Beating a broken drum on Irish unity

Sinn Féin is planning a march in Dublin this weekend (3 September) in support of a united Ireland. A counter-march is being organised by unionists in Belfast, opposing a united Ireland. Both sides are beating a broken drum.

There is already Irish unity. The people of Ireland are united in favour of the proposition that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland could change only with the agreement of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland. This means there cannot be a unified state in Ireland without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland. The vast majority (85 per cent) of the people on this island voted in 1998 in favour of this, when approving of the Good Friday Agreement.

The vast majority are also united on the issue of the use of violence. They are agreed that the use of violence here for political reasons is unacceptable. They are united on freedom of religious belief and practice.

So why is the unity of the State so important? Indeed why does it matter at all? What is so bad about there being two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, one of them tied constitutionally, economically and otherwise to Britain, given that is what the majority of the people in that other jurisdiction want, provided of course there is justice and equality in both jurisdictions?

We could have constitutional unity, whether in a federal or unitary state, but disunity on several other matters of greater importance. There is deep disunity in this (southern) State on issues that matter more than constitutional unity, for instance disunity on the meaning, importance and substance of fairness. Some people think there is no fairness and can be no fairness with the vast disparities of wealth that pertain here. Others disagree and argue such disparities of wealth from an inherent entitlement to the fruits of one's own labour, or skill or ability or that such disparities of wealth are good for society as a whole for they drive the impulse for wealth creation generally.

There is deep division on, for instance, the use of Shannon as a pit-stop for the American war machine in Iraq. Some people approve of this, because they approve of the war or because they believe we have to show our appreciation in this way for American investment here and American political support for the Irish peace process or whatever. Others think any complicity in an illegal war is wrong and should be stopped, whatever the consequences.

Some believe that substantial subsidisation of "high" arts favoured by the cultural elite – theatre, opera, classical music, art – is a signal of our "civilisation". Others think this is bogus and merely a further manifestation of the State favouring an elite, at the expense of people with other cultural preferences.

So on many issues of central importance to society there is deep disunity – a disunity of greater consequence than the political/constitutional unity of the island of Ireland.

It is argued that the political/constitutional unity is central to our identity as a "nation". But what does it mean? Why is our identity as a people (a) important and (b) contingent on political/constitutional unity? What does it mater if one were to identify more strongly with, for instance, Limerick or Carlow, or the Liberties, or with the Dublin football team, or Manchester United, or Cobh Ramblers, than one identifies with "Ireland"?

Anyway, if one wants to identify with "Ireland", why should the existence of two jurisdictions make a difference one way or another? Are, for instance, the supporters of the Tyrone or Armagh football teams less Irish because they live in another jurisdiction?

This is not just a semantic issue, because issues of identity can be disruptive, indeed explosive. Were the notion to catch hold (a) that Irish identity is of crucial importance and (b) that this can be realised only in the context of political and constitutional unity, it would stir a hornet's nest that we thought had been tranquilised.

The very fact that the Sinn Féin march for Irish unity has prompted a counter-march should give warning of that. Best leave these nests undisturbed.

vincent browne