One of the by-now-standard responses to British inconsistency on Brexit is exasperated impatience.
That response is often delivered with a we-could-do-better sneer that barely conceals growing apprehension around the prospect of a no-deal divorce. An imploding and increasingly toxic Conservative party, led by an enfeebled Theresa May, may not be in a position to be any more precise, but that does not resolve the quandary. The pressure needle daily accelerates towards the red zone. That exasperation is expressed through the charge that a full two years after the 52/48 vote, the British position is at best mercurial. That exasperation is fed by the impression that Brextremists’ are the embodiment of an anachronistic hubris that can only be indulged as a legacy of empire. This dilemma, for everyone involved, underlines again that we should all be very careful what we wish for.
Speaking in Donegal, last Friday, the former Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson, raised a prospect that makes that be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning absolutely relevant. He suggested that preparations should be made for the possibility of a united Ireland. Naturally, he was excoriated by some never-never-never Unionists. Ulster Unionist Party’s Reg Empey said “he is becoming a Sinn Féin echo chamber”. That response, as revealing as it is tribal, is to be expected, but the spirit of Mr Robinson’s suggestion seems to reach over that Lambeg-beating knee-jerk reaction. He seems to ask a very hard question:
Would we, despite nearly 100 years of independence, be able to reach beyond our version of the never-never-never door-slamming and make a united Ireland work for everyone on this island?
Would we avoid the kind of triumphalism that means the Union Jack cannot be flown over Belfast city hall, except on designated days? Could we Forget Skibbereen, rather than Remember Skibbereen, or at least not disinter the many
undoubted horrors and injustices of the long-ago to build a 32-county Ireland that properly reflects the potential and legitimate expectations of everyone on this island? Would we be prepared to change our flag and our anthem? How would we react to a suggestion that our State broadcaster might not broadcast the Angelus twice a day? Even if those questions remain entirely academic today, and will remain so for the immediate future, they demand answers — unless we want to be like Brexiteers, caught in the headlight of an unexpected, but oncoming train. Have we considered the level of real cultural compromise, everything from school curriculums to hospital management, needed to make unification work?
These, of course, are not new questions, but they have been ignored by the great majority of people in this Republic for generations. Like today’s heavily-politicised Irish language, they, for many live-and-let-live republicans, are associated with the ambitions and campaigns of the anti-democratic forces that did so much to undermine this democracy. Maybe it’s time for those of us who instinctively shy away from these divisive issues to take Mr Robinson’s advice and re-engage with the possibility of a united Ireland, so that dream might not be hijacked and become a Brexit-scale nightmare.