Would there be a role for the Queen in a "bi-national" state?
Both the Government and assorted unionists have been quick to push back against Leo Varadkar after he decided to throw his Fine Gael party some red meat on the question of Irish unity.
The once-and-future Taoiseach told their conference that unification was a “legitimate political aspiration” and that unionists should not have “a veto on Ireland’s future”. He also called for Fine Gael to organise in Northern Ireland.
Brandon Lewis called the remarks “ill-judged” — a view shared by some Irish TDs — and it is certainly true that Varadkar’s comments could perhaps have been saved until after the current crisis gripping the Province has cooled a little.
They will also do nothing to restore his reputation among unionists and loyalists, which could prove problematic when he resumes office as Taoiseach next year, as part of a coalition agreement between his party and Fianna Fáil.
But they aren’t really a surprise. Varadkar has always been one of the more volubly nationalist Fine Gael figures, even before the Republic’s major parties found themselves fighting against a surging Sinn Féin.
However, his attempts to create some clear blue water between his vision and that of the Shinners (with or without a border in it) highlight the difficulty of bringing a ‘united Ireland’ about:
Unionists have traditionally, and understandably, been wary of getting drawn into discussions about what a greater Irish state might look like. But it might be a game worth playing, because it is far from obvious that voters in the Republic are prepared to accept the sort of wholesale transformation of their state that Varadkar is talking about.
Take the talk of “a rainbow nation, not just orange and green”. The first test of this would be a new flag. Unionists should propose St Patrick’s Saltire, which is already flown unofficially at some all-Ireland sporting events and has represented Ireland in the Union Jack. But how do we think that would really go down?
Unionists are very proud of their history of service in the Armed Forces. Would Irish voters accept a constitutionally-protected right for Irish citizens to serve, and the UK to recruit, in their new state?
Likewise, a symbolically powerful concession with minimal implications for the practical conduct of government would be replacing the Irish presidency with the monarchy, with the Queen reigning (as she does in other Commonwealth Realms) under a separate title.
What do we imagine the constituency for Her Hibernian Majesty will be? For that matter, how much support is there for doing so little as rejoining the Commonwealth? Or a role for Britain in guaranteeing the rights of Britons in Ireland?
Floating some of these ideas would be a good way for unionists to gauge the sincerity of Irish politicians who talk about a new state — and make southern voters confront the reality of what that state might have to look like.
Varadkar is right to reject the cold, uncompromising republican approach, and the bare 50% plus one threshold so foolishly conceded by Tony Blair. Whether he can sell that vision is another matter.