A humble Kilkenny farmer has an ambitious vision
A Kilkenny farmer has launched an Irish Unionist Party, with the aim of bringing the entire island back into the United Kingdom. Tristan Morrow’s goal is apparently “to lay down roots now for an all-Ireland pro-union party in the event of Irish unity”.
While obviously silly, this touches on a fascinating and under-explored quandary: in the event that Northern Ireland does get annexed by the Republic (which beneath all the pretty language is what ‘Irish unity’ means), what happens to unionism?
Sinn Fein, and others who advocate for a 32-county Irish state, struggle to come up with a convincing answer to this question. I have written previously about how the most committed Irish nationalists are often those most averse to the sort of far-reaching change a genuine ‘shared Ireland’ would require.
But Morrow’s project reminds us that unionists would face a similar dilemma.
After all, ‘unionism’ is not just a regional cultural identity within Ireland. It is also an identity and ideology rooted in the value of the constitutional link to Great Britain — a link which absorption by the Republic would necessarily sever.
Should that day come, unionists in what is now Northern Ireland will have a choice. On the one hand, they can go down the ‘little Ulster’ route, focusing on securing protections for cultural symbols, festivals and so forth. Another, more ambitious, approach would be to use the process of building a ‘shared Ireland’, and their electoral position in any 32-county state, to try and make the case for that link with Britain on an island-wide basis. Brexit has, after all, demonstrated that our two countries are deeply entwined, for all that nationalists might wish it were otherwise.
Granted, if taken seriously such an approach probably doesn’t end up calling itself the Irish Unionist Party. A more plausible historical model might be the National League, an ‘Anglophile’ party that operated in the early years of the Free State. It didn’t advocate reunion, but stood for close links with the United Kingdom within the framework of the new Irish state. It was not founded by a Unionist but by William Redmond, who had sat as a Nationalist MP at Westminster before partition.
Such a party could potentially serve both to give the British population in Ireland a coherent political vehicle (important if they are to exercise any influence in Dublin) while having a message that could potentially win support outside the north-east, including Morrow’s native Kilkenny.
Nor is this question merely about the future. A unionism prepared to think ambitiously about winning converts in a 32-county state is also one more likely to reach out to Catholic voters in today’s Northern Ireland — and thus make a ‘united Ireland’ less likely.