Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Picture the scene: the new National Assembly of Ireland-stroke-Dail Eireann meets for the first time, gathering to be addressed by President Kenny and King Charles III. The new national anthem, Two Peoples, One Country, written by Bono, is sung awkwardly by the assembled group, all reading from hymn sheets. In the Dail chamber, the new flag of the country, a South African style pointing to the future arrow affair made up of green, white, orange, blue and red is put into place alongside the tricolour and (at the insistence of unionists) the UK flag. Both heads of state deliver part of their speeches in English, Irish and Ulster Scots, the three official languages. In the United Nations, a new country name is slotted into place: the Federal Union of Ireland. In Dublin, civil servants correct official documents to reflect the fact that many of the former unionist politicians were bought off with various titles, and we are now a country with Sirs and Lords in official life. To wrap up the day in the traditional manner, the Canadian Ambassador punches someone.
It’s not unreasonable to suspect that there is something in the above paragraph that will get up the nose of either unionists or nationalists. But it also raises the fact that when the issue of a united Ireland is raised publicly, as it was last week by the Taoiseach, its’ proponents have usually given little thought to the actual details.
There’s an almost Trump-like approach to the issue, where questions are met with “It’ll be great!” followed by louder singing of rebel songs. Is there a single leader of nationalist Ireland who would be willing to list out, in detail, the actual things that we as a country would have to concede to unionists in return for their widespread consent?
As it happens, even the idea of seeking widespread consent from unionists is controversial, with too many nationalists believing in the Putin/Erdogan idea that 50.1% of the vote gives you a right to ride absolutely roughshod over the other 49.9%. We know this is a dumb idea because we’ve seen it ourselves in the north of Ireland from 1922 to the Good Friday Agreement, and how it not only doesn’t work but actually makes things worse.
The truth is that even if there is a hair-splitting majority of voters in Northern Ireland in favour of a united Ireland, unionists will still have a blocking veto on what the new Ireland will look like. They’ll have demands, and if we are to convince a million unionists that this is their country too, we’re going to have to concede big.
Just recall the indignation that something as minor (yes, it is) as re-joining the Commonwealth attracts. That’s at the very bottom of concessions. Wait until we need a new national anthem, flag, name, or have to recognise in a new constitution how important the British sovereign is to a section of, yes, our people. Wait until we find the DUP demanding that the Northern Assembly has a veto over the removal of the 8th amendment.
Then there is the honours system. How do we feel about having a Lord as Taoiseach-stroke-Prime Minister of Ireland? What about the compulsory teaching of Irish in the north and Ulster Scots to our children in our schools, a language which, let’s be polite, most of the south doesn’t even accept is a language as much as the soundtrack to an episode of Rab C Nesbitt.
All this before we get into the meat and potatoes of how we fund this. If I have learnt one thing in the last ten years of Irish politics, it’s that the Irish people are plain lying when they say they are willing to pay extra taxes for a noble cause.
An Irish government would be wise to test that support in the one place where the Irish always tell the truth not to pollsters or their politicians but to themselves: their wallets. A government that announced a new unity levy on VAT and PAYE to build up a ring-fenced reserve to pay for a future reconnected Northern Ireland in advance of a referendum on reunification would certainly put every nationalist party in a bind. It’s one thing to belt them out at the top of one’s lungs at closing time, but quite another thing to happily put one’s hand in one’s pocket for the privilege. It’ll be fun watching the anti-tax parties (i.e. all of them) dance a jig around the issue. They can hardly claim double taxation on this one, although I’ve no doubt that some will suggest that the EU, US or even the Brits should and will somehow pay for it all.
Perhaps we It could even put that proposal to the people in a pre-unity referendum, a straight forward “put your money where your mouth is, Irish” to the voters.
Would it pass? Maybe it would. Perhaps I’m just too cynical to see the patriotic passion that a possible united nation once again means to so many. But given they’re not so hot on paying for clean water coming out of their own taps, forgive me if I remain sceptical about voters in the republic taxing themselves extra to guarantee loyalists the NHS.