A longer guest post by Mark Petticrew, a politics’ student at the University Of Ulster Jordanstown, examining the contrasting obstacles British unionism places in the way of constitutional progress in Ireland and Scotland. Mark blogs about politics and history here.
A Reunited Ireland And The Rejectionist Politics Of Northern Unionism
Irish unification and Scottish independence both involve a constitutional exit from the United Kingdom, either in part or in whole, but the northern context of Irish unity differs markedly from the Scottish question. The debate surrounding the 2014 independence referendum was no romanticised notion of Scotland the brave sending proud Edward’s army homeward tae think again. Rather it was a rational scrutiny of Scotland’s constitutional future.
The former SNP leader and first minster Alex Salmond said to the Scots that they would be £1,000 richer in an independent Scotland. The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander returned Salmond’s serve with a counter-claim that Scots would be £1,400 better off sticking with the UK. These assertions weren’t just made for the craic. They were ultimately tailored to an economistic Scottish electorate. As Professor John Curtice noted, the people of Scotland were going to “need more than just their sense of identity to decide how they are going to vote”.
In the north-east of Ireland, however, it is that very “sense of identity” which is an ever-present factor in relation to the constitutional question. A 2015 Behaviour & Attitudes cross-border opinion poll illustrated this as 91% of Irish-identifying participants stated their support for Irish unity in the long-term, whilst 94% of British-identifying participants wanted to remain within the so-called union for the foreseeable future.
Sinn Féin recently published a discussion paper called ‘Towards a United Ireland’ which included some unionist overtures, but it has predictably fallen on deaf ears. Similarly, a March report carried out by academics at the University of British Columbia claimed the economy of a reunited Ireland would grow in GDP by £25.4bn in the first 8 years after reunification. However it was met with similar unionist derision. Critics have called out the reunification proposals for a lack of substance, whilst others have pointed out that SF aren’t exactly the most unionist-friendly advocates of the Irish unity agenda. It is a struggle, however, to get all that bothered about the particular minutiae of content or about who could possibly be a better suited messenger for Irish unity, for it is all beside the point – northern unionists just don’t want to know.
Unionist outreach on a reunited Ireland is stifled by the very nature of northern unionism itself, as it is effectively a form of British nationalism. The binary usage of ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ in Irish political discourse inadvertently disguises the fact that unionism is an ideological nationalism of its own. It is not just a mere ‘pro-union’ point of view; it’s a culturally-intertwined political identity. The combined share of the vote for pan-unionist parties in northern elections from 2011 averages at 48.7%, whilst 48.4% of those in the Six Counties claimed a British identity in the 2011 Census. It is reflective of northern unionism’s UK-centric outlook that the collective vote for political unionism is practically mirrored by those who claimed a British identity.
Interestingly, a larger proportion of northerners identify as British compared to the census figures in Scotland (26.7%), Wales (26.3%) and even England (29.1%). This brings us to the ironic position whereby British sentiment exists to a far greater degree in the north of Ireland than it does in the entirety of the island of Britain. Simon Kuper has said that “places like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands have more symbols of Britishness than many areas in the UK, where ostentatiously displaying union jacks might be seen as old-fashioned or embarrassing”. Kuper’s analogy could be applied just as well to the United Kingdom itself when you compare northern unionists to the inhabitants of the UK ‘mainland’.
The 2015 B&A poll drew a telling result, finding that 55% of northerners rejected Irish reunification even if there was a financial incentive to support it. Notably, of those with a British identity who participated in this particular question, an overwhelming majority of them rejected it (90%). Contrast this to a 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey which found that if they were £500 richer, only 37% of Scots sampled would still reject independence. This highlights a key distinction between northern Irish and Scottish unionism. Whereas George Eaton noted that Scots were motivated more so by ‘self-interest, not sentimentality‘, unionists in Ireland exhibit an innate emotional attachment to Britain itself, and therefore approach the constitutional question through a prism of identity rather than a monetary lens. After all, they are loyal to the Crown, not the pound.
Opinion polling on support for Irish unity was carried out by Ipsos MORI and LucidTalk in September, with 26% and 31% favouring reunification, respectively. In contrast, support for the union was at 74% and 69%. Pan-unionist parties garnered 48.2% of the vote in the 2016 Assembly election, indicating that there is more to the pro-UK coalition than simple political unionism. Namely, those who support the union for reasons other than ‘flegs’. It is this constituency of people (not sentimentally unionist but practically pro-union) who could be persuaded of an alternative to the current constitutional status quo in the form of Irish unification.
But let’s not delude ourselves about northern unionists; by and large they are just not interested. They are not interested in an end to partition, or to the centuries of colonial governance which informs their own ethno-national identity. 40% of British-identifying northerners according to the 2015 B&A poll said they wanted a return to direct rule from Westminster, effectively rejecting even the half-way house of regional power-sharing. Indeed, Nigel Dodds’ embrace of Theresa May’s plan for a ‘red, white and blue‘ Brexit is expressive of a wider ‘red, white and blue‘ unionism in the north of Ireland that is ideological opposed to Irish unity under any circumstances. In light of these contrasting contexts, the job ahead for pro-unity activists in Ireland is far harder and more complex than compared to that of Scotland’s independence campaigners.