Let me begin by stating that I am in favor of a united Ireland, and indeed have written about this in the past, here and here. In principle I do not believe in the partition of Ireland. The 1918 all-Ireland election, in which Sinn Féin won by a landslide, a result on which Ireland declared its independence, only to be rejected by the British government of the time, should have led to a free united Ireland, if said government was serious about democracy (apparently it wasn’t). Instead, it led to the War of Independence (a.k.a. the Anglo-Irish War) and partition.
The roots of the conflict in the North go back a long way (much farther than 1918 for that matter). In retrospect, did anyone really believe that a gerrymandered sectarian state (“Northern Ireland”), with “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” could work out? Or that it should? But, if we’re talking “should,” i.e. the principles of democracy and right and wrong, then there should be a united Ireland right now. But there isn’t, and thus, at least from the Irish republican perspective, there is a conflict. And thus there will in the interlude continue to be some group in Ireland, be it large or small at various points in time, willing to use violence to achieve the goal.
The question is (actually is twofold), is this an effective means of achieving the goal on the practical level, and is it morally right on the human level? In the 1990s, after three decades of the Provisional IRA prosecuting an armed campaign against British rule in the North, violence had finally come to been seen by Irish republicans (at least the majority of republicans as represented by Sinn Féin) to be a futile method of struggle at this time, in this generation. If anything, the armed struggle had actually become counterproductive to the goal it set for itself (a united Ireland), and I see absolutely no reason why it would be a different result this time around.
In terms of effective tactics, I think the recent dissident actions are setting back whatever (albeit minimal) progress toward a united Ireland we have had in the last number of years. I am frustrated by the pace of change too. But even if the dissidents were able to gain some popular support (which doesn’t seem likely at this point), and draw out the loyalist paramilitaries and the British army, what would be the result? Another stalemate, with people dying ultimately for no reason. I’m not a pacifist, but when people are dying for no reason then clearly it is wrong. And clearly it won’t bring about a united Ireland. So all that the dissidents have done and are doing is in vain, and totally pointless.
Recently, Des Dalton of Republican Sinn Féin laid out the dissidents’ reasoning, saying that
the “root cause” of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland [sic Yahoo] was Britain’s involvement on the island, which republicans want to unite.
“They’re one of the few EU members who continue to occupy the territory of another EU member. So, that will create abnormal relations between those two countries. So there will quite obviously be consequences of that,” he said.
He added: “There is a conflict in Ireland over many decades — centuries. The root cause is the British presence. So long as that exists there will be resistance to it.”
Most Irish republicans would not disagree with this analysis, but again the question is the response to it. Will the recent killings of the two British soldiers and the PSNI man help bring about a united Ireland? No. Quite the contrary. However, the dissidents hope to spark a crackdown, which would in turn perhaps create some sympathy for their movement. For example, the arrest of Colin Duffy brought “masked youths” onto the streets of Lurgan the other day. (There are suggestions that Duffy is being scapegoated, and if so then these riots could simply be expressions of justifiable anger). I’m not going to tell others how they should feel about the police, but will such a response really help to bring about a united Ireland, either? Probably not.
What will? The prospects are not immediately promising, and, again, progress has been frustratingly slow. I personally have no especial solution to the issue that hasn’t been elsewhere elucidated much better than I am able to here, I a mere poet. But there are some signs of hope.
Tim Pat Coogan recently published an opinion piece which attacked the dissident actions and again raised the issue of demographic change as a driving force toward a united Ireland. In this piece, he cited the Department of Education’s 2008-2009 Schools Census, which gives statistics showing that Catholics currently number 50.9% and Protestants 40.7%. “These schoolgoers have one thing in common,” writes Coogan. “They will all be entitled to vote when they reach 18. A Catholic majority therefore is not a Six-County electoral mirage. It is a clearly visible prospect on the political horizon. In the circumstances, there is a clear-cut political, as well as a moral, imperative for the republican extremists to allow life rather than death to achieve their objectives.”
There is also the economic argument, recently (
Irish unity is not just a dearly held republican aspiration. It is an economic imperative. In short, Irish unity makes economic sense. A considerable market of six million people exists on the island of Ireland. Over three million workers across Ireland have fuelled extraordinary economic growth in the past 10 years. Despite these developments, the continuing partition of Ireland creates impediments to economic development. These impediments cost individuals and businesses on a daily basis. They cost the island economy hundreds of millions each year. The identification and removal of these costs will create efficiencies, employment, wealth and opportunity across Ireland.... In future, Ireland north or south cannot afford to develop the island in a disjointed manner.... To ensure seamless and strategic economic development, the island of Ireland must plan and implement as one.
I think that this is true, and that both economic and demographic dynamics in Ireland will continue to push the two jurisdictions together, while hopefully in the meantime some trust will have been built between the two and various communities.
Again though, this is a slow process, and as an illustration of this, though they are the largest nationalist party in the North, in the South, Sinn Féin (using them a gauge) has only 11% support (according to the most recent poll I’ve seen). Though, it is quite possible that that number has more to do with SF as a party than with the South’s attitude toward a united Ireland, which a recent poll shows is generally favorable. Speaking realistically, however, there is on many levels widespread apathy toward the idea of a united Ireland in the South, and of course it is still outright opposed by unionists in the North (much fault has to be placed at the doorstep of the British government, who could be doing a lot more to act as persuaders to the unionists). If there was a magic, immediate solution, I guess I would be for it. But I have to admit that at the moment I can only say that time will have to take its course, just as time is on our side. Killing policemen etc. only slows the inevitable result and causes needless human suffering.