by Henry Hill
Friday, 18
June 2021
Idea
10:54

The reality of a united Ireland might not be so appealing

Would there be a role for the Queen in a "bi-national" state?
by Henry Hill
The Queen visits Ireland in 2011. Credit: Getty

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:

“Unification must not be the annexation of Northern Ireland. It means something more, a new state designed together, a new constitution and one that reflects the diversity of a bi-national or multinational state in which almost a million people are British.”
- Leo Varadkar

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.

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Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago

I am from a unionist background in Northern Ireland. As I have said on unherd before, the trouble with almost all Irish nationalist / republican thinking is that they seem to want to wish away the fact that there are almost a million people who don’t want to live in the Ireland that nationalists want to create.

If…..

… There was some safeguarding of the right to be British (and not a 2nd class version) – passports as an absolute minimum

… There was protection against wiping out of protestant orange culture – guaranteed protections for orange marches and the right to carry out such activities

… The trappings of the state were changed – anthem, flag, constitution, to truly neutral emblems

… Irish republican paramilitaries of all shades truly renounced violence and as part of that renunciation, to show goodwill, engaged in a truth and reconciliation commission and gave honest and full accounts of every action that took place in the troubles

… The new state put in place robust anti discrimination laws specifically for protestants and unionists and committed to equal opportunity and affirmative action laws to ensure that the organs of state had sufficient representation for protestants and unionists

Then maybe there would be a conversation to be had.

Do I think any of this would happen? No. Do I think that small time tin pot politicians down south will forever risk destabilising Northern Ireland in pursuit of their own electoral gain without any actual thought to the consequences? Yes.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

You haven’t required unionist paramilitaries to renounce violence. I assume this was an oversight.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
1 year ago

I am not an expert on this and I don’t live in Ireland.
In 1991 my daughter was getting married in Duesseldorf and we flew out for the wedding on the army base there. For the flight I was sitting next to a reporter from The Frankfurter Allgemeine – his job was to report the troubles in Northern Ireland. Being brought up on the BBC News I asked about the IRA attrocities and he just laughed.

He said that there were no good guys in Northern Ireland. As a reporter he had an agenda: Monday morning visit sight of IRA attrocity (organised by Loyalists), Monday afternoon visit sight of Loyalist attrocity (organised by Sinn Fein), Tuesday morning visit another site (organised by British Army) etc, etc. This was his week. After 6 months he had had enough and was hoping that he would never have to go again to Ireland.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago

First of all, no such thing as you well know, and second of all, there is no cause for loyalist paramilitaries if there are no Republican ones.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

Ah, I understand. Rather like there would be no Hamas if it weren’t for Zionism.

Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
1 year ago

Something along those lines…..

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian McKinney

But this is just not correct. The UVF was founded in 1966, three years before the Provisional IRA. At the time of the UVF’s founding, the pre-split IRA was in a very weak state, having been defeated in the Border Campaign of the previous decade. The first victim of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland was a Catholic civilian, John Patrick Scullion, shot dead by the UVF in 1966. This is not to excuse the other side: paramilitary violence – both orange and green – was a literal and metaphorical dead end for Northern Ireland.

Stuart Y
Stuart Y
1 year ago

And there you have it. I took it to be inferred. Especially as to me he seemed to be talking about what the South could do to reassure a million people who live under the threat, constantly of a return to Republican Violence. Would think the South would probably have the same formtheir community.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 year ago

Personally, as citizen of the ROI, I would not be at all happy with a reunited Ireland! I find both sides in NI (not all, of course but the more outspoken) as bad as each other and generally unpleasant. I’m very happy that neither side has undue influence in the ROI.
I would be happy to settle for a federation, ideally including the other Celtic nations, ie ROI+NI+ Scotland (later +Wales? and even Cornwall: why not?).
But politics in the ROI are bad enough without the NI crazies getting their big size 12s into the Dáil and Seanad.
Another possibility might be to sub divide NI into Unionist NE Irl and ceding the West and South of the current statelet to ROI.. that seems most likely to suit most people I think – after all, unionists unable to outbreed Republicans area dying breed and I doubt if BJ or 90% of Britons care a fig for NI.
Incidentally I was happy to see QE2 visit us (esp in Cork) and I’d be okay with a return to the Commonwealth but we’re keeping our president thank you very much!

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago

I read somewhere the UK subsidises NI to the tune of over ten billion per annum. Would Ireland be able to fund that kind of sum comfortably?

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

That is the gross figure. The net figure could well end up being less – some economists have it at €2.8bn per annum:
https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/uk-subvention-to-north-irrelevant-to-debate-on-irish-unity-1.4587773
I would say this lower figure is as optimistic as the €11.6bn (£10 bn) is pessimistic. Really, money would not the deal-breaker – but the nature of any future binational state might well be – that is why this article is quite prescient.