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Opinion: 'Taoiseach, discussing a united Ireland is still possible - despite the RIC debacle'

Caoimhín de Barra looks at the possible compromises we would face if a united Ireland became a reality

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

IN THE FALLOUT from the now postponed RIC commemoration event, Leo Varadkar  said that the prospect of a united Ireland was now “further away” due to the animosity generated by the proposal.

The Taoiseach’s argument was that those who were against the event going ahead were failing to acknowledge the “shared history” of our island.

This is nonsense.

It is perfectly possible to respect different traditions in Ireland without enshrining a skewed view of the past that seeks to minimise these differences in the first place.

Are we going to expect unionists to hold events to commemorate the bravery of King James II’s army as part of their Twelfth of July celebrations?

The art of compromise

However, the spirit of what Varadkar is saying is correct in that if a united Ireland is to emerge, compromises between the two traditions will be essential.

In September Hugo MacNeill, the chairman of the British Irish Association, asked what we in the south would be willing to “give up” to accommodate unionists were a united Ireland ever to come into existence.

In the spirit of the new year and new beginnings, we should reflect on what we might be willing to “give” unionists in order to create a truly inclusive state.

At a debate in Belfast in August, Leo Varadkar said that a united Ireland would be a “different state” and that there would need to be a new constitution.

This would be a no-brainer.

In order for the new state to get acceptance on all sides, a new constitution would be absolutely necessary.

However, Bunreacht na hÉireann has numerous admirable qualities, and many of the ideas contained within it could be retained, while also simultaneously dropping some of the parts that have not aged well (Blasphemy, anyone?).

The Taoiseach also suggested that the status of the Irish language as the first official language of the State would have to be reviewed.

As someone who wrote a book calling for the language to be revived, that would be a step too far for me.

Better a 26- county state with a lukewarm attitude to the language than an all-Island polity coldly indifferent.

Yet it is obvious that some unionists have a deep dislike of the language.

Allowing students in the six counties opt out of the study of Irish and only placing bilingual road signs in areas where a majority welcome them would be a reasonable compromise.

The issue of what flag might be used would be sure to attract controversy.

In an online poll on this website in 2018, 59% of people said the Irish tricolour would be a suitable flag for a united Ireland.

Those who support retaining the tricolour point out that it represents both the nationalist and unionist tradition simultaneously and therefore would be completely appropriate.

ireland-five-nations-rugbyirish-flag-flies A new flag would be essential in a united Ireland. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

But if unionists do not feel the flag represents them, then it doesn’t represent them.

After all, Ireland is denoted in the Union Jack by the presence of the cross of Saint Patrick, but few of us would ever feel that flag does or ever could represent us. A new flag would be essential.

But what might that look like? The “four-provinces” flag would be the most straightforward solution, although many would want something entirely new.

However, designing a flag representing both traditions in a way that would win popular support would be no easy task.

It may not be Ireland’s call

Coming up with a representative national anthem would be even more challenging.

If one looks at some of the national anthems around the world that stir great emotion among those who sing them, the songs often allude to some past struggle the people of the nation endured together.

But when unionists and nationalists study Irish history, they find their ancestors were usually on the opposite sides of the various conflicts of our past.

People criticise Phil Coulter’s “Ireland’s Call”, but all things considered it isn’t a bad effort.

Without having a shared historical past to draw upon, it is difficult to craft a song that generates passion and a sense of unity that can bridge contemporary political divides.

An interesting example in this regard was the creation of a new national anthem in South Africa after the fall of apartheid in 1994.

The song is a hybrid of a Xhosa hymn with the old Afrikaans national anthem of Die Stem, and has lyrics in five different languages.

Would it be possible to create a new anthem that is a hybrid of two current songs?

Personally speaking, I would hate to have a national anthem that did not include any Irish. Some kind of bilingual song might be an ideal way to ensure all communities in Ireland feel represented.

Or perhaps the simplest solution would be to have a piece of music with no lyrics at all?

In recent years both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have adopted anthems without lyrics. The fact that they did this due to their own divisive pasts is something we should keep in mind.

But the most important thing that nationalists need to consider is what political system we would put in place to offer some level of security to unionists that their rights would not be trampled on.

When the issue of partition was first raised during the home rule debates of the early twentieth century, one suggestion put forward was that north-east Ireland would have home rule within Ireland itself.

During the 1970s, the Provisional IRA’s “Éire Nua” called for a federal Irish state, with each province having its own parliament.

Desmond Boal, one of the founders of the Democratic Unionist Party, had suggested in the early 1970s that such a federal arrangement, what he termed “Amalgamated Ireland”, might offer a possible path to unity.

Meanwhile, the late Taoiseach Albert Reynolds once suggested that 30% of government minister positions could be reserved for unionists.

A possible way forward

To these proposals, I offer my own.

Unionists could be guaranteed that their political voice would carry weight if Stormont was retained, not as a home rule parliament within Ireland, but as a second house of the Irish government.

No laws could be ratified in Ireland unless they were passed in both houses, and legislation could be introduced in either house.

By controlling a large share of the votes in the north, it would ensure that unionist concerns could not simply be ignored by politicians in the south.

Stormont would replace the Seanad as the second house of the Irish government.

This would effectively kill two birds with one stone, as the fact that many Irish people don’t have a vote in the Seanad and it includes members who are simply appointed by the government means it is something of a problematic institution from a democratic view in the first place.

While we are not at a stage where any of these decisions will have to be taken in the near future, now is certainly the time for people in the south to weigh up whether we want a united Ireland, and if so, in what ways we can ensure the success of our new state.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington.

 

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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