The Newsletter series is a tame affair so far

The Newsletter is continuing its series of Articles about the Union in 2021.

Unfortunately, in terms of their contribution to the wider debate about changing politics in Northern Ireland, very little of substance has yet been written. Perhaps I am expecting too much. In the opening article – ‘What’s your vision for Ulster’, they write this:

“We will be asking contributors to our Union 2021 series each to write an article which addresses three main questions:

– What do you think the Union with Great Britain will look like in 2021?

– What would you like it to look like?

– Is unionist unity essential for the achievement of your vision?

– If so, what does that mean?

– Could you accept a Sinn Fein First Minister?”

There are, of course, 5 questions and the last question, in particular, looks like an afterthought.

I am disappointed with these questions because they enable the writers to write articles which are too “broad brush” regarding the position of the Union in 2021.   To engage the writers in more vigorous and revealing debate, some of these questions could have been more defined.  

Asking contributors for their vision on the Union in 2021 looks like asking them for a forecast on whether it will still exist at the time.   It would have been more challenging and taxing if questions had been about how contributors saw the functioning of Stormont and the state of the political parties in 2021, as compared to now, and how this might come about.

I am continuing to monitor these articles and will provide more commentary on them in due course.

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3 Responses to The Newsletter series is a tame affair so far

  1. shane says:

    Seymour, can I ask you something?

    Your recent posts had me thinking. When the UCUNF pact was still going, you believed it would help push the UUP beyond sectarian associations. You believed that a non-sectarian Unionism would appeal to Catholics and as a result make Northern Ireland’s constitutional status more secure.

    It’ll probably seem counterintuitive but if you met the head of PR at Sinn Fein or the SDLP tomorrow, and he asked you what the party could practically do to make advances among Unionist voters like yourself, what advice would you give him? What policies would be needed for the Nationalist parties to appeal beyond the tribal heartlands. Finally, how do you think a united Ireland could be most practically acheived and what proposals/circumstances would be needed for the prospect to appeal to a proportion or Unionists (is it even possible?) or even just yourself? Would be interested in hearing your opinions.

    • Seymour Major says:

      Shane, that is a nasty question but I enjoy a good thought exercise.

      I kick off my answer by emphasising my political ethos here. If we are genuine about having a shared future, then bringing about normal politics and breaking down sectarianism must take precedence over who is the head of state.

      Unfortunately for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, there is little or nothing that either of these two parties can do, through domestic policy, to bring about a United Ireland, except to make it unattractive (as they are doing now). Both of them may as well ditch their dark green tags now and stop criticising the Orangemen, poppies, remembrance ceremonies, the Queen and the British Army (btw, not all of those criticisms are against the SDLP).

      It is what politicians do on the other side of the border and the other side of the Irish Sea that really matters. It is, of course, possible that Sinn Fein and/or the SDLP could do something to influence the political parties in the ROI.

      Demography shows that Northern Ireland is moving towards a Catholic majority population. Perhaps that will happen in about 15 years time. Obviously, it will mean that by then, at the latest, support will be needed from the Catholic community to maintain the Union.

      There are many Republicans and Nationalists (we meet them on Slugger regularly) who think that once there is a Catholic majority population in Northern Ireland, it will soon lead to a majority vote in a referendum in favour of a United Ireland. It is not as simple as that. The further we move into the future, the less important religious background is likely to become. At the moment, those who wish NI to remain part of the Union outnumber those who want a United Ireland by a ratio of more than 3 to 1 (source: 2009 NILT Survey).

      The Catholics who prefer to remain in the Union, and perhaps some Protestants who might be thinking of changing their view, would need to have their views changed through a charm offensive by ROI political parties and other ROI institutions. If I was a politician, from either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, who had his heart set on bringing about a united Ireland, the first thing I would do is seek agreement on a cross-party political strategy. The most likely pillars of that strategy would be:

      (a) Agreement to bring Ireland into NATO. This can be justified in Ireland’s national interest. More than 90% of Ireland’s exports are to NATO countries. Ireland is dependant upon that Alliance for its success, whether it likes it or not.
      (b) Agreement to join the Commonwealth. This would be a popular move amongst the Irish sporting community and the many Irish who have strong links with ex colonial countries, particularly Australia. It will mean that the Irish would be obliged to take an interest in what is happening in many countries around the world but the Commonwealth of nations is an international community and Ireland is now ready (as it was not before 1949) to play its part to help its development. Once the Irish see a Commonwealth games with Irish Athletes bringing back medals, they will fall in love with the occasion.
      (c) Strengthening of cultural ties and cross-border capital projects. The British Isles Council is likely to become more important as a vehicle for these developments in the future
      (d) The most important one – get through this economic crisis, outperform the UK and become rich again. The jigsaw pieces are still in place for that to happen. I believe that in 5 years time, the Irish Economy will be “over the hill” and starting to thrive again. Ireland’s banks must never crash again. As well as the tighter regulation which has now been put into place, they will need some confidence-building measures if they are to remain in the Euro. In my opinion, the best way forward is to ensure that they keep public spending below 30% of GDP. By doing that, they will build up large exchequer surpluses. That is the insurance that Ireland needs anyway and it would certainly counter the criticism that Ireland is left without any monetary control over its economy.
      (e) Put pressure upon the GAA to change its constitution so that it is no longer a Nationalist sporting body. Replace the playing of the Irish National Anthem with “Ireland’s call.” When a new NI flag comes about, fly it alongside the tricolour to symbolise the All-Island nature of the game.
      (f) The final one – a new flag for the new state, should there be a United Ireland incorporating the Northern Ireland flag (which does not yet exist) and perhaps another symbol representing its connection with the Commonwealth.

      Of course, I would fully expect the UK also to engage in that “beauty contest” in a most friendly way. However, the Republic, with its land border has a clear advantage. If the ROI political parties play their cards as I suggest, I would expect them to win over Northern Ireland in a referendum. Of course, by then, such a strong bond of friendship will, by then, have been cemented with the UK. That very important fact would help the majority of Unionists to accept a change of NI’s sovereignty with good grace.

      • Seymour,

        Some interesting thoughts.

        a) While an argument can be made for NATO membership, it probably won’t happen any time soon. Public opinion in the Republic would be difficult to persuade on this point. If anything, the trend has been in the opposite direction in recent years – the triple lock mechanism is completely incompatible with article 5, for example. While I would like to see the UN requirement dropped (imagine giving the People’s Republic of China a veto over your defence policy!) I can’t envisage the Dáil requirement being dropped except in the face of a crisis. I’m not sure how many people would change their minds on a UI if the Republic joined NATO, but there is certainly a constituency in the North that sees Irish neutrality as an advantage — it’s not inconceivable that support for a UI might actually be reduced! I don’t see this as either necessary or realistic.

        b) Commonwealth membership on the other hand, is quite feasible. There are periodic attempts to get this on the agenda, but each time there is a lot of scaremongering about the role of the Queen. Some basic public education would go a long way to assuage these fears, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone (bar the fringe Reform Movement) willing to spend political capital on it. This would need to be sold on its own merits though, and not as an open-ended concession to Unionists.

        c) The BIC and the NSMC are two sides of a coin, and both deserve more attention than they’re getting. There is a visible reluctance by mainstream unionism to take the NSMC seriously, and without that it’s hard to see the BIC being beefed up. I’d be in favour of a Grand Bargain whereby infrastructure powers are apportioned between the two (say, transport to the NSMC in exchange for comms to the BIC) but that would require political sacrifices on all sides.

        d) The need for economic recovery in the Republic is tangential to the issue at hand. Yes, a stronger economy south of the border would make change easier, but it’s an essential step whether you want a UI or not.

        e) I’m not sure what would be gained by southern politicians posturing on the GAA – in the south it is uncontroversial and has recently shown flexibility, for example on the use of Croke Park. What would have greater effect is Northern Nationalists taking a stand against unhelpful attitudes in Northern clubs, such as commemoration of hunger strikers.

        f) Anthems and flags would more likely come after constitutional change rather than before. Symbols need to be symbolic of something. If the parameters of that something haven’t yet been defined, any symbols will be meaningless. That said, an all-Ireland sporting anthem and flag that are explicitly divorced from politics could have their uses. Ireland’s Call, while a dirge, is a good step in that direction.

        In summary, I’m not sure how much Southerners can do to bring about a UI other than make a few cosmetic changes and otherwise concentrate on economic recovery. 95% of the work will need to be done by Northern Nationalists, just as Unionists will be mostly responsible for selling the virtues of the UK.

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