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Thinking about the unthinkable: What future for the UK?

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Source: Jude Collins

How much of our thinking is wishful? Quite a bit, I suspect. We produce a model of how we would like things to be and then we gather together signs and portents that will point to that view.

For example, The Irish Voice, an American-Irish newspaper, had an editorial yesterday with the heading A United Ireland Now Looks Certain in the Near Future'. It notes that the various Dublin governments over the years gave lip-service only to the idea of a united Ireland. "Notice how Fianna Fail, long the party of platitudes about the North, are suddenly producing a 12 point plan for Irish unity with no empty cliches".

The editorial notes that for many years voices north and south tended to be quiet on the subject of a United Ireland: "For decades there was reason not to speak of a united Ireland in case such talk spooked the unionists, or so the narrative ran. But that was then and this is now."

The editorial writer notes that unionists are under unparalleled pressure: on the one hand the rising tide of nationalism in the north, on the other the hardships that will impact everyone in Ireland if Brexit produces a hard border. "So, on St. Patrick's Day in 2017, we stand on the threshold of a new era in Northern Ireland. We have seen from this latest election that a unified Ireland has moved from speculation to a demographic reality...Given the new context and the different political reality in the Irish Republic, we can say for the first time ever that a united Ireland is now more likely than not. The figures are there to prove it".

In today's Irish News, Alex Kane has a piece entitled 'Brexit, border poll and independence referendum mean constitutional tidal wave on its way.' His opening paragraph is arresting: "The next five years or so could be the most exciting - albeit unpredictable - ones since 1945. Maps will be redrawn. New nations could emerge. The United Kingdom could disintegrate".

He says the UK is in chaos, with prime Minister Theresa May devoid of any kind of plan to cope with Brexit. "So I'm still expecting a second referendum further down the line, if only to get her off a hook she never expected to be on".

Kane believes both Nicola Sturgeon and Sinn Fein are "mischief-making" in calling for a border referendum both know they won't get, but it helps drum up support for their cause. Unlike The Irish Voice, Alex ducks back from saying what this Celtic restlessness and the impact of Brexit will have. "Predictions are almost impossible to make because nobody can know which of the forces will predominate and carry the day." But, he concludes, major change is on its way.

In yesterday's Irish Times, Leo Varadkar, one of those Fine Gael TDs with his eye on Enda Kenny's job, declares "Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein trying to push unification on North". Leo makes it clear he's always been in favour of a united Ireland (who'd a thunk it?):" "In terms of emotion and feeling, I have always believed that there would be a united Ireland in my lifetime, and I want to see it".

But while his heart pines for it, Leo is very worried that there is a sizeable chunk of the population in the north who don't want a united Ireland. "I don't want to say majority support from both sides - that may never be possible - but to have reasonable cross-community support." Anything else is going to frighten the unionist horses. The most obvious point coming from Leo's comments is that he doesn’t believe in the Good Friday Agreement, which states that a border referendum should be held when the British Secretary of State believes there is sufficient support for a constitutional change. (How nationalists and republicans let as vague a clause as that in, I don't know - ach sin sceal eile). If we follow Leo's advice, we would concede that there should be constitutional change only when unionists wanted it, whether they were a majority or a minority. So much for democracy, then. The threat of unionist violence rules, as it did over a century ago.

Alex Kane's thinking is rather more nuanced. He's right that Nicola Sturgeon and Sinn Fein are calling for a border referendum for tactical reasons, but to call that "mischief-making" suggests that the SNP and SF are naughty school-children. Worse, it seems to suggest that the SNP and SF shouldn't do what they can to achieve their political goals. It's what politicians do, Alex, and what we pay them to do. As is often the case with Alex's columns, they suggest more than they deliver. He tells us that great constitutional change is on the cards, but backs out of predicting what that might be. (Mind you, it's also sensible of him, because most political predictions are miles off the mark. Do I have to cite Brexit, Trump, our recent Assembly election - you can make up the rest).

Finally, The Irish Voice. When I read editorials like that, it reminds me how powerful the voices in the media can be."For decades there was reason not to speak of a united Ireland in case such talk spooked the unionists, or so the narrative ran. But that was then and this is now." Now there's a bold statement and one that resonates with a lot more nationalists and republicans than northern unionists would care to believe.

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