SOLVING A QUESTION as large as ‘Can the Union Survive?’ was always going to be a big ask in a debate scheduled for just an hour and a half, but panellists at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 10th October certainly gave it a good go.
The event took place at Church House in Westminster, and the panel – chaired by Irish Border Poll head Kevin Rooney – also consisted of Deputy Director of Relatives for Justice and Ireland’s Future member Andrée Murphy, editor of popular Northern Ireland political blog Slugger O’Toole, Mick Fealty, Professor of Legal Studies at LSE Peter Ramsay, and former UKIP spin doctor and Conservative EU insider Gawain Towler.
Though the debate at all times remained civil, allegiances were obvious from the beginning.
Mick Fealty began with a warning to Irish Nationalists that they would have to use ‘different methods of persuasion’ than merely ‘the long war of attrition’ he felt they were engaged in, especially if they ever hoped to win over political neutrals as well as their Unionist neighbours.
He cited recent census statistics as evidence that Nationalism would not be as strong at the polls as first thought and questioned the wisdom of using a ‘sectarian headcount’ as a measure of the true appetite for a United Ireland.
He also contended that the Partition of the island only came into being in the first place because there was no other viable solution to building a plural Ireland following the War of Independence.
Next to speak was Gawain Towler, who rather unsurprisingly revealed that he was from a long line of staunch GB Unionists, owing to the fact that many of his family members had served in the British Army.
Towler – who described himself as ‘Brit first, English second’ – revealed cautiously that when he was at the beginning of his political career, he was told ‘There are only two topics you should avoid talking about. One is Kashmir. The other is Ulster.’
Nevertheless, Towler felt comfortable enough in his assertions to declare that ‘Northern Irish Unionists are the most serially betrayed people in the British Isles’.
When challenged about his statement by this paper, asking whether, for example, the Irish Nationalist community – who did not have full voting rights until the late 1960s – constituted a betrayed group, Towler responded that Nationalists could not have been betrayed because they had never been on board with the Northern Irish project in the first place.
Representing the Nationalist point of view, Andrée Murphy said that Partition had led to the creation of ‘two reactionary states’ on the island of Ireland: one in the South dominated by the Catholic Church, and one in the North based on Protestant ascendancy.
She then went on to explain that it was only through freedom of movement and the all-island economy created by the Good Friday Agreement that some of the harm done by Partition had begun to be rectified.
She pointed out that the recent Northern Ireland protocol worked in the sense that it protected the integrity of the 1998 Agreement, though she was keen to stress that it was only under the auspices of a United Ireland that other issues – such as legal protection for the Irish language – could be achieved.
She wanted to reassure Unionists that a United Ireland did not necessarily mean Nationalist cultural domination and, indeed, that Unionism would have a bigger proportional say in a new Dáil Éireann than it currently does in a ‘four nations’ Westminster.
Last to speak on the issue was Professor Peter Ramsay, who began by emphasising that although he personally disagreed with the implementation of the protocol, Brexit nevertheless marked a phenomenological change whereby the “Irish Question” had now become the “British Question”.
What he meant by this, he explained, was that Ireland now had the self-confidence to define itself as a cohesive whole – that is, to identify clear-cut Irish cultural mores – while Britain meanwhile had fallen into an identity crisis.
He pointed to a decline in the influence of the Crown, State religion and the Welfare State as symptoms of this identity crisis, and that what the protocol had proven was that Northern Ireland was a part of the UK in name only.
As always, this debate made for lively conversation on the audience floor, and when the chair opened it up to questions, some more complex issues around segregated schools and discrimination against travellers, people with disabilities and minorities, were broached with the panel.
Although these issues were only touched upon, it gave the distinct impression that there was a lot more around the issue of reunification that could have been discussed.
Nevertheless, as Andrée Murphy pointed out, these conversations have to start somewhere, and now that Brexit has moved the issue once again into the political mainstream – that is, out of the boardroom and into homes, pubs and dugouts at football matches – things are only likely to gather more steam as time goes on.