The Rorschach Test

I argued in an earlier piece that the word “Unionism” should be handled with extreme care, because it has become overloaded with far too many overlapping yet inconsistent meanings. For slightly different reasons, we should also avoid using the phrase “United Ireland”.

“Unionism” refers to a collection of existing things that can, with effort, be distinguished from each other. “United Ireland”, or its modern euphemism “New Ireland”, means nothing much at all, because it refers to a hypothetical something that has never existed or even been clearly defined.

Because it means nothing, the reader or listener is free to choose what to perceive in it. And just like a meaningless Rorschach inkblot, the reader’s perceptions are determined by the reader’s mind alone. If the reader is inclined to favour Irish Nationalism, then the ideas evoked are likely to be favourable, even Utopian. If the reader is not so inclined, then the phrase “United Ireland” will prompt unease, distaste and even fear.

Because what comes to mind when a vague phrase is uttered is equally vague. Nobody believes for a second that a United Ireland would lead to Protestants being driven into the Bann. But such associations are stored in the subconscious and, even if not remembered explicitly, their presence colours and shapes the reaction to even marginally related ideas. How many people reading the words “United Ireland” involuntarily hear it in an Andytown-accented inner voice?

The art of persuasion is mainly the art of minimising the number of negative associations while maximising the positive ones. And a speaker who wishes to persuade, to sell, must work backwards from what he wants the listener to think, not forwards from what he himself wants to say.

Brexit was such an inkblot. There were well-informed people on both sides, but the majority would freely admit to being ignorant (to varying degrees) of the workings of the EU and the consequences of leaving it. The question was deceptively simple, but it has become painfully obvious in hindsight that those who campaigned for it and voted for it had wildly divergent perceptions of what Brexit actually meant in practice.

Free-traders looked upon the inkblot and saw great ships bestriding the waves. Libertarians saw a bonfire of statutes and judgements. Others saw the return of jobs to provincial towns, or an end to demographic change. Not all of these could possibly be true simultaneously. Maybe none of them will end up being true. The inkblot remains inscrutable.

The 8th amendment referendum could have been as confusing, but the Irish Government took the decision to avoid a Rorschach calamity by publishing the heads of their proposed legislation. No matter what way the result falls next week, nobody can seriously claim that they were not informed.

Now obviously, full legislation could not and should not have been drawn up in advance of the result, and no amount of written detail could ever completely insulate a debate from misinformation or partisanship. But it was rightly recognised that allowing a referendum to go ahead without any constraint on the collective imagination of the electorate would have left the government with no defence against the wildest excesses of Project Fear.

And a border poll will be fought entirely on the basis of Project Fear. Fear of Brexit versus fear of a United Ireland. By the time any such poll eventually comes around, the shape of Brexit will have become much more concrete. And unless a “United Ireland” has also become more concrete, the devil that Northern Ireland knows may not seem so fearsome by comparison.

So anyone in Ireland who would like to see a border poll in their lifetime would be well advised to propose a practical constitutional framework now. Like the 8th amendment, every detail cannot and should not be drawn up in advance. Blank space must be reserved for the meaningful input afterwards of those who will understandably demur at contributing beforehand. But equally, those in favour of change must clearly demonstrate that they have given the fullest consideration to the concerns of all sides, whether actively engaged or not.

That means publishing the constitutional equivalent of the heads of bill, setting advance constraints on the scope of any post-referendum negotiations, and defending these self-imposed limitations against cries of sellout from the back benches.

Start by ruling out the vast majority of options. Cast out the bogeymen, the fevered nightmares, the implausible and the irresponsible. In this context, “United Ireland” ceases to be useful, because it rules nothing out.

It doesn’t rule out the unitary socialist republic of the old Republican faithful, a vision so removed from modern Ireland that it would attract single figures support south of the border. So why allow that spectre to haunt the debate? Rule it out.

Same with anything that doesn’t preserve the minority rights so hard won in the GFA. The principles that protect one minority community while NI remains in the UK must also protect the other minority community in any future settlement. Republican leaders have at times declared that all identities should be protected and embraced, but aspirational statements can be easily dismissed as rhetoric. Be specific about the legal changes you could never support, and rule them out.

Rule out the things you know Unionists most fear. Rule out the things you know southerners won’t countenance. Rein in the starry-eyed ambitions and limit the scope of this particular change. Not because ambition is wrong, or because the horizon must never be admired. But because the future is a journey that will always be in front of us, and destinations will change with the wind and the seasons.

Baby steps.

Once you rule out the impossible, the fanciful, the unaffordable, only then can you give a meaningful shape to the thing that is left.

So what is the shape of that thing?

Northern Ireland will continue to exist. The Border will continue to exist. Jurisdictions cannot be simply bodged together, because a century of legal divergence would take decades to unpick. Stormont will continue to function, as will the rest of strand one. A Northern Ireland jurisdiction requires a Northern Ireland parliament, and that means a Northern Ireland executive. Direct Rule from Dublin would be no more democratic than from London. And meaningful formal ties to GB would be of crucial importance to keep everyone on board, so strand three will also survive.

The Republic will continue to exist in much the same form, because the only people who relish the thought of sixty crabbit TDs from the wee six overturning the political arithmetic of the Dáil are the Shinners. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil will gift Sinn Féin a parliamentary plurality. Nor will Ireland be quartered into provincial states, as per Éire Nua. There is no burning desire for parliaments in Cork or Galway, and despite its frustrations with Dublin, Donegal has no love for dysfunctional Stormont.

Strand two will be enhanced, but not replaced. The President, the Supreme Court and a reformed Senate could be shared between the jurisdictions, with equitable representation for north and south. European and foreign policy would be delegated to a beefed-up NSMC. These newly shared bodies would form the successor state to today’s Republic. But whatever the details it will be a lightweight, Belgian form of unity, nothing whatsoever like the centralised UK. Stephen Hawking was once warned that every equation in his book would halve its sales. Similarly, every extra power granted to the new Irish state will halve its legitimacy in the eyes of the losing side.

And just as the current relationship between the two parts of Ireland can only be changed by simultaneous referendums, so will any future changes to that relationship be subject to a double referendum lock, effectively preventing a future Irish government from simply abolishing the troublesome North.

Would this satisfy everyone? Not a chance. It may not satisfy anybody at all. It would meet a strict legal test for “Irish sovereignty”, but it’s not what many people – perhaps any people – would understand from the phrase “United Ireland”.

Which is exactly why “United Ireland” must be cast aside.

Because whatever emerges from the far side of constitutional change, whatever future may eventually come to pass, it won’t be what anyone currently expects. The GFA was “Sunningdale for slow learners” because everyone already knew what the only practical solution looked like; it just took longer than expected to negotiate the price. A border poll won’t be like that, because nobody yet has a clue what shape the framework will be.

All we have to go on is an ambiguous smudge called “United Ireland”. And so any border poll will be as ill-informed as Brexit unless nationalists and others (and it will have to include Others) produce a proposal with an actual text, and an actual name.

Call it a confederacy. Call it a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Call it what you will, but call it what you mean. If that causes discontent within the ranks, then good. These arguments need to be settled sooner rather than later.

Or would you prefer to sell the Irish people a pig in a poke, without even knowing yourself what animal is inside?

This article was originally published on Slugger on 2018/05/17.

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The end of the world

In the 19th century national identity in Europe was more deeply entwined with religion than it is today. Witness the creation of Belgium in 1831 from the remains of the Spanish Netherlands, when formerly Hapsburg areas seceded from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form a Catholic-majority, multilingual state with a French-speaking aristocracy. In the 20th century the focus of national identity shifted: the same Belgian state is now hoplessly riven between French- and Dutch-speakers, regardless of religion. The focus of politics changes with the tide, but the driving force is always the same: collective power.

The nature of power is that those without it will always be jealous of those with it, and those with it will always fear having it taken away. Power may be measured by economic might, land, legal privilege or social status. But no matter the measure, there will always be haves and have-nots. And there will be times when the haves consolidate their power, and times when power passes from one group to another.

In a democracy, those who don’t have power are comforted by the belief that their turn may soon come; and those with power are comforted by the belief that even if they lose, their turn will come again. But problems then arise when people start to believe that they will never have power, or that once power is taken from them they will never get it back. If power is apportioned by socio-economic class, one can always dream of climbing the greasy pole to become one of the powerful. If however the basis of power is identity, there is no such dream.

Because class is how society defines you, but identity is how you define yourself. Transgressing the boundaries of class is an act of liberation; transgressing the boundaries of identity is apostasy.

So when identity trumps class, when birth rather than passing circumstance picks the teams, politics becomes a predetermined game. One cannot work or buy one’s way onto the winning side. That has a profound effect upon the perennial losers, but it has an equally profound effect upon the winners. Because if they don’t need to fight to win, they forget how to fight. So when eventually some outside force tips the scales against them, those who were once guaranteed victory can find themselves facing defeat while simultaneously discovering their own impotence.

Unionism is in this pickle right now.

The last six weeks has seen a torrent of discussion on the future of Unionism. Every Unionist paper is running opinion pieces, and every Unionist name is throwing in their two cents. The question “what if?” is being seriously asked, and in some cases seriously answered. The constant theme is that Unionism as a movement is experiencing a dark night of the soul. Because political Unionism has never seriously examined the nature of its own self.

The American politician Tip O’Neill had a famous catchphrase that said “all politics is local”, and it can be applied to Westminster and Leinster House as easily as to Capitol Hill. In Stormont however, all politics is identity politics. Local issues still matter to the average elector, but nobody believes that they significantly affect election results. Elections are explicitly about which identity holds more power. That this power is effectively limited to symbolism and a seat scorecard makes little difference. For They must learn that We are in charge here. It’s all about the psychological victory, about status, and Face.

For as long as Ulster Unionism has existed as a movement, it has been dominated by the fear that They might gain power over Us, and They can’t be trusted to rule in Our best interest. In the 19th century, identity was (like in Belgium) largely a matter of religion, and the sectarian gulf in Ireland was understood as a religious one, backed up by a history of confessional privilege. After Irish Unionism performed its strategic retreat to the defensible north-east, it adopted the clothes of a rival nationalism. “Ulster” was the new identity around which Unionism gathered itself, one which was quite happy to have Home Rule, so long as it was from Belfast rather than Dublin. So long as it was Us in charge and not Them.

But Unionism never escaped from 19th-Century confessional identity. And this fear of Them was Unionism’s original sin. Because instead of bringing Them inside the tent, instead of selling a vision of the future where everyone prospered together, Unionism shut Them out. Perhaps it would have been an impossible task, but there was no urgent need to try; Unionism was electorally safe. But now that its majority has evaporated, Unionism finds itself temperamentally incapable of making even the smallest concession on culture and identity. And when all you ever willingly offer is thin gruel, it’s no wonder They keep asking for more.

Unionism has become an apocalyptic religion, forever warning that the end is nigh. And yet its leaders reassure the faithful that it will not come in our lifetime. This incoherent brew of brimstone and honey is a tactical advantage, but a strategic weakness. When victory is defined merely as staving off the apocalypse for a few more years, there can be no strategy, no vision, no hope.

Because Unionism gave up on evangelising the other side a century ago. To become an expansive, accommodating, all-inclusive political movement would require a fundamental cultural reappraisal. And now that the end of the world is starting to look like a real possibility, Unionism has neither the breathing space nor the self-belief that such a paradigm shift would require.

Nobody can predict when the end will come, but it’s unlikely to be a lifetime away. Attitudes are hardening on both sides, demographic change still moves in the same direction, albeit more slowly, and Unionism still fails to attract support from beyond the trenches. So there are two possibilities.

Firstly, Unionism fights to the bitter end regardless of the long-term consequences to Northern Ireland’s community relations, and succeeds merely in stretching out the life of the Union for a few more years until there is no more road to kick the can down.

Or secondly, Unionism gives way to a broader movement that maintains a belief in strong links with the UK, and stands up for the interests of the Ulster-British-Protestant-whatever community, but which doesn’t hang its entire worldview on the defence of a constitutional status quo that may soon be untenable.

Somebody’s end of the world happens every day, yet the world keeps turning. And ironically, the only way for Unionism to avoid the end of its world is to accept that it might not be so bad.

This post was first published on Slugger on 2018/05/10.