An old vision of a new Ireland

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Ahead of the Uniting Ireland conference in the Millennium Forum at the end of the month, organised by Sinn Féin, former RUC inspector Norman Hamill writes that the partition of Ireland was a mistake for unionists and argues that it is not to late to build a modern, inclusive, re-unified nation.

Wouldn’t it be good to put an end the long conflict between Orange and Green?

The Good Friday Agreement is an interim solution. It’s a big step along the way. We can choose our national identity. We can see ourselves as Irish or British or both. Structures are in place to safeguard our differing identities. The big questions about the longer term can be left to the democratic process.

Unionists and nationalists are free to seek support for their respective causes. Those of us who want to see the re-unification of Ireland have the chance, hopefully in a non-threatening atmosphere, to try to win new friends and to influence new people. It’s an opportunity we would be foolish to waste.

The Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast in 1791. Its leading members were Presbyterians. Their aim was to unite Irishmen of all creeds to achieve reform and to break the link with England. In Tone’s famous words they wanted, “to substitute the common name of Irishmen in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”. While it is true that the majority of Presbyterians were much less radical, even today a fair number of Presbyterians, including myself, are proud that their ancestors were active in the revolutionary movement, even though more recent ancestors tended to be unionists. (One kinsman escaped from the army by floating down the Bann in a barrel.)

Is it a paradox that an ex-cop can express admiration for ancestors who played their part in the ‘armed struggle’? I can only say that at as a police officer I wasn’t following any political agenda. In any case, I’m a republican of the constitutional variety.

The partition of this island was a mistake for unionists, an injustice for nationalists and a tragedy for Ireland.

For unionists it was a mistake, although they did have rational concerns. Their fear that “Home rule would be Rome Rule” was substantially vindicated. Nationalist Ireland didn’t really try to separate church and state. Politicians were overly deferential to the bishops. Could this have happened if partition hadn’t happened?

I don’t think so. A confident and assertive, much larger Protestant minority would have secured genuinely pluralist independence. Instead, unionists demeaned themselves by allowing themselves to be motivated by fear. They clung to the coat tails of their already out-of-date notion of England. The English didn’t want them and felt no reciprocal loyalty to them.

The people of this island have the right to determine their own future without interference.

For this reason, nationalists who found themselves within the separated area had a real sense of injustice.

Lastly, partition was a tragedy for Ireland because it distorted both parts of the country. The south initially became a narrow, right-of-centre, agrarian theocracy. Meanwhile, the north acquired its “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. It became an unhealthy statelet contaminated by sectarianism. Without partition, a genuinely pluralist nation would have developed much sooner. And diversity could have been the ‘salt’ to ensure higher standards in public life.

Despite today’s grave financial crisis, the Republic’s modern industrial base remains strong.

The north no longer has an industrial base. Most unionists don’t realise that, despite a slow start, self-government in Ireland has been an economic success.

It’s not too late to put things right. Both parts of the country have grown further and further apart but we shouldn’t give up on the vision of a modern, tolerant, successful and re-united Ireland.