Don’t blame Newton Emerson and the Irish Times here. It’s bloody hard to find things to write about in the dog days of August. The Taliban may be terrible news for the people of Afghanistan, but for people who have to find things to write about, there’s certainly been a silver lining to that particular cloud. Nonetheless, the “should we keep the Tricolour in a United Ireland” debate still seems remarkably premature:
Sinn Féin’s position on a united Ireland is that issues such as a new flag, new anthem and Commonwealth membership “need to be looked at, need to be debated and need to be discussed”, to quote Mary Lou McDonald.
In any such discussions, however, Sinn Féin’s response on these issues will be “no, no, no”, to quote Margaret Thatcher.
Commonwealth membership, for example, is “not a proposition I would be advancing”, as McDonald put it in 2018. “But I am me – this is not all about Sinn Féin. This is bigger than us. The debate has to have the capacity to put everything on the table and then the business of debate and discussion in a reflective way, not a divisive way.”
Yet McDonald reportedly views preservation of the tricolour as a red line. If the price of unity was a new flag, would Sinn Féin turn it down?
The good news here is this: The price of unity will not be a new flag. It will be just one of the many prices. My own summer holiday this year was spent in North Antrim – one of the most beautiful parts of the island, and aside from the spectacular scenery, nice people, and good food, a visit there will teach you that our Unionist friends certainly do love their flags. Almost every lamppost was adorned with a Union Flag, a Northern Ireland flag, a Dutch flag, an Israeli flag, or one of the many variations of flags belonging to the loyal orders.
The idea of those flags being peacefully exchanged for a Tricolour seems far-fetched. Mind you, the idea of them being exchanged at all seems far-fetched.
Ultimately, unity comes down to one question: How does a “new” country accommodate a million people who want no part of it whatever, and feel as if their identity and nationality has been stolen from them – democratically, or not? It’s easy to cry “democracy” and “majority rule” – but that is exactly what happened with Brexit, for example, and the losing side in that debate still felt very disenfranchised. Imagine how you would feel, if you’re a strong nationalist, if there was somehow a majority vote in the Republic for re-unification with London, and the Union Flag started flying over Dublin Castle again.
Your fondness for democracy, one might expect, might shrink.
If, as one suspects, the flag debate is about making Unionists feel welcome in a United Ireland, it’s a fool’s errand. Unionists do not wish to be welcome in a United Ireland. Is there any doubt, after all, that they would be welcome today? No. Unionists want to be British. The challenge is not to make them feel welcome in a United Ireland, but to make a United Ireland feel sufficiently British. And, put simply, it’s going to be very hard to make a United Ireland feel even remotely as British as Northern Ireland does today. Because in any circumstances, even with a return to the commonwealth, and the Queen as head of state (a no-no, of course, for nationalists) a United Ireland will be less British than what they have today.
So, the question, then, is how British are we willing to make a United Ireland?
Personally, the idea doesn’t bother me so much – Ireland and the UK have an inextricably linked history. But then, on this question, people like me are in an extreme minority.
Ultimately, we want this island to feel like “home” for everyone who lives on it. But the challenge has always been this: The more it feels like “home” for us’uns, the less it feels like “home” for ‘them’uns. Pretending that Unity is little more than a happy ever after after 50.1% of the votes is a comforting fantasy, and pretending that it is about flags, or the NHS, or education policy, or the economics of re-unification, is just as bad.
It is about identity, and it always has been, and will be. If we want to “accommodate” Unionists, the only relevant question is “how British are we willing to become”. We should be honest enough to admit that for many of us, the answer is “not at all”, and prepare ourselves for the misery this particular ambition will unleash. Maybe it’s worth it. Some of us still need some convincing on that front.