Beyond the rhetoric of a united Ireland lies the fundamental question of integrated schooling and whether it can act as a catalyst for healing division in Northern Ireland
One simple theory about how to solve the problem of social division in Northern Ireland is to start educating Catholic and Protestant children together.
And there is a simple answer that says that is a daft idea.
Those who regard integrated education as the solution, or a huge part of it, rely on an analysis of the problem that says we have two distinct and separate communities which can’t get on with each other.
Get their children mixing with each other and they’ll grow to like and understand each other. That way you move closer to the desired resolution and the end of the fears of violence coming back, reconciliation even.
Those who say this won’t work argue that it is based on a false analysis. The problem, they say, is not social and cultural and religious division that can be ameliorated by education. The problem is the unjust and artificial division of the island of Ireland. You solve that by getting rid of the border and governing the whole island as a single unit.
I go with the first analysis.
A huge contention between the two communities in Northern Ireland is the question of whether the region should be British or Irish. But that is not all that they are divided on.
The division over religion is not as significant as it was in my father’s day, in the time of Éamon deValera who argued that Ireland should be Catholic and Gaelic, or in the days of the Easter Rising when Pearse and the boys fought for a Catholic country distinct from dirty pagan England.
But the nationalist community, as we now call it, is still made up of people who were baptised Catholic and educated in Catholic schools, and the unionist community is made up mostly of people who were raised as members of Protestant churches.
Theology is no longer part of the dispute but it was until recently.
I was a reporter on a BBC religious affairs programme in the 1990s when it was common to hear evangelical Protestant unionists argue that Catholics were not Christian and that a united Ireland had to be avoided because within it the Catholic Church would have too much influence. And the Pope was the Anti Christ.
These are obsolete ideas.
Still, the rosary is often said at IRA commemorations. No republican now talks of the need for a Catholic nation but the remnants of that tradition are there.
Nationalists are more likely to make the case now that Ireland should be united because we would all be better off back in the EU and because Britain doesn’t love us. But the memorialisation of martyrs and key events like the Easter Rising or the shooting of Michael Collins connects these ideas to a tradition which gave no thought to the EU or cared a hoot what Britain thought.
Partition may have been a great violation of Ireland, creating two sectarian states, but that is not the problem any more. The last century cannot be reversed but its toxins have largely run through us. Whether we want a united Ireland now should be decided on pragmatic grounds rather than by reference to a screwed up past.
And the best hope of a decision being arrived at sensibly and pragmatically is for the big sectarian blocks to be dissolved and merged into each other. Then it won’t be a question of taking sides to defeat the other or to honour a community obligation.
Sensible republicans know this but the discussion within their base on social media is plain chauvinistic and sectarian.
The other point is that while the two communities are divided on the border and the Union, they are also divided on many other things: The political parties they vote for; Sport. Language and culture; territorial distribution, with Catholic and Protestant housing estates. They read different morning papers. And, as mentioned already, they are divided on religion and education.
A united Ireland brought about by the defeat of Unionism will not end the division and ameliorate sectarian tension. It will likely exacerbate it. A sense of a British or Irish national identity is not just a preference for certain parameters for the state. It entails a sense of identity that is expressed through sport, language, religion and culture and which asserts these more adamantly when that identity is challenged.
Leave that identity unchallenged, honoured and respected and it evolves, as the cultures of the Irish Republic, England and Scotland have evolved.
Besides, deciding you want a united Ireland or to be part of a post Brexit might lead to regret if the decision is not a considered and informed one.
There are some unionists and some republicans who will say proudly that they would rather starve on the street with their own people than surrender their core sense of national identity.
Thankfully, their votes are unlikely to carry the day in a border poll. The best outcome is likely to be decided by an educated and informed generation free of the current systems which simply reproduce sectarian division from generation to generation.
The arguments in this article draw on two recent books by Malachi O’Doherty, Can Ireland Be One (Merrion 2022) and How To Fix Northern Ireland (Atlantic 2023)