The Brainstorm Long Read: Brexit requires nothing less than a bold reimagining of the national question, but what might this mean for Ulster Unionism?

Something is moribund in the body politic of the United Kingdom.

The Union is terminally ill. 

Yes, there may yet be periods of remission. Even some good days when self-delusion wins out over existential inevitability. 

But be in no doubt: Brexit and Scottish, English and Irish Nationalism are all eating away at the very fabric of the Act of Union itself.

We live in very different times from previous 20th century certainties and everything from portentous national and international events to unremitting demographic change, have ensured that Irish history marches relentlessly on.

Those who feel the winds of change most of course are the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist communities of Northern Ireland. For more than any other community within the union, they have (or perceive that they have) most to lose. 

From RTÉ Archives, Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien talks to RTÉ News in 1998 about how Unionists may have to consider an united Ireland

This community have been at war to protect and preserve their constitutional and cultural status. A community who feel that the very ground beneath their feet is coveted by many of their fellow citizens who walk amongst them. And by another jurisdiction to the south, where senior politicians speak publicly of aspiration, inevitability and the fielding of candidates in their elections. 

Shared civic values and a common desire for stable, effective, devolved government have fallen foul of questionable ethics, conservative social mores and a relentless pre-occupation with identity politics and partition. Whilst internationally, shibboleths and previous certainties come under review and revision, the immovable object of unionist intractability continues to be vexed by the irresistible force of aspirant nationalism.

In that virtually unique manner in which Northern Irish politics can reduce the most complex and nuanced issues to a simple binary sectarian electoral outcome, both communities there find themselves signed up to the respective Brexit positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin. If dissent does occur within the virtually "Balkanised" system of Northern Ireland, there exists no viable alternative political vehicle by which to mobilise or express it.

Undertaker Johnny McKeegan stands near the border between Fermanagh and Cavan. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Faced with this scenario, the political representatives of Ulster Unionism have shown little or no capacity for adroit or imaginative responses to the unfolding dilemma. Rather, the duopoly of power sharing that passes for (sometime) governance in Northern Ireland continues to lock them into a "no surrender" mind-set that is simply no longer fit for purpose.

It may now be necessary to admit that until the national question is adequately resolved, no durable and lasting solution to governance in the region is possible. We can no longer put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Former DUP Leader, Peter Robinson has acknowledged as much. 

But how to begin to do this? In short, nothing less than a bold reimagining of the national question is required.

In the first instance, both communities (and political parties) in Northern Ireland should be encouraged to reflect upon the changing nature of their relationships with their respective "Motherlands". 

From RTÉ News, Peter Robinson issues warning about impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland

Ulster Unionists have for some time feared that British citizens generally (and the metropolitan elite in particular) show a practiced indifference to their status. Furthermore, whilst the DUP may briefly enjoy a position of influence with the British Government, they should be in no doubt that the Tory party, civil service mandarins and a considerable number of the British public, are holding their noses whilst doing business with them. 

Similarly, Northern Nationalists surely (if begrudgingly) must now accept that their "Irishness" is viewed in somewhat different terms to/by those citizens residing in Munster, Connaught and Leinster. 

Archaic appeals to outdated notions of exclusive affinity with both British and Irish states need to be re-cast in terms of a common, shared agency, dictated by the uniquely historical, cultural and socio-political factors pertaining to those who live within the state of Northern Ireland.

"It is an oft-stated maxim in the Republic of Ireland that the biggest impediment to Irish unity, is in fact, Sinn Fein themselves"

Until recently, the attitude of respective British and Irish governments has been to consign the Irish border question to the middle or distant future. No doubt, they remember the horrors of the near past and are concerned that any such re-emerging narrative would risk dangerous destabilisation.

Calls for an Irish border poll on the national question further risk reinforcing both division and democratic frustrations, by again reducing a complex and multi-faceted conundrum to a simple Yes/No question. Similarly, proponents of the "demographic inevitability theory", which reduces the question of national sovereignty to a sectarian head-count, make unfounded presumptions on the preference that the nationalist community will express when (eventually) in a majority. 

It is an oft-stated maxim in the Republic of Ireland – spoken from bar room to boardroom – that ironically, the biggest impediment to Irish unity, is in fact… Sinn Fein themselves. 

From RTÉ One's Six News, RTÉ Northern Editor Tommie Gorman's interview with DUP leader Arlene Foster

Sectarian-infused interpretations and ownership of the concept of "Irishness" – where the term is given to be synonymous with "Catholic, nationalist, Republican"– has done much to alienate Irish (and British) Protestants, who might otherwise be encouraged to find common cause with shared affiliations. 

Therefore, central to the premise of nurturing political courage and creativity, is the rejection of the perceived dichotomy of the "British" and "Irish" designations. That is to say, that the two are not mutually exclusive and, in keeping with the tenets of the Good Friday Agreement, dual/joint nationality should be the accepted status of all citizens in the province.

However, perhaps a third designation - that of Northern Irish - could usefully sit alongside these fixed affiliations and be actively promoted by legislators in all civic arenas.  

From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald discusses Arlene Foster's comment that the Good Friday Agreement is "not sacrosanct"

Writing over 45 years ago, Michael Sweetman stated plainly what was required: "we (in the Republic) have got to go back to 1912 and relinquish a great deal of what has happened since, in order that both parts of the country can make a new start."

He cited "consistent attempts to impose a narrow concept of Irishness, involving the primacy of Gaelic culture, the rejection of British strands in Irish traditions, and a particular view of history which made a virtue of fighting against Britain and a vice of defending British rule".

We are now in a new pending-Brexit dispensation. Despite their bluster, it is one that has disorientated unionists and undermined the very Union itself. Furthermore, the prospect of a far left Labour party with traditional ties to Sinn Féin in power in Downing Street certainly focuses the mind. 

Unionists must realise that they have a far more productive and safeguarded future with an increasingly self-confident and affluent Irish Republic

There have previously been periods when Unionism has been presented with opportunities to recalibrate their locus on the island of Ireland, largely on their own terms and from an advantageous position of strength. Now is another such opportunity. History may yet judge that their interests were more threatened by the UK’s determination to do a deal with Sinn Féin/IRA than by a negotiated future with Dublin to unite Ireland under a federal arrangement. 

Unionists must realise that they have a far more productive and safeguarded future with an increasingly self-confident and affluent Irish Republic, than they do with a Sinn Fein party, who have always been antagonistic toward them, their state and their legitimate place on the island of Ireland. To underwrite this, Irish nationalists, north and south, must also be prepared to re-examine and compromise treasured shibboleths established from the formation of the Irish state and before. 

In doing so, a new Ireland can move forward with the imagination and courage of a state no longer mired in the politically infantile legacies of the 20th century. Revolution and rebellion, and church-state controls and post-colonial inferiority complexes, must be consigned to the dustbin of history.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ