When Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and joint First Minister of Northern Ireland, told a BBC documentary in 2018 that she would “probably have to move” in the event of Irish reunification, the political and media response was relatively muted. The primary reaction was, well, she would say that wouldn’t she? The follow-on reaction concerned the move itself, people speculating on a relocation to south-west Scotland or the north of England in the wake a successful referendum to reunite the country. That initial statement by the Fermanagh politician seemed fairly innocuous, if somewhat dispiriting for those of us who hope that the reintegration of the diverse communities in the Six Counties will further enhance the civic plurality of the Republic. However the DUP leader has gone on to repeat that prediction of forced emigration, most recently in an interview with RTÉ, as reported by the Belfast Telgraph:
…if there was a vote in favour of a united Ireland, the DUP leader said she would leave her home.
“Because I do not think I would feel comfortable and that is why I would leave… because what’s the point in staying in a place where I do not feel comfortable and where your identity would not be something that would be respected?
“I cannot see how I could be British in Fermanagh, in a united Ireland, because by the very definition, you are no longer British because you are living in an all-Ireland state.”
The problem with Arlene Foster’s claims on this issue is that they seem less like a personal preference and more like a grave warning for unionists in general. If one of the main leaders of the pro-union minority in the north-east of the island is by implication claiming that her community has no place in a reunited state and would be forced to abandon their homes and their jobs for a new life outside the country, then one can only imagine what perilous seeds are being planted in the minds of ordinary people who presently identify as solely unionist and British.
It was upon such sentiment that the logic of ethno-separtism was constructed in the disparate states of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. If the national and cultural identity of nominally distinct populations was to be maintained and protected in the face of dramatically changing constitutional arrangements, if one were to remain Serbo-Yugoslavian in regions no longer part of Serbia or Yugoslavia, then certain actions were required. Actions that would secure the interests of one community while limiting or eliminating the interests of competing or overlapping communities.
While I’m not comparing Arlene Foster to the malevolent figures who led the Balkans into bloodshed and anarchy at the end of the 20th century, I am pointing out that her words can have an impact far beyond her initial meaning. If, as the leader of the DUP claims, there is no future for unionists in a reunited Ireland, that no accommodation can be made for their distinctiveness, then the debate over the constitutional future of the north becomes an existential one. A literal matter of communal life or death, where the only choice is to cease to be or to seek exile and refuge elsewhere.
And that, I very much fear, is the same logic that permeated the minds of the armed men who brought such savagery and barbarism to towns like Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia during the 1990s. Unlike the powers of the traditional Irish satirist, words might not kill – but they can certainly inspire those who do kill. And unionist leaders, like their nationalist counterparts, should be much more careful with the words that they use in the coming transformative years.