A United Ireland could be very divided

What would a United Ireland look like? Would it mean the end of the Irish language? Would we see King Billy’s Day competing with dear old St Patrick? Would a bunch of nutjobs be put in charge of the whole shebang?

The prospect of a United Ireland has inched closer, due to the Brexit farrago. There is much talk of a border poll, if not in the immediate future, then certainly in the medium term. This week, the GAA was dragged into the issue. On Sunday, Jarlath Burns, a former Armagh footballer and a serious and senior figure in the association, threw in his tuppence worth.

He believes the GAA should put the shoulder to the wheel in any effort to reclaim the fourth green field.

“The GAA’s basic aim, it states the association is a national organisation, which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the national identity in a 32-county Ireland, through the presentation and promotion of Gaelic Games,” he told RTÉ radio’s This Week programme.

“That doesn’t make us neutral on the issue of a border poll, it gives us a position on a border poll and a position that I, as a GAA member in a border county, would like to think that, from a logical, as well as an ideological, perspective that the GAA would have a strong position on.”

Mr Burns’ interpretation of the GAA’s aims is interesting. He references a provision that was included in the association’s formation document in 1884. The world, and even the islands of Britain and Ireland, have been hugely reshaped since then. Putting a modern spin on a historic document, which was written for very different times, is reminiscent of the Americans who reference the US constitutional provision on the right to bear arms.

That was written in 1787, at a time when militias were defending their communities from the British, just as the GAA was founded when this country was suppressed under the hammer of imperialism. On Monday, Joe Brolly went a distance further. He feels the GAA should actively campaign for a border poll and a United Ireland. Joe pointed out that nationalists, and particularly GAA members, in the North had to live with the DUP.

“These are nutjobs,” he said of that party. “Climate change is a fantasy, they are homophobic. Same-sex marriage is an abomination. They are Creationists.”

He also mentioned “the scorn the DUP has been pouring on the Irish language”.

Joe is a barrister of some repute and a compelling pundit, but he’d never make a salesman. He is pushing for a United Ireland by telling us, down in the South, that we should invite these “nutjobs” to operate out of a Dublin parliament and have an influence on the life of the whole island.

The prospect of reunification has resonance with the yearning that drove the Brexit project. Real issues and problems are subsumed by a primal belief in a form of nationalism. The Brexiteers’ nationalism harks back to the days of the empire, while the Irish version appears to imagine that a 32-county Ireland would be the culmination of a vision espoused on the steps of the GPO on Easter Monday 1916.

Except, we’ve all moved on. In the proclamation, Padraig Pearse and his co-signatories gave lip service to the unionist constituency on the island with a reference to “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. (Contrary to legend, that passage had nothing to do with children, but was directed at the Protestant minority.)

The signatories could cherish all they wanted, but an island Gaelic and free would have, for the minority, translated as an anti-Protestant hellhole, where they would take on the ragged cloak of the oppressed. Today, were the country to reunify in a manner that would be civil rights-proofed and free of violence, a lot would have to be done to ease the passage for unionists into a United Ireland.

So, how might a 32-county Republic differ from the 26-county Republic?

Realistically, the tricolour would have to go. So, too, a national anthem that glories in wading through the blood of the Albion foe. Both are toxic symbols to the unionists. Compulsory Irish in schools would also cause major problems.

The ghost of Peig Sayers would never forgive us, but such are the compromises in a nation’s onward march to its destiny. If, as Joe Brolly asserts, the main unionist party has contempt for the Irish language, there is no chance they would agree to it being compulsory in education.

Economically, the thorniest issue would be reshaping the North’s economy. Apart from the €10bn that Westminister subvents annually, the statelet has an approach to providing employment for the public sector that resonates with the Republic’s attitudes in the 1930s and ’40s. A lot of jobs-for-the-sake-of-jobs would have to be found. Admittedly, this heroic feat was undertaken in the Republic back in 2004 when the HSE was formed, but we’re talking about an infinitely bigger scale.

Then, there’s the politics.

In the interests of parity of esteem, it might be necessary to fly the union flag atop Leinster House for a few weeks every year. And RTÉ could be compelled to give prime airtime to the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day, to acknowledge the minority tradition in this bright, new, shining Republic.

Was it for this the men of ’16 went out and died? Party politics would be another can of soup. Let’s say Sinn Féin’s support in the North wanes, because its brief, to carry the nationalist flag, will be redundant.

We could, realistically, have the unionists in permanent power, as the half-party that would alternately prop up Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The nutjobs would be in the driving seat, pushing for a return to Creationism and repeal of same-sex marriage legislation.

Just as Peig would be abandoned in the middle of the Atlantic, so Adam and Eve would be arriving to big-up religion in its primal form. The whole thing is a potential nightmare. But all is not completely lost. We in the South do have some experience, in recent years, of welcoming and even integrating into our daily lives aspects of Northern peculiarities.

Look at the blanket defence in Gaelic football, a design that was cooked up among the Ulster counties. When it first reared its head in Croke Park, Pat Spillane called it puke football.

Now, everybody is doing it. Spectators may be sick as dogs at the sight of it, but the proliferation of the blanket defence is testimony to Northern application and hard-boiled temperament. So don’t lose hope about how a United Ireland might look.

It won’t be pretty, but it might make some people happy. For now, though, might be better to just keep the head down.

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