Case for united Ireland 'needs fit-for-purpose north'

The absence of the six northern counties from an RTE graphic caused controversy

Co Down commentator Chris Donnelly argues that the accommodation of the unionist tradition must begin with nationalists fully embracing Northern Ireland's place within a united Ireland.

THE Northern Ireland state was artificially created almost a century ago with the purpose of denying the Irish people’s right to self-determination and preserving a British state presence in Ireland.

The state’s legitimacy has never been fully accepted nor embraced by a northern nationalist community perpetually vigilant against efforts by others to consciously, casually or carelessly diminish their Irishness by attaching the northern prefix or, worse, airbrush them or their land from the country. This sensitivity was evident in the recent furore over an image of Ireland minus the six counties which appeared on RTE’s Late Late Show.

Uttering the very term Northern Ireland remains a step too far for many republicans.

In Northern Ireland, our political vocabularies extend to include carefully self-vetted synonyms: whilst this state may be six counties or the north for many nationalists, it is never Ulster, the province nor a country – wee or otherwise.

Yet in this post-Good Friday Agreement/Brexit era, politics is changing rapidly.

Rigid political dogma has diminishing currency within Irish republican and nationalist thinking.

In this period, Irish unity advocates are compelled to move beyond the abstract and into the concrete with regard to advancing an Irish unity programme.

Sinn Féin’s unprecedented success in developing a credible all-Ireland political party could provide the stimulus leading to the situation where a plurality of pro-unity political parties organise and contest elections across the country, articulating visions and devising policies blurring the lines of a Brexit border.

This political generation has the opportunity to clear the path for Irish unity if the challenges and obstacles are identified and policies devised and implemented across both Irish jurisdictions to prepare the way for a successful border poll in the medium term future.

These challenges include the growth of both economies on the island, the development of an Irish NHS and accommodating unionism.

It is that formidable challenge of accommodating the British and unionist tradition that has triggered a re-evaluation of the place of the contested entity that is Northern Ireland within a united Ireland.

The continued existence of Northern Ireland in some form is a critical dimension to any viable Irish unity vision as it provides an obvious framework within which to resolve the challenges of devising power-sharing institutions and delivering parity of esteem for the British and unionist tradition alongside that of the Irish nationalist tradition within any new constitutional arrangements.

Making a shared and equal Northern Ireland work as a jurisdiction within a united Ireland compels pro-unity supporters to strive to demand and deliver that shared and equal society this side of unity. The extent to which nationalists instinctively appreciate this is evident in the voting surge for nationalist parties – and particularly Sinn Féin – in the two elections since the fall of Stormont.

But making the case for unity will entail moulding and working a fit-for-purpose Northern Irish state. Given that Northern Ireland was conceived of with the specific intent to deny northern nationalists their place in an all-Ireland sovereign state a century ago, it is somewhat ironic that many have now concluded its retention in some form will be required to reach the promised land of a united Ireland.

:: 'Six into 32? – accommodating Northern Ireland in a united Ireland' is theme for this year Lighthouse Indian Summer School at Killough Youth and Community Hall on Saturday September 23 from 11am.

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