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The Reopening of the Irish Question

The historic prospect of Irish unification is now greater than it has been in decades. But it won’t succeed unless campaigners offer a clear and compelling picture of what a united Ireland will look like.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on February 19, 2019 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty

It should be the aim of every public figure to navigate their professional life so as not to cause a “Controversies” tab to be added to their Wikipedia page. The UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, has not managed to escape such a fate, and two of the three controversies attributed to her relate to her tenure as Northern Ireland secretary. Back in September, she admitted she had no idea, prior to accepting the post, that Irish nationalists voted for nationalist parties and British unionists vote for unionist parties — the most obvious and basic facet of politics in the North.

Now, Bradley has been forced to “clarify” comments she made about deaths of civilians during The Troubles, the three decades of communal violence in Northern Ireland that formally ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. After initially claiming that British soldiers who had killed civilians had not committed crimes — they were “people fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way … They were people acting under orders” — she attempted to row back on the comments within half an hour, before claiming the following day, “I do not believe what I said, that is not my view.” Regardless, her comments are widely seen as so out of touch and incendiary that calls for her resignation still refuse to abate.

The comments come during the inquest into the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre, which saw eleven people killed by soldiers over three days, and shortly before a decision is set to be reached on whether to charge soldiers over fourteen killings in the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre. Briege Voyle, the daughter of Ballymurphy victim Joan Connolly, condemned the comments outside the Belfast coroners court. “We had to sit in there yesterday, me and my sisters, and listen to the horrific things that those soldiers did to my mummy. Blew half her face off, shot her in the thigh, shot her in the hand,” she said. “And she’s telling me these soldiers did this with dignity? Where was the dignity in that?” The relatives of victims of British soldiers don’t consider their family members to have been murdered in a “dignified and appropriate way,” and such comments would ordinarily be a swift resigning issue for a minister.

The row lands just as attention is focused on Britain’s attitude towards Ireland, both the North and the Irish Republic. The attitude of Conservatives towards the border issue and the proposed Irish “backstop” — the fallback plan to avert a hard border between the two parts of Ireland after Britain’s looming departure from the EU — has been embarrassingly ill-informed; Bradley, rather than being an anomaly, is typical in her cluelessness. Mentions of Irish issues in parliament remain relatively rare. Tories are more likely to make bizarre jibes claiming Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell supported the IRA, rather than dwell on the fact that greater advocacy for and attention to Irish rights might have prevented the lack of education currently causing such a furor. Shortly before the EU referendum, I asked a civil servant what contingency plans were in place in case of a vote to leave the EU, and in turn, what that would mean for the border in Ireland. They laughed, saying no plans had been made because the UK would vote to stay in Europe. The current stalemate over an EU withdrawal agreement is directly attributable to the Conservatives’ arrogance and utter failure to plan for political eventualities.

In Brussels last week, at a Sinn Féin conference on Irish unity at the European Parliament, the general mood among attendees and speakers from a broad range of political and social backgrounds was that a border referendum was inevitable, and reunification more likely than ever. This was partly due to the work nationalists have done to keep the issue on the political agenda, but in no small part the inevitable result of a Conservative Party that treats the entirety of Ireland as an inconvenience, refusing to engage with its history and refusing to seriously consider the rights of the population. Regular suggestions that the Republic join the United Kingdom in order to “solve” the border problem are as offensive as they are ahistorical, serving only to convince Irish citizens that the general English populace are entirely ignorant and anti-Irish, preferring pig-headed nationalism and tired jingoistic fantasies to any serious engagement with the politics of Britain and Ireland.

But while a border poll is almost certainly on the cards, independence for the North is not an inevitability. Academic Peter Shirlow, who comes from a Unionist background and invoked the views of other unionists he knows, spoke convincingly of what he termed “the floating fifth” of voters who might vote either way: winning over this 20 percent requires a vision of what a united Ireland will look like. That involves addressing the fact that the National Health Service in the North is far superior to the health care system in the Republic, and free at the point of use, for all citizens; that housing costs in the North are cheaper, and unlike Dublin, Belfast is not in the grip of a cataclysmic housing crisis; that the Republic now has the abortion and equal marriage rights that the North still does not; that Dublin has been used as a tax haven for years, and that not everyone across the island wishes to remain in the EU.

With the failure of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the wind has been knocked out of the sails of the national question. Many in Scotland are still working for independence, but when asked privately, everyone admits they cannot see it happening now. The national conversation has moved on, the movement has been left demoralized, and the realization is setting in that 2014 was a once in a lifetime opportunity but that the window has now closed. Reunifying Ireland requires very careful campaigning that puts forward a clear and democratic blueprint for what a united Ireland will look like, and how it can respect the identity and rights of those who consider themselves British.

Politicians in Westminster are helping by behaving with absolute willful abandon, refusing to learn even basic historical facts. But campaigners in Ireland should learn from the Scottish experience and make plans for all possible outcomes — as Westminster failed to do for Brexit.