This ‘Note’ will contain personal opinions which some strong traditional unionists and nationalists may take exception to – although I believe many ordinary thinking Northern Irish and Irish people will find them uncontroversial. So I should begin with a disclaimer: on this occasion these are my own ideas and do not at all represent the views of the Centre for Cross Border Studies.
Here is a provocative question. What if we already have a kind of a united Ireland – while at the same time continuing to have a kind of United Kingdom? And what if, in this globalised age of small national boundaries becoming increasingly irrelevant (except in Georgia!), “a kind of” is as much as Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists can expect, and we should just get on with making a good fist of this “kind of” uniquely bilocated society, which allows Northern Irish people to take advantage of two of everything: two identities, two nationalities, two cultures, the support of two governments, two ways of looking at the world. What if, after more than 30 years of killing each other, we have stumbled across a brilliant, if complicated, post-modernist solution to four centuries of conflict in this north-eastern corner of Ireland?
Visitors from continental Europe already say that the Irish border is one of the most invisible in the EU. When I cross the border on the main Dublin-Belfast road every Monday morning on my way to work in Armagh, I am driving one of the 14 million cars which cross annually at that point. At least 18,000 people cross the border every day to work, and 1.7 million people cross it annually by bus and train for shopping and other short-term trips. The Centre for Cross Border Studies earlier this year set up the Border People website for the North/South Ministerial Council (www.borderpeople.info) to help such people deal with the practical issues of crossing the border to work, study or retire: job seeking, social and health benefits, taxation, house-hunting, banking, insurance and so on.
Everyone knows about the dense and rich network of cross-border relationships between institutions, organisations and people – economic, social, educational and cultural – that has blossomed since the 1998 Belfast Agreement. But many of these emerged from roots which went back much further. A quarter of a century ago the distinguished political scientist John Whyte burrowed through reference books from one of the darkest years of the ‘troubles’, 1973, to find that 21 per cent of the more than a thousand private organisations then operating in Ireland were organised on an all-island or all-archipelago basis (with 15% in the former category).
So it’s not just on a North-South basis that we Irish and Northern Irish people are blessed with multiple choices. Looking eastwards, those of us in the North enjoy all the benefits – still considerable, although lessening – of the British welfare state. Those of us in the South enjoy a passport-free zone – although this may now be threatened by new British anti-terrorism measures – and a free trade area with our large neighbour, while Irish citizens ‘over the water’ continue to be treated for most purposes as indistinguishable from their British counterparts.
The recent close relationship between the Irish state and the European Union may also be about to alter radically, since June’s successful campaign against the Lisbon Treaty – spearheaded among others by Sinn Fein – may see Irish links with Europe significantly weakened and links with Britain strengthened as an unintended consequence. A number of Dublin commentators have pointed to this as a real possibility if Ireland fails to pass a second referendum to approve Lisbon, and the Eurosceptic Conservatives take over in London in the next two years.
We should not forget how insignificant we in Ireland are in European terms. Ireland, let alone Northern Ireland, is a pimple on the history of the continent. In Tony Judt’s magisterial history of Europe since World War Two (Postwar, Pimlico, 2007), our 30 year civil conflict merits just two pages out of over 830. During the past decade and more we have availed of the extraordinary generosity of the taxpayers of Europe: in the South through successive EU Structural Funds, in the North through a dedicated Peace Programme. Now that it has helped us to establish peace and prosperity to a very significant degree, such assistance is rightly going instead to the poorer emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.
So let us enjoy our unprecedented ‘united Ireland to some/United Kingdom to others’ dual identity. Friendship alongside interdependence is a far, far better place, after all, than the old ‘antagonism plus dependence’ model which characterised Irish-British relations throughout the last century. The Northern poet John Hewitt rejoiced in having the rich complexity of four elements in his “hierarchy of values” – Ulster, Irish, British and European – and warned that “anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.” We could learn from him.