A few weeks ago I found myself spending the night in Belfast, something I rarely do. I know a dozen European capitals intimately, but it was probably only the third or fourth time in my life that I had spent a day or night in the nearest capital to Dublin. As I gazed out of my hotel window at the old Harland & Wolff shipyard, with verses from poems by Derek Mahon and Louis MacNeice running through my head, I started to think I might have been too hard on this place. It was certainly more picturesque than I remembered, I thought, as I strolled through the nearby English Market, among the Saturday crowds devouring coconut lattes and vegan baps.
However, later that evening, as I was walking along Ormeau Road, I had a reality check. The road itself, and the small terraced streets that border it, were adorned with union flags and red-handed Ulster banners. My American walking mate joked that the flag of a future united Ireland could be a tricolor with the red hand in the middle. I was about to explain that the tricolor was technically already the flag of a united Ireland, when I realized that she had put her finger on an important point. Currently, the tricolor is the official flag of the Republic of Ireland, as well as a flag used by nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Whenever I see a union jack, whether in Belfast or London, I feel a certain atavistic revulsion for the “Butcher’s Apron”, so I can easily understand how the Unionist community has the same reaction towards the Habs. As such, it can in no way be the flag of a united Ireland. The point is that the very idea of a united Ireland is already a mistaken and doomed concept.
This summer, I spent a few weeks in a village in Catalonia that I have been visiting for 35 years. I have had many arguments and discussions with Catalan friends and acquaintances, and I have detected a deeply disturbing trend towards extremism. There is wide acceptance, even among Catalan nationalists, that at this time there is probably no majority in Catalonia in favor of independence, which is why the illegal and provocative referendum of 2017 was so reckless. But the problem is that the “Catalan” ethnic minority, or at least those I’ve spoken to – don’t really accept the legitimacy of what is now the majority. The current minority seems to imply that the children and grandchildren of people who have emigrated to Catalonia within the last hundred years from the rest of Spain, and identify as Spanish, or in many cases as both Spaniards and Catalans, are somehow disabled and should have less say in the future of the place where they were born.
The hopes of the Catalan nationalists rest on obtaining a tiny majority for independence in a future referendum. But would that give them legitimacy to impose their vision of Catalonia on the other 49% of the population, who have a very different vision in terms of language and culture? The Irish parallels are clear. If a border poll in Ireland resulted in a 51% majority for nationalists, would that lend legitimacy to the concept of a united Ireland – would it become more of a reality? Do supporters of a border poll ever think that they are just replicating the behavior of the people who founded Northern Ireland as a sectarian state 100 years ago?
We can all agree that Northern Ireland was born in pogroms and sectarian counts, and its centenary should be mourned rather than commemorated. It’s like commemorating Confederation. President Michael D Higgins was right in his position and the citizens of the Republic seem to agree with him. We all know, even if some argue otherwise, that Northern Ireland is not, never has been and never will be an integral part of the UK like Tunbridge Wells is. Why else did the British government give trade unionists their own government and state in 1921, and not the Scots and Welsh? But the fact that trade unionists have so many illusions about the last century does not invalidate their emotions. They have the right not to live in a united Ireland.
When Irish nationalists speak of “reunifying” Ireland, what do they mean? When was Ireland ever “united” except in the context of British rule? So what would a united Ireland look like? A Republic in the broad sense? A Christy Moore fantasy about Irish manners and Irish laws? At this point so many people have killed or been killed for a united Ireland that it has become a flawed concept.
If you really want a united Ireland, based on unity rather than counting, now is the time to stop talking about it.
Michael O’Loughlin is an American writer and poet