As speculation mounts over the political future of the island, there is a distinct shortage of advocacy for social, rather than geographic unity.
Thomas Makem’s famous ballad Four Green Fields is an allegory for Ireland’s four provinces, only three of which have been returned to her since independence.
The idea that Ulster — the fourth field — is still captive is the central thrust of the song.
I have four green fields,
one of them’s in bondage.
In strangers’ hands,
But a people are not a field. Northern Ireland’s next census is due next year but in the most recent one of 2011, Protestants still outnumbered Catholics by a thin margin at 48% to 45%. When asked how they identify from a national standpoint the margin is far wider: 48% identified as ‘British’ (including, it should be noted, the 14% of Ulster’s Catholics who identify this way), 29% as ‘Northern Irish’, and 28% identifying as ‘Irish’.
(Edit: of census results published September 22nd, 2022; Catholics now outnumber Protestants by a very thin margin for the first time: https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/social-affairs/2022/09/22/northern-ireland-census-results-analysis/)
Furthermore, the Unionist community, settled in Ulster for more than four centuries, are not ‘strangers’ in this land. This illustrates how artistic representations of real-life can be problematic, especially when the realities they are trying to depict are complex and nuanced.
It was, ironically, the English administration in Dublin Castle that gave us our current four-field format when they redrew the map of Ireland to reduce the number of provinces from five while also, incidentally, giving birth to that most hallowed of Irish institutions, the county.
The idea that the Unionist community are not entitled to consideration because they are not the original natives is as backward as it is facile.
Like Protestantism in general, their resistance to the idea of a United Ireland has roots in a far broader and more historical European conflict. A preliminary reading of European History will reveal some very understandable gripes on the part of Protestants throughout Europe regarding the power of the church.
A famous Unionist slogan during the pre-war of independence political campaign for a devolved government that “Home rule will be Rome rule” seems prophetic with the present’s benefit of hindsight. With homosexuality legalised in 1993, divorce in 1995, same-sex marriage in 2015, and abortion in 2018 it is inarguable that the church wielded inordinate amounts of power over the Irish state. And all of this is to say nothing of the public tax euros (that are paid by people of all faiths and of none) that flow to schools and hospitals that are still under the management of the Catholic Church. This situation is highly irregular for a democratic European nation-state.
Despite the prescience of the slogan, it should be noted that the Unionist-led Northern Irish assembly pursued almost identical policies regarding abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage with all of them being legislated for later than in the Republic. It was often impossible to distinguish between the social policies advocated by the Vatican and those advocated by the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Neither is any of this is to minimise the fact that the nationalist community were systemically discriminated against on a close to apartheid-like scale in Ulster for decades. Their insistence on civil rights entitlements on par with the Unionist community is largely what marked the commencement of the Troubles.
Nonetheless, the epidemic trope that Ulster is merely a piece of land being ‘occupied by the English’ is not only unhelpful but profoundly inaccurate. Assuming you think that, like us, the people living there should be governed with consent, then about half of the population of Northern Ireland need winning over to the idea of a United Ireland. The narrative also sneaks under the radar the suggestion that successive Westminster governments have not found Northern Ireland a burden. Without even considering the uncountable cost of human life stemming from the conflict, the province has been a net receiver of UK Exchequer funds every year since 1966, with an average annual subvention of £8.5bn stg. per year for the period 2000-2019.
The most conciliatory message to be found among Sinn Féin’s policy material is a mere five-word commitment to “continue the process of reconciliation”. This is, in fact, the only reference to reconciliation among the material whatsoever. When measured against the social and political gaps that exist; this is woefully inadequate.
Any cause for Irish unity would need to reach out to the Unionist community, concede that many of their concerns were justified in the first place, and inspire it to want to be part of a vision for a progressive Irish state fit for today and tomorrow. A vision that, crucially, would incorporate their input.
It is surprising that those who are ostensibly the most committed to uniting Ireland make almost no reference to closing these political and social gaps. In light of these political realities, talk of a geographically united Ireland smells suspiciously of virtue-signalling crocodile tears.
It seems clear that, at a bare minimum, the price of a United Ireland would be a second republic, a new flag, and most importantly: a new constitution complete with strict provisions for the separation of church and state and guarantees to respect and protect the culture of the Orange community of Northern Ireland. Even at this, the social and political unification of the island may prove impossible.
But if we are not prepared to pay these prices, then do we really desire a United Ireland as much as we act like we do?