Nation-state: A country which consists of one people/ethnic group
Empire: A country where one ethnic group dominates others
Multinational state: A country which consists of several ethnicities without any one dominating
In most discussions about a United Ireland, the focus is on Northern Ireland and how it would change society there. Southerners generally view the issue as something for Northerners to decide as it will primarily affect them. However, little thought is given to how a United Ireland would fundamentally change the Republic of Ireland and how we view ourselves as Irish people. We must consider this issue very carefully because if we make the wrong choice we could end up repeating the mistakes of the past, but this time with the roles reversed.
A United Ireland would mean that the Republic would no longer be a nation-state. I have given a simple definition of the three forms of political institutions available that we will have to choose from (obviously the precise definition varies but the principle is well known in political theory). At the moment, Ireland is a nation-state, the state exists to represent, protect and benefit Irish people. It is a state for Irish people and no one else. Immigration has caused a rethinking of what it means to be Irish, but it has not undermined this fundamental point.
However, a united Ireland would. You see, in a 32 county Republic, there would no longer be just one nation, but two. The addition of Protestants/Unionists/Ulster-Scots (however you wish to call them) would mean the state could no longer act solely in the interest of Irish people. Ireland would have to choose between being an Empire or a Multinational state.
Some people would find the idea of Ireland being an empire completely ridiculous, but I am not using the word to mean ‘powerful country’ as it often colloquially is, but rather in the political theory sense of ‘one nation that rules others’. I’m sure many will still resist the term, after all, throughout our history, haven’t we always been opposed to empires? We have been the oppressed, not the oppressor. While it is true that in the past the Irish were excluded from power and could never oppress another people, this won’t be the case in a united Ireland. Believing us Irish could never oppress anyone else is as naïve as thinking someone who was bullied could never bully someone else (when this is actually very common) or that because we have suffered in the past, we could never inflict suffering on others (the IRA disproved this point). It is naïve to believe that your side in a war would never commit atrocities, but in reality, everyone is capable of abusing their power.
Some might feel that there is no major difference between Unionists and Nationalists, that deep down we are all Irish. While this might be well-intentioned, denying their identity is a recipe for trouble. Presuming Unionists will naturally assimilate or pushing them to do so, is no better than the attempts by the English to force Irish people to assimilate into a British identity. This was resisted where possible and resented when successful (such as with the decline of the Irish language). Protestants will want to maintain their separate identity and cannot be wished away (or told to leave for England). British rulers of Ireland believed that improving the economic status of the Irish (such as through land reform) would undermine Irish nationalism and make the population loyal to London, but as we all know, that wasn’t the case. Why should we then presume that economic reasons would be enough to undermine Unionism and make them loyal to Dublin?
A clear example of this is with the Irish language. At the moment, it is the first official language of Ireland and strongly promoted by the state. But Ulster-Scots do not see it as their language and are resistant to efforts to promote it. How would a united Ireland treat mandatory teaching of Irish in schools? We could go down the Empire route of insisting that all students, regardless of ethnicity, must learn Irish, but this would provoke major resistance from Unionists. Many students would flat out refuse and what would we do with them? Fail them? Expel them? Alternatively, we could go down the multinational route and make Irish optional. But optional for everyone or just Unionists? How could someone prove their membership of the Unionist community, by religion? By heritage? By school? Would we not end up in a situation where there were two types of citizens? The Irish and the Ulster-Scots? We don’t like the idea of forcing our culture and language on other people, but I don’t think we are willing to give up on the language either.
Our view of history and ourselves would have to change as well. The state currently draws its origin from the Easter Rising and War of Independence and considers the rebels as heroes who fought for Irish freedom. But Protestants will never celebrate the IRA (even the 1921 version) because their ancestors fought on the other side. Their history doesn’t celebrate the rebels like ours does, so whose would have to change? If we were an Empire we would force our heroes onto them, but if we were a multinational state we would celebrate their heroes too. But what Irish person could celebrate Cromwell and the Black and Tans? It’s impossible to imagine statues to British soldiers being erected in Dublin, but how can we claim to value Ulster-Scots equally, if we don’t value their history?
What Unionist would sing the national anthem? They don’t speak the language and even if they did, a song about the Gaels fighting the Saxon foe is not something that would represent them. Do we give up the anthem or impose it on them? Either option would lead to serious resistance and years of controversy. What about the flag, I personally think it well represents the two communities, but they might view it with political connotations. After all, the British Union Jack was intended to represent all the people of the British Isles, but it came to be viewed as the flag of imperialism. If you want to know how Unionists view the Tricolour, ask yourself how the Irish feel about the Union Jack.
Whenever we speak of ethnic minorities, we must always remember the risk of backlash. At numerous points in American history (and other countries too), the perception that minorities were being favoured and prioritised lead to a backlash from the white majority. For every Martin Luther King promoting respect, there is a George Wallace condemning special treatment. Donald Trump draws a significant section of his support from people who believe he is standing up to political correctness and the first black president cared about other people and not them.
So, if Ireland became a multinational state and made significant concessions to the Unionist minority, there would be many people who would resist this. If Irish was no longer a mandatory school subject, there would be many protestors and claims the language was being abandoned and left to die. People would claim abandoning the flag is treason. It is likely that we would have similar debates to those currently raging in America over statues and flags. Politicians would be caught between two sides pulling against each other, between Empire and Multinationalism, and would struggle to please everyone. There would be resentment among Irish people who feel they are losing control of “their” country and can’t be fully Irish in Ireland. Ulster-Scots would also be resentful and feel unwelcomed in a United Ireland, that it is a “cold house”. There would always be the temptation for politicians to gain support by whipping up this resentment.
Ireland can be united or it can be Gaelic, but it can’t be both. We can have a 26-county state that promotes the Irish language, our traditions and history or we can have a 32-county state that uses English and honours both sides of the War of Independence. Before we consider a border poll, we must weigh the cost of unification and ask ourselves if it is worth it. In order to unite the island, we would have to give as well as take.
Some might think this is a lot of worry over nothing and that Unionism will fade away in a united Ireland. Protestants have been duped by their politicians, but will be won over by the progress and prosperity of Ireland. But put yourself in their shoes and compare the experience with British rule. If British rule was restored over Ireland, what would it take to make you consider yourself British? Most Irish people would say nothing. Even if it made them richer, we would not be comfortable in Britain. Even if taxes were lower and public services were better, few would willingly consider themselves British. Even if the British government guaranteed our rights and promised complete equality, the hand of history would still hold us back. Too much has happened in the past for us to give up our identity. If we would be so reluctant to drop our identity, why would we think that Ulster-Scots are any different? The promises of a united Ireland of equals will not be written on a blank slate, history hangs over us all.
We cannot discuss a United Ireland without discussing what it means to be Irish. How much give and take will there be? Will it all be one-sided, will only Unionists have to change, or will we too have to change? Can Unionists become Irish without giving up their culture, identity and history? Would they be equal citizens, not just legally but socially? Would we be one, united nation or will the divides between the communities persist or even further deepen? Will we respect and accommodate Unionists, or will we try to dominate them? What if a United Ireland is not worth the cost of losing an Irish nation-state?