United Ireland: ‘It can’t be, Which side is going to win?’

Two academics have gathered the voices of people on both sides of the Border for more than five years about future constitutional change

For nearly five years, academics Jennifer Todd and Joanne McEvoy have travelled across the island, most especially, along both sides of the Border, gauging attitudes towards the issue of constitutional change.

Entering one farmyard in 2019 owned by a Protestant in a largely Catholic district west of the Bann, the two were met by the farmer, who shouted out a greeting before showing them into the kitchen while he changed out of his work clothes.

“Did that Leo Varadkar send you up here to ask us about Irish unity,” he said half-jokingly, though it quickly turned out that he kept a close eye on southern politics and thought highly of the then tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney.

Unification will come, the farmer believed: “I have no doubt about it. It’s going to change, I know it’s going to change. There’s ones that will fight and fight until the last breath, I’ll not be one of those.

READ MORE

“I would like it to come decently without shooting and bombings because that doesn’t help anybody,” he said, adding, “What odds, we’re going to go anyway, we may as well go tomorrow as the next day, that’s the way I look at it.”

The detailed, even microscopic research carried out over the years – which continued during the Covid years when conversations moved on to Zoom – has shown impatience among people about the style of debate evident so far when constitutional change has been mentioned.

The experiences Todd and McEvoy have had over the last five years offer crucial lessons for the future of debate about constitutional issues on the island – they must be measured, reasonable, informed and offer practical solutions to problems, not ideology.

“We realised that we needed to talk to lots of those diverse people North and South who hadn’t got engaged in debates on Irish unity and whose perspectives no one really knew about,” say the academics.

Joanne McEvoy, senior lecturer and head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen.
Jennifer Todd is fellow in the Geary Institute for Public Policy UCD, and professor (emeritus) in the School of Politics and International Relations UCD.

Both Todd, from University College Dublin, and McEvoy, who is the head of politics and international relations at the University of Aberdeen, have long experience teasing out the closely held thoughts of people in focus groups.

In the early days of Covid, they organised Zoom calls with a number of women’s collectives. “That put some manners on us. Most of our participants were impatient with constitutional language,” say both academics.

In one meeting, a group of mostly Border women bridled at questions about unity and about constitutional change: “When I hear people talk about a united Ireland, it’s a very ideological discussion. That doesn’t really cut the mustard.

“You’ve people going, ‘oh yes, absolutely’, and they’ve no sense of what the reality or the practicality of the lived experience is like, or would be like,” said one woman called Anne trenchantly.

The statements that have been made by politicians so far from all sides about constitutional change, or the status quo, affect the lived reality of people in Northern Ireland and the Border regions.

And such conversations clearly had not impressed. “You’ve to be very clear, are we having practical conversations, are we having ideological conversations,” said Anne, voicing the frustrations of others.

In turn, one of the academics pointed out that the unification debate had by then become viewed as “a hot topic”, which prompted another woman, Leah, to respond: “By whom? Because I don’t know anybody outside of certain political groups where this is a hot topic.”

Soon, during the conversation, the women demanded sight of proposals to increase co-operation between Stormont and Dublin that would improve daily lives, rather than indulge in esoteric arguments about constitutional change.

“I’m not a constitutional expert but if you’re talking about constitutional change, maybe there’s a need to discuss what constitutional change is needed to enhance co-operation between the two jurisdictions,” said Libby.

Concentrating, too, on the practicalities, Barbara, who lives in rural Northern Ireland, was clear: “For me to make an informed decision, I would need to know how my life would change if I said yes.

“How would that change my life. How is life down South? How does that work? I’m sure somebody in southern Ireland would want to know how things worked up here because it will obviously be some type of compromise between our two lives, I’m assuming,” she said.

Soon, the Zoom conversations broadened, bringing together women from Limerick and Kerry, along with others from Dublin, Monaghan and Donegal, where ignorance about Northern Ireland quickly became evident.

Evelyn, who lives near the Border, told of travelling to meetings in Dublin where people in attendance had “absolutely no idea” where the Border was: “When you live north of Drogheda, there was the feeling that you were from the North,” she said.

The Limerick and Kerry women wanted more debate, not less, but insisted it must be an all-island conversation: “It isn’t an issue just for Border counties. It’s not just a simple question of do we want a united Ireland, there’s a whole load of stuff that comes with that,” said one.

Meanwhile, some of the Dublin women in the Zoom call focused heavily on social divisions “whether the fear is of paramilitaries in the North or drug dealers in the South”, say the academics.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time it is the women who come forward, who make things happen because they wanted their children to be educated, they wanted a better quality of life, they wanted to move forward,” said one woman.

Most especially, however, the women “we talked to, North and South, Protestant, Catholic and other, unionist or nationalist in background, were clear that they wanted a conversation, not a debate,” say the academics.

“It can’t be, ‘Which side is going to win?’ or, ‘Which side is going to lose?’ It can’t be from that mentality, it has to be advancement for everyone,” say Todd and McEvoy.

Urging the most grassroots of conversations, one woman, Paula, said: “The knit-and-natter groups ... that’s where our conversations need to start. Right down, small, you know? Start from there and build it up.”

However, the early steps in such a conversation are vital. “How you introduce this is key, because it will straight away go down that road. If everybody goes into it understanding that this is a conversation, it’s not a decision that’s made,” said Evelyn.

People do not have trust, she told the academics: “Particularly, there’s a lack of trust in authorities and politicians, because things were done before without the conversation [taking place].

“So, it’s vital that that piece isn’t missed, that somewhere along the lines that things don’t just start happening – which has happened in the past. If we’re going to get people involved, there has to be a bit of time spent on introducing the conversation.”

By 2020, just as Covid was ending, the academics had moved on to Monaghan, where they met many of the women who had participated in the earlier Zoom conversations during lockdown.

The conversation quickly focused on health. “The women wanted to talk about healthcare, and they came from Fermanagh and Louth to do so – looking great, happy to be out after Covid.”

The women were “totally clear” that neither the Health Service Executive in the Republic nor the National Health Service in Northern Ireland were working and that services are getting worse, not better.

“Would constitutional change make any difference? The women were not sure at all. But it was absolutely clear that any proposals for constitutional change would have to improve cross-Border healthcare,” say Todd and McEvoy.

Later, the academics investigated how people engaged with questions surrounding unity and identities on both sides of the Border, though it quickly became evident that many people in the Republic “hadn’t thought much about it at all”.

Some of the exchanges were filled with “strong views, some were very direct”, the two recorded, with one man, Paul, wondering about what exactly is “the Northern Irish identity, the unionist identity.

“What actually is it? Because from my perspective, and I really mean this in no offence, it is a very shallow one. There isn’t a kind of connection to the land,” he went on, provoking the ire of other participants.

“There’s things within the unionist community that I don’t particularly like. But it’s a thing that is here and I don’t know how we can change it without communicating and understanding,” responded Avril from Belfast, slightly testily.

Urging the man to learn more, she said: “You’re proud of where you come from. The Irish language is very important to you. Well, to unionists and especially those in the bands, some of those things are very important, and the war and poppies.”

Peace soon reigned, though strong views were again expressed when the issue of flags and emblems were raised: “Why on Earth would we change our anthem? Why on Earth would we change our flag?”

The possibility that a united Ireland would be part of the Commonwealth provoked strong ire: “It’s like spitting on your ancestors’ graves for everything that they fought for,” said one man, reflecting the views of others.

As people talked, however, opinions softened, with some becoming more willing to accept compromises that they would never have dreamed, at the beginning of the conversation, that they would contemplate.

“Before this I supposed I would have been very one-track minded ... Sure that’s never going to work. We have to be more democratic,” said one, while another southerner had realised that their early view that “they would join us and that would be it” is not enough.

For Todd and McEvoy, this is the key point.

“Our participants argued with one another, discussed matters constructively, bending back to what someone had said previously rather than engaging in debate and trying to win the argument.

“Even when they argued with one another, they also listened and learned,” say the academics, before posing questions to readers of The Irish Times.

“How would you change the constitutional conversation? What would you add to the agenda? What for you are the priorities? What values, what meanings do you bring to the discussion? What do you think are the misunderstandings and misrecognitions across the island? How do you think they can be overcome?”

  • Joanne McEvoy is senior lecturer and head of politics and international relations at the University of Aberdeen.
  • Jennifer Todd is fellow in the Geary Institute for Public Policy UCD, and professor (emeritus) in the School of Politics and International Relations UCD.
  • Their research was funded by DFAT Reconciliation Fund and the Irish Research Council (in partnership with the Shared Island Unit), and some quotes are from the focus groups organised in conjunction with The Irish Times/ARINS North and South surveys.