3: Croppies Lie Down
My analysis in this section is an extension of the notion of nationalist inferiority that I discussed in relation to Mallon’s proposal and the other GFA fixes. There, I examined the inequality and lack of reciprocity of proposals to alter the Agreement. Here, I address unionism’s view of nationalism’s place in the social, political and constitutional order.
An overall orientation within much of unionism holds that nationalism is and should be subordinate. Unionist arguments of this general type take two main forms: that the exercise of nationalist political rights should be constrained and that nationalism as a system of political and constitutional beliefs should be diminished.
For some unionist pundits, nationalists have the abstract right to aspire to a united Ireland but should not make Irish unity a concrete political demand (Foster, 2018a & 2018b; Kennedy & Green, 2005). Others similarly suggest that nationalists and republicans should wait for unionist acceptance of a united Ireland before they begin actively pursuing their constitutional objective (Walker, 2017 & 2019). Eoghan Harris, for instance, says that even to talk about Irish unity is wrong because it violates what he calls “the Seamus Mallon principle: that there should be no pressure for unity before both sides massively desire it” (Harris, 2019a, n.p.).
This position is stronger than are the formula fixes demanding consensus or a unionist-specific veto for constitutional change. It’s stronger because of its singular emphasis on nationalists and republicans suppressing their constitutional beliefs by keeping them out of the political arena. According to this orientation, any discussion or advocacy of constitutional change cannot even begin until there is prior unionist agreement on moving to a united Ireland.
The main problem with this argument is evident. If nationalists and republicans must wait for unionism to acquiesce in a united Ireland, they will be waiting for a very long time, probably forever. The precondition of unionist assent ensures that a suitable time for Irish unity will never arrive.
The argument is also conspicuously one-sided in that it lacks reciprocity. Among all the urgings for nationalists and republicans to tone down or turn off their demands for Irish unity, there has been no equivalent call for the British government and unionists to moderate their constant reaffirmations of the “precious Union.” Quite the opposite: John Wilson Foster explicitly couples his plea for nationalist silence and passivity with an appeal for unionist outspokenness and activity (Foster, 2017a & 2018b).
A final flaw in this position is that it’s hard to discern the process by which unionists will come to accept a united Ireland while the entire topic of constitutional change is off the agenda. If change cannot be broached, how does change occur and when will we know it has happened? We will, of course, never know how or when because this argument rules out change. Its principal effect is to stop any advance towards a united Ireland.
There is a second, more general and long-standing form of the unionist orientation that relegates nationalism to a subaltern position. This argument’s central characteristic is its refusal to accept nationalists as nationalists (or republicans as republicans). It demands that nationalists drop any pretense to a united Ireland. It is unlike the previous argument, which, abstractly at least, allowed nationalists their constitutional aspiration. No such allowance is made here. Instead, this position strips nationalism of any political and constitutional elements not compatible with unionism. And it confines nationalism to the realm of culture. Nationalists must be unionists in regard to the north’s constitution; but they can express their “non-political Irishness” in sport, dance, music, media and other recreational and cultural activities (Kennedy, 1995, pp. 35 & 36).
Liam O’Dowd of Queen’s University Belfast captures well the inequality and lack of reciprocity of this position. He notes that unionists “consistently demand from Irish nationalists that which they reject for themselves: the separation of culture from politics and the shelving of their national rights and aspirations” (O’Dowd, 1998, p. 89).
The unmistakable supremacism of these unionist arguments is reason enough to reject them. But I doubt such rejection will have any impact on the continued articulation or acceptance of unionist ascendancy. The premise of superiority is deeply embedded, even within so-called liberal unionism. It is so ingrained as a taken-for-granted assumption that many unionists seem incapable of apprehending it.
Unionist superiority is never more apparent than when unionist academics and writers are denying its centrality. The introduction to a 1995 edited compilation of arguments in favour of the Union noted that none of the contributors questions “the legitimacy of the desire, peacefully pursued, of some citizens in Northern Ireland to see come into being a united Ireland sundered from Great Britain” (Foster, 1995a, p. 5). This statement is patently untrue. The editor himself, John Wilson Foster, advises nationalists to “cease clamouring and plotting for it [Irish unity], since not to demand unification is obviously the only chance for it some day to happen by consensus” (Foster, 1995b, p. 63). One contributor, Dennis Kennedy, argues that the equal legitimacy of unionism and nationalism is fine in theory but not in practice. He says to nationalists that “you must forego your objective of a politically united and independent Ireland, and make the most of the real circumstances in which you find yourselves—living as Irish people on the island of Ireland but within the United Kingdom state” (Kennedy, 1995, p. 33). Another, Richard English, explicitly questions the equal legitimacy thesis, and suggests a more thoroughgoing revision of Irish nationalism:
… it might be argued that revisionist nationalism has not gone nearly far enough. Instead of holding the same irredentist aims but altering the means, it might be more honest and more politically mature to accept that the united Ireland objective itself is simply not a valid one at all, given the religious, economic, cultural, and political divisions which exist on the island of Ireland (English 1995, p. 138).
Many nationalists and republicans might fail to appreciate the distinction between, on the one hand, unionists not questioning the legitimacy of the nationalist desire peacefully to pursue a united Ireland and, on the other, unionists telling nationalists to shut up about reunification, to forego their aim of Irish unity and independence by coming to terms with partition, and to accept that the united Ireland objective is not at all valid. I, too, fail to appreciate this distinction. That so many unionist observers seem to hold this untenable position is testament to how firmly inscribed is their presupposition of superiority over nationalism: they just do not recognize blatant expressions of their supremacism.
The work of Richard English is an especially inveterate and unreconstructed example of this troubling incapacity. In a 1996 article, he directly refutes remarks by Luke Gibbons and Declan Kiberd, both of whom alleged English was subordinating nationalism to unionism. English says he “was not advocating any form of supremacism, but rather was asking what a state should do in the face of a serious public-order problem” (English, 1996, p. 271). He has some recommendations for the state. He suggests that British government policy should recognize that unionism is superior to nationalism and should say so publicly; and that London needs to curtail nationalists’ constitutional expectations, ambitions and hopes as a way of managing potential disorder by unionists. He also has some advice for nationalists. He says that nationalists will never be full citizens in the north—their grievances will never be seriously addressed—unless they accept partition. It’s hard to believe that English cannot discern the deeply supremacist core of these remarks. But apparently he does not see them that way. In the face of such a deep-seated and obdurate sense of superiority, it’s next to impossible to address issues of equality, legitimacy and parity.
4. (Part of Part of) Ulster Says No
That unionists are neither making a strong, positive argument for the Union nor convincingly refuting the nationalist and republican case for unity is a constant theme of Alex Kane’s ubiquitous observations on northern politics (Kane, 2019). He is not alone. John Wilson Foster seems to recognize that his 1995 edited work articulating the pro-Union position has not been sufficiently advanced (Foster, 2017a, 2018a & 2018b). Former Minister Nelson McCausland recently called on the DUP to take the lead role in countering the initiatives for a united Ireland by “crafting the arguments for the Union” (McCausland, 2020, n.p.) It is, of course, entirely legitimate for unionists to argue their corner by justifying why they say “No” to constitutional change. And nationalists and republicans should be prepared to respond to such arguments.
As I’ve suggested, the various arguments that proceed from the assumption of unionist ascendancy are quite disturbing but easily refuted, analytically if not politically. The same can be said for the recent interventions of Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson.
These authors take up the challenge of making the case for the Union. They suggest that unionism needs to grasp “an imagined future” by developing arguments extolling the benefits of “an agreed Northern Ireland” and the virtues of Britishness (Spencer & Hudson, 2018, n.p.). Unionists, they suggest, need to construct a bottom-up approach to defending the Union by reaching out to working-class unionists and loyalists, young unionists, Catholic unionists and those citizens with a Northern Irish identity or hybrid identities that are favourable to the Union. This outreach needs to centre on a vibrant sense of Britishness founded on “a very British tendency towards diversity and inclusiveness” (Spencer & Hudson, 2020, n.p.).
A very conspicuous group left out of Spencer and Hudson’s outreach programme is northern nationalists, republicans and others who consider themselves Irish. The authors’ “agreed Northern Ireland” is based on a tightly constrained view of diversity and a very selective version of inclusivity. Their notions of diversity and inclusiveness extend only to those citizens whose identities are congruent with the constitutional imperatives of unionism. Their Britishness is founded on a limited recognition of difference. An “agreed Northern Ireland” is to include only the unionist family. If you’re not part of the family, you’re an outsider and a stranger, and the north is not for you.
Spencer and Hudson are innovative, though not alone, in their attempt to inject working-class energy and leadership into unionism. But for nationalists and republicans, there is little new in the product the authors are selling.
Their view is considerably weakened by its comic-book understanding of Britishness that simply wishes away all the troubling aspects of contemporary UK politics and imperial history. This analytical weakness is glaringly exposed in the setting of northern politics, where a malign Britishness has had and continues to have a disabling effect on political life. It was, after all, the beating of peaceful protesters demanding citizenship rights—in a public and unequivocal denial of the so-called “very British tendency towards diversity and inclusiveness”—that started the conflagration in the north. Emma DeSouza’s recent five-year battle with the British Home Office to secure recognition of Irish citizenship rights in the north demonstrates clearly the inability of Britishness to accommodate Irishness. An especially crude example of this tendency is MLA Jim Wells, a sometime member of the DUP, telling Emma DeSouza that if she wished to be Irish, she should go across the border to Donegal (DeSouza, 2020).
The freezing out of nationalism and Irishness supports the marginalizing agenda of the leaders of unionism’s two largest political parties, who are especially concerned with diminishing any advance towards reunification. The DUP’s Arlene Foster regards any talk of a border poll on a united Ireland as inherently divisive, and she want to shelve the issue “for generations to come" (Gordon, 2017, n.p.). Likewise, Steve Aiken of the UUP finds the reunification debate destabilizing and vows that his party is determined never, ever, to discuss Irish unity (News Letter, 2020).
This political narrative, and the questionable concepts of diversity and inclusiveness at its root, remind us that the northern regime has never accepted nationalists and republicans for the people they are. An “agreed Northern Ireland” based on Britishness emerges not as a fresh initiative but as part of the conventional unionist orientation sustaining nationalist subordination. Spencer and Hudson’s proposal is reminiscent of the enduring unionist elision that equates “the people of Ulster” with “the unionist people of Ulster.” Nationalists were never fully part of the north, and probably never can be for as long as it remains under British sovereignty.
Such attempts to develop arguments for the Union have failed to resolve one of unionism’s central contradictions: unionism refuses to make a full and equal place for nationalists in the north while at the same it tries to bar them from seeking constitutional change. Unionism’s answer to nationalism is a double ‘No’. In imposing a constitutional “loyalty test” on nationalists, unionism continuously denies that the nationalist right to full democratic citizenship includes the right to pursue and promote Irish unity (O’Dowd, 1998, p. 79).
The Agreement’s references to “parity of esteem” and “equally legitimate political aspirations” are, for these unionists, nothing more than empty rhetoric. Richard English may be partially correct in asserting that parity of esteem is “a concept that has become extremely pervasive despite the fact that nobody really believes in it” (English, 1996, p. 271). Certainly, many unionists aren’t true believers (Mac Ginty & du Toit, 2007). Nationalists and republicans, in contrast, strongly prefer true parity of esteem to subordination; but they are increasingly frustrated by the inability of unionists, the British state and the Agreement to deliver it.
5. Play the Orange Card
To play the Orange card, in this its modern version, is to warn nationalists and republicans that their continued pursuit of a united Ireland, even if carried out peacefully and democratically, will cause a violent loyalist backlash that could easily spin out of control. This argument trades on instilling fear as it attempts to coerce nationalists and republicans into relinquishing or indefinitely delaying their constitutional ambitions. One of its distinguishing features is that it curtails nationalists’ democratic rights as the principal means of dealing with the possibility of illegal and anti-democratic loyalist upheaval. It also uses fear to induce the British and Irish governments to refrain from implementing their legal and international obligations on constitutional change.
The Orange card is often played in speculative discussions of a narrow win for Irish unity in a border poll. Lord Kilclooney (John Taylor), deputy leader of the UUP at the time of the Agreement, warns:
Assuming … there was a 50.1% in favour of a united Ireland, in no way would one dare have a united Ireland. Because the reality on the ground in Northern Ireland is there would be civil war.
You cannot force Northern Ireland out of the UK by a 1% majority. Can you imagine the loyalists in Belfast taking it quietly? I couldn’t (News Letter, 2017, n.p.).
Eoghan Harris likewise asserts:
We could not cope with a sullen minority of nearly one million created by a 50%-plus-one majority. … What would we do next morning after a 50%-plus-one result, especially if we got an equally narrow result in the Republic from a Brexit-style referendum … Forget the €10bn we'd have to find. Forget the gloating of the Sinn Fein gauleiters. Forget even loyalist force. How could we cope with a mass Protestant civil resistance? That is why I believe the campaign for a border poll could more honestly be called a campaign for a murder poll as it is bound to end in bloodshed (Harris, 2019b, n.p.).
When Harris invites his readers to forget loyalist force he means for them to think of loyalist force as the vanguard of a larger and bloody reaction to a murder poll.
Kilclooney and Harris make the same general point as Mallon, who also played the Orange card in warning of widespread loyalist-inspired violence in the north, south and Britain. Peter Robinson thinks otherwise. He would accept the results of a border poll in favour of unity and thinks that the unionist community would too (Gallagher, 2018, n.p). Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly believes the vast majority of unionists would accept or could live with the results of a pro-unity border poll (Daly, 2019a, p. 7).
The Life and Times survey sheds some light on the potential for violence in the aftermath of a constitutional referendum supporting a united Ireland. This annual survey monitors the values, attitudes and beliefs of the people of the north on matters of public importance. Since 1998, it has been tracking popular acceptance of the outcome of a border poll. The survey asked respondents who did not support Irish unity how they would react “if the majority of people in Northern Ireland ever voted to become part of a United Ireland.” The 2019 results show both a polarization of opinion and increasing uncertainty. Polarization is evident in three ways: the number of respondents who say that they would find a pro-unity poll “almost impossible to accept” is at an all-time high (28%); and the percentages saying that they “could live with it” (30%) or “would happily accept the wishes of the majority” (22%) are at historic lows. These results are particularly pronounced among Protestants who did not support unity, with fully 41 percent saying “almost impossible to accept” and only 12 percent saying “happily accept.” Uncertainty is shown in the 20 percent of people saying they “don’t know” how they would respond after a pro-unity poll, a number that is four or five times higher than the usual result (ARK NILT, no date (n.d.)).
The 2019 survey is the first time this border-poll question was asked since Brexit, and we may be seeing in these results the impact of Brexit on the intensification of public debate about a constitutional referendum. Certainly, the 2019 figures are sharply different from the 2014 (pre-Brexit) survey results, which showed much higher levels of acceptance of a pro-unity border-poll outcome, both in the northern population generally and among Protestants and Catholics. The 2014 results also showed many fewer people reporting that they “don’t know” how they would react to a referendum win for a united Ireland. It’s perhaps not surprising that, as speculation abounds of the imminence of a poll, the unionist population is becoming both increasingly anxious and less certain. As we have seen and shall see again below, there are many analysts keen to feed that anxiety and uncertainty.
We can take as given that there will remain significant unionist opposition to any pro-unity poll. And fevered rhetoric will ensue. Some opposition might be violent, especially within certain segments of Orangeism, marching bands, and young Protestants/Unionists/Loyalists (Daly, 2019a). But there is no evidence to suggest that opposition to unity will take the form of massive civil unrest and prolonged violence as in 1968-1998. It’s likely that an overwhelming number of people who say that a pro-unity border poll would be “almost impossible to accept” would limit their opposition to non-violent means. The admittedly scanty survey evidence shows limited tolerance for loyalist violence. The 1998 and 2007 Life and Times surveys found that very few Protestants (3%) had “a lot of sympathy” with “the reasons why some Loyalist groups … used violence during the troubles” (ARK NILT, n.d.). And Spencer and Hudson think it unlikely that the three main loyalist paramilitary organizations will return to violence (Spencer & Hudson, 2019).
The dystopian visions of mayhem and murder are less based in considered analysis than in the reckless use of fear to buttress flawed arguments and questionable political agendas. Mobilizing communal fear, as I’ve said above in regard to Mallon’s position, is an extremely risky strategy that may encourage the use of violence to stop democratic constitutional change.
QUB academic Colin Harvey says it’s irresponsible and illegitimate to use “the threat of force” as an argument against a majority poll in favour of a united Ireland. Instead, he wants public discussion to focus on addressing real concerns about Ireland’s future. (Moriarty, 2019, n.p.). McKearney also believes that advocates of Irish unity need to engage productively with the unionist population. He adds that:
making it clear that a majority vote would be vigorously upheld would offer positive benefits. In the first instance it would become clear that violent resistance is futile while simultaneously strengthening the case of those advocating positive engagement (McKearney, 2020a, n.p.).
6. Home Rule Means Rome Rule
John Wilson Foster sees the south as a relatively mild part of a rising international tide of theocratic reaction against secularism and humanism. But he suggests that Ireland’s benign nature may be only temporary: a 32-county Republic could easily join the reactionary swell and revert to the kind of illiberal practices that made it a cold house for others (Foster, 2017b & 2018a). We saw in the last section that playing the Orange card instills fears primarily in nationalists and republicans. Here, the imminent return of Rome rule generates fears mainly in unionists and loyalists. Foster plays on sectarian stereotypes to mobilize opposition to a united Ireland.
Foster ignores much in his use of disagreeable social falsehoods. Even the most unremittingly negative view of the history of Irish nationalism in the south is careful to note the emerging secularist trends of the 1960s and southern nationalism’s modern heterogeneity, with its pluralist and liberal dimensions (O’Mahony & Delanty, 2001). Foster seems unconcerned with these developments. The Irish government was, of course, an integral part of the “carnival of reaction both North and South” that James Connolly predicted partition would bring. But things have changed in ways that Foster refuses to recognize. There remains, of course, plenty of room for more progressive change.
To be brief, Foster’s position is groundless. In reviewing the historical case for contemporary unionist fears of a united Ireland, Marie Coleman concludes that while loss of identity may be a real concern, fears about the policy power of the church “are unfounded and based on anachronistic and inaccurate interpretations of the past” (Coleman, 2019, n.p.). Such is the nature of Foster’s position.
Foster also dismisses much too easily, as uncharacteristic of unionist politics and culture, how the carnival of reaction unfolded (and continues to unfold) in the north. And he does not sufficiently consider that northern unionism, not Irish nationalism, is the main repository of religious fundamentalism on the island of Ireland. Finally, he ignores the manifest signs that the principal threat of anti-humanist reaction in the archipelago comes from little England, not modern Ireland.
Foster is particularly concerned that what he sees as Sinn Féin’s malignant vision of a united Ireland might be achieved, and that, as a result, he will be forced to flee the island (Foster, 2018a). He doesn’t specify which parts of the party’s vision are repulsive to him; malignancy it seems is a characteristic so permanently attached to all things Sinn Féin and republican that no elaboration is necessary.
In 2016, two years before Foster wrote his piece, Sinn Féin published a discussion document that began to sketch the outlines of what a new, united Ireland might look like. Elements of the party’s reimagined Ireland include: citizens having the continuing right to hold British citizenship and the right to pass on that citizenship to their children; “constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity;” measures to express “the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy;” “recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation;” “changes to the Irish Constitution to remove the overt influence of any one church or faith;” and “a constitutional guarantee of a pluralist education system” reflecting nationalist, unionist and other identities (Sinn Féin, 2016, p. 8).
There are valid reasons to interrogate the party’s positions in this document. But those positions do begin to address directly many of Foster’s main concerns. But Foster gives no indication that he is familiar with any of Sinn Féin’s positions. He enthusiastically criticizes the party’s vision of reunification, in blissful ignorance of what Sinn Féin is actually saying about a future united Ireland. Foster’s account lacks integrity. He offers a lazy, insubstantial and politically illiterate ‘argument.’ In the place of analysis, he relies on dubious assumptions, empty assertions, scaremongering and the repetition of divisive myths.
7. Fenian Bastards
The notion of malevolent republicanism that we see in Foster is also a general form of argument that is turned against the project of Irish unity. In short, the argument is that republicans are such bastards that you can never trust them, and your first impulse must be to oppose every political initiative remotely associated with them.
Eoghan Harris regularly practices this form of ‘reasoning.’ Here are the staple terms he uses in reference to Sinn Féin: Nazis, Hitler, Stalin, fascism, proto-fascist, godfathers, squalid terrorist, triumphalist, sectarian, tribal, atavistic, and fanaticism (Harris, 2019b, 2020b, 2020c & 2020d). Ruth Dudley Edwards wholeheartedly agrees with Harris’s interpretation, using many of the same terms (Edwards, 2020). Michael Gove, currently Minister for the Cabinet Office and responsible for overseeing the consequences of Brexit, is an avid participant in the “Fenian Bastards” view. In his diatribe against the GFA, he likened the appeasement of republicans ‘terrorists’ in the peace process to the appeasement of Nazis in the 1930s (Gove, 2000). Mallon too engages in this form of argument, with his propensity to see the “hobnailed boot” and the “cudgel” whenever he sees Sinn Féin or republicanism (Mallon, 2019, locs. 4300 & 4358).
Mallon employs this suspect reasoning in another way, which I examined above in my discussion of how he implored nationalists and republicans not to visit on unionists the same abuse that unionists had imposed on them. Liam Kennedy is also fond of this tit-for-tat argument equating contemporary republicanism with evil. He warns:
Some republicans might … see merit in compounding the pressure on Protestants by making the social and cultural environment of Northern Ireland as uncomfortable as possible for unionists with a view to promoting Protestant out-migration (a cold house option unionists were happy to visit on Catholics in the days of Stormont)” (Kennedy, 2020).
As I said in regard to Mallon, there is no evidence suggesting that this kind of threat is real. Certainly, Kennedy does not bother to substantiate his argument that republicans aim to force unionists or Protestants from Ireland. For both authors, playing on easy and odious stereotypes seems preferable to bearing the burden of meaningful analysis.
This tendency to regard Irish republicanism as the incarnation of evil was recently demonstrated in the furor over the nature of the relationship between the Provisional IRA’s Army Council and Sinn Féin. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, formerly of the RUC, sparked the controversy by a highly political intervention in the post-election talks about government formation in the south. Two weeks after the inconclusive Dáil election in early February, in which Sinn Féin surprisingly led the field in first-preference votes, he said the Garda view of IRA-Sinn Féin relations does not differ from the assessment of the northern police and British security service: the Army Council continues to oversee the party. Harris was referring to the report entitled “Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland” that the PSNI and MI5 co-authored and that the Secretary of State published in October 2015.
Mary Lou McDonald challenged the assessment by saying that: "Nobody directs Sinn Fein other than Sinn Fein members and the Sinn Fein leadership. I'm the leader of Sinn Fein, I know who runs Sinn Fein” (Breen, 2020b, n.p.). Many other senior party personnel—Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Pearse Doherty, Mickey Brady—also rejected the PSNI-MI5 conclusion, either when it was initially released in 2015 or when Drew Harris mentioned it again in the aftermath of the southern election.
But much was made of Commissioner Harris’s remarks. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar demanded that Mary Lou McDonald disband the Army Council and sever all links with the IRA. Eoghan Harris asserted that Sinn Féin is “the puppet party of the Provisional army council” (Harris, 2020b, n.p.). The UUP’s Justice Spokesperson, Doug Beattie, noted “that the IRA has not ‘gone away’.” And he reminded southern voters that the same unelected Army Council that organized the IRA’s ‘murder’ campaign on both sides of the border “still exists and now directs Sinn Fein’s political strategy” (McGovern, 2020, n.p.).
Lost in the hyperbole is what the 2015 paramilitary assessment actually said. It noted:
PIRA members believe that the PAC [Provisional Army Council] oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus. …
The PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall. It is our firm assessment that PIRA's leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means. (PSNI & MI5, 2015, paras. 13 & 14).
One major point to consider is that the PSNI-MI5 assessment does not bear the weight that Varadkar, Eoghan Harris, Beattie and many others have placed on it. The report says that it’s IRA members who believe that the Army Council oversees Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy, that the Troubles-era IRA has gone away, and that the IRA leadership is firmly committed to politics and peace.
We need to ask why so many politicians and commentators prefer the second-hand version of what the security forces believe IRA members believe to the version voiced directly by many Sinn Féin members who have publicly denied Army Council control of the party. Certainly, untangling vested interest from accuracy is a problem common to both versions. One possible explanation for the preference of the commentators and politicians is that the PSNI-MI5 view fits their pre-determined narrative while the Sinn Féin view does not. Or, more accurately, they use an abbreviated and misleading version of the assessment to reinforce their already-established position. The important question of the veracity of the assessment simply does not matter to them.
The UUP’s Beattie is repeating his party’s continuing hesitancy about sharing power with Sinn Féin, which for years was manifested by its futile policy of “no guns, no government” and by David Trimble’s triggering of multiple suspensions of devolved government. The latest incarnation of the party’s persistent doubts is its calls for a “voluntary coalition” to replace GFA-mandated power-sharing (Belfast Telegraph, 2017). Everyone understands that “voluntary coalition” is doublespeak for excluding Sinn Féin from the northern Executive, a position that has garnered support from across unionism.
Political unionism will not fully accept republicans until they formally renounce their republicanism and give official sanction to the unionist worldview. The first step in this unionist-scripted surrender is for republicans to support the permanence of partition. The next steps involve, at least, republicans agreeing with unionists that IRA ‘terrorists’ were responsible for the conflict, that the RUC and British Army bravely upheld the rule of law, and that the definition of victims must exclude ‘terrorists’. The manufactured controversy over the role of the Army Council is merely a public relations opportunity for unionists to express their continuing doubts about republicanism as a whole.
The reaction in the south to Commissioner Harris’s comments is governed entirely by the continuing electoral-political threat posed by Sinn Féin, illustrated most recently by the party’s strong performance in the February poll. In a fit of jarring illogic, Eoghan Harris likened the election outcome to a near coup (Harris, 2020c). The reaction of the two main southern political parties is equally illogical, and especially self-serving and hypocritical. The general position of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is that Sinn Féin is fit for government in the north but not in the south. Neither party explains why they so thoroughly discount Sinn Féin voters in the south nor why they think crossing the border so abruptly changes the meaning of party suitability for government.
Let me return again to the paramilitarism report, which was one catalyst for the recent storm of faux outrage. It’s perhaps sadly ironic that the same report that helped to resolve a crisis in the north in 2015 by confirming Sinn Féin’s place in power-sharing government is being used in the south in 2020 to exclude the party from government office (Emerson, 2020; Gallagher, 2020). But such is the impudent absurdity of the “Fenian Bastards” view.
Tommy McKearney brings up another essential point in this affair:
In reality, [Drew] Harris must know that, even if the Army Council still existed in its old military form, no group of seven persons could exercise control over thirty-seven popularly elected members of the Dáil. But fear of a secret army was never really the issue here. Raising the spectre of subversion is the political equivalent of the cardsharp distracting punters as he performs the three-card trick. While attention is focused on a non-existent terror threat, the issues that won Sinn Féin a large slice of the vote are being played down (McKearney, 2020b).
He is referring to such issues as housing, homelessness, healthcare, inequality, workers’ rights and the generally precarious state of public services that Sinn Féin raised to great effect during the election campaign. McKearney is correct. That Sinn Féin are, or are under the control of, “Fenian Bastards” is an argument whose main effect is to delegitimize and deflect attention from any republican proposal, programme or policy.
The process of delegitimization also extends to the project of Irish unity. Eoghan Harris, for instance, draws a straight line from Sinn Féin participating in government in the south, through the Army Council using its influence to roll over unionist concerns about a united Ireland, to “prolonged sectarian violence” (Harris, 2020a, n.p.). Harris does not offer any form of reasoning to substantiate his increasingly sensationalist claims. For him, the evil of Irish republicanism is true by definition; it is an inherent characteristic of republicanism that transcends time, space and context.
Mallon also explicitly ties the “Fenian Bastards” argument to the project of reunification. He suggests that the IRA’s armed campaign has disqualified the republican movement from participating in northern discussions about Irish unity. Unionists simply have no confidence in Sinn Féin and will not be persuaded by the republican case for unity. He argues that, on the nationalist side, the lead role in unity talks should fall to the SDLP, working with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
A major flaw in Mallon’s position is its clear hypocrisy. While he says that unionist mistrust of republicans is sufficient to exclude Sinn Féin from discussions about unity, he also calls on unionists to work respectfully with the party. He says that unionists “have to accept that the only way for Northern Ireland to work as a peaceful and consensual society is for unionists and their leaders – notably the DUP – to work alongside nationalists and their leaders – notably Sinn Féin – in a spirit of equality, respect and parity of esteem” (Mallon, 2019, loc. 4051). He doesn’t explain how or why the imperative for unionists to work alongside republicans in a spirit of equality and parity ends precipitously when discussions of Irish unity begin. Presumably, there is also a need for a united Ireland “to work as a peaceful and consensual society.”
A further flaw is that Mallon does not address the problematic question of how the new roles he assigns to Sinn Féin and the SDLP relate to the parties’ levels of popular support. But his proposal is clearly contrary to democratic logic: it eliminates the larger electoral party from any part in discussions, and rewards the smaller electoral party with a dominant role. In effect, Mallon is saying that, in northern elections, SDLP votes are worth more than Sinn Féin votes. Mallon’s system of political-constitutional stratification is becoming more and more elaborate, with nationalists subordinate to unionists, and now republicans subordinate to nationalists.
There is another way of expressing this deficiency in Mallon’s thought. His position violates a cardinal principle of any negotiation: each party to the negotiation gets to choose its own negotiators. A similar violation arises in the sentiments of some of Paul Gosling’s interviewees. Gosling has held extensive discussions with community and political leaders about Ireland’s future. He notes that: “One point made by several interviewees is that Sinn Féin cannot in the north be successful advocates of a united Ireland. History prevents them from winning over many of the people that need to be won over,” namely, “Protestants, former unionists” (Gosling, 2020, pp. 118 & 119).
Republicans need to resist any suggestion that they are less than legitimate participants in the process of constitutional change. It’s not up to constitutional nationalists or unionists, however much they dislike “Fenian Bastards,” to say who can legitimately or successfully represent republicans in discussions of unity. It’s up to republicans, and republican voters in the north and south have spoken pretty clearly. Mallon’s stance and the position of Gosling’s interviewees devalue republican votes and voters.
It’s noteworthy that no one has suggested that the UUP be disqualified from participating in talks about Ireland’s future because of its 50 noxious years of sectarian one-party rule, or that London be excluded because of the British state’s terror campaign against nationalist and republican communities, or that the DUP be turfed out because of the social and political destruction wreaked by Paisleyism. A real challenge of any such talks is not to determine who should be excluded, but to find ways to represent the full diversity of opinion on all sides.
 Other prominent unionist academics who take this view include Arthur Aughey, Richard English, David Dingley, and Patrick Roche (Burke 2017 & 2020).
 The introduction has no author.
 The title of this section, “(Part of Part of) Ulster Says No,” is meant to indicate that those saying “No” are only part of the people in the north, which is itself only part of the 9-county province of Ulster.
 This frustration is evident in Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister on 9 January 2017. See McGuinness (2017a & 2017b) and Feeney (2017a & 2017b).
 Conor Cruise O’Brien’s employed this reasoning in his constant invocation of the threat of civil war. One of his aims was to redefine Irish nationalism by stripping it of its irredentism (O’Brien, 1972).
 Humphreys (2018, p. 92) first alerted me to this quotation.
 Hayes and McAllister (2005) note the existence of constitutional and extra-constitutional political traditions in the north, and caution that: “Only a sustained period of peace is likely to negate this historical tradition of political violence” (p. 614). But their study, like the Life and Times surveys, found only a small number of Protestants (4.6%) had “a lot of sympathy” with Loyalist violence (p. 607).
 Although they did not specifically consider a post-border-poll situation.
 Willy Maley examines how critics of republican violence themselves use aggressive and intimidating tactics to bully opponents and silence dissent (Maley, 1999).
 SDLP leader Colum Eastwood made a similar point in announcing his party’s New Ireland Commission. The Irish Times reported: “The conversation around a united Ireland, the SDLP leader said, could not be led by Sinn Féin. ‘They're toxic to unionists and that's the reality, and I think we have a responsibility to do a lot of the heavy lifting on it’” (McClements, 2020, n.p.).
⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.