionists, division was caused by Irish independence, and reconciliation can only begin when Ireland re-joins the UK, or at the very least when nationalists in Northern Ireland accept the permanence UK rule, and thereby cease to be Irish nationalists, and become, in effect, unionists. How has that worked out in practice, given it has been embedded in the status quo for 100 years?

Can I suggest that political reconciliation can only occur if nationalists respect the right of unionists to be unionists, and unionists respect the right of nationalists to be nationalists? That is, after all, what is enshrined in the GFA under its “parity of Esteem” provisions.

And yet Andy heaps distain on Ireland’s Future for daring to promote the nationalist cause. It seems that nothing less than nationalists converting to unionism will satisfy the demands of political unionism.  But true reconciliation is not about conversion, forced or otherwise. It is about accepting differences within a democratic pollical framework.

Of course, for Christians, reconciliation is an act of love and should be possible under any political dispensation. However it often appears that the louder people proclaim their Christianity, the less they are capable of reconciliation. Far from wanting reconciliation with their adversaries, they want total victory over them. They seek converts, rather than the celebration of diversity.

I do not expect political unionism to ever reconcile itself to a united Ireland, even long after a border poll has been carried. Unionist parties can and will continue to exist and campaign for closer links to Britain long after a united Ireland is established. Their right to do so is enshrined in the “Parity of Esteem” provisions of the GFA. Their political success in achieving their objectives will depend on their electoral strength.

Social/community/religious reconciliation, on the other hand, can and does exist now, and it is a an insult to the many people who engage in it to suggest that it isn’t happening now. It doesn’t depend on any particular constitutional arrangement either now or in the future to make it happen, although some configurations and governments may be more helpful than others.

It is also disingenuous to criticize Ireland’s Future for seeking to mobilize international support for the calling of a border poll in due course – c. 2030. That is not undermining the GFA, but rather calling for it to be implemented impartially.

The GFA calls for the calling of a border poll to be made by the Secretary of State “if he forms the view it would likely be carried.” There is no problem with this provided that judgement is formed in good faith based on the evidence. However such has been the disregard shown by successive British governments for the “parity of esteem” and “rigorous impartiality” clauses of the agreement, that it is not unreasonable for Ireland’s Future to fear that a future Secretary of State may be less than rigorous in his impartiality when considering the evidence. Hence the need for international vigilance.

I think posts implying conversion when they claim to promote reconciliation are more likely to sow distrust that there is good faith on the part of those who claim to speak for reconciliation: that their real agenda is to promote support for the current status quo rather than an apolitical and transcendent pursuit of reconciliation regardless of whatever the majority in NI may ultimately decide.

Unionism does not now, nor under any potential United Ireland future have to disavow its “Britishness” or attachment to closer links with Britain. You do not become “Irish” just because a majority in your region have voted for a United Ireland. Nationalism does not need to persuade political unionism to give up its fundamental beliefs for a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous United Ireland to be possible.

The dark side of such arguments is that violence will be rampant if nationalism does not appease each and every one of political unionism’s demands. That is neither responsible, possible, nor true. Democracies thrive on differences and no democracy is absolutely homogenous. The point is that minority rights are protected and majorities rule sensitively and with due regard for the law and international agreements such as the GFA.

Respect for that agreement has not been lacking on the nationalist side in recent times. It is unionism and successive British governments that have sought to undermine it by seeking a land border on the island, by seeking to undermine the all-Ireland economy, and by setting up a second East West Council to undermine that provided for under the GFA which they have rarely properly implemented.

Instead of trying to convert nationalists to unionism and vice versa, perhaps it is time those arguing for political reconciliation recognised that it is possible for nationalists and unionists to live together in increasing harmony both now and within a United Ireland should that ever be the democratic will of the majority, and without either side having to give up its cherished beliefs and identity.

Both Ireland and Britain are bigger and better than the petty squabbles which have passed for Northern Ireland politics for so long, and both are well able to accommodate many people with differing identities and beliefs. It is an insult to both Ireland and Britain to suggest they cannot accommodate the people of Northern Ireland in all their diversity within their states.

The EU has also accommodated far more diverse peoples, with far more horrific recent histories, within a relatively harmonious overall democratic structure. It is time to take the blinkers off and see what good politics can enable.


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.