A combination of strong values and Irish republicanism have made the Free State of Northern Ireland a ‘traditional untraditional’ union, according to a new book by Sinead Fanning.
After a turbulent and historic period in the nation’s history, the Free State is “the last bastion of a cultural continuity” that Ireland’s diverse island faces.
At a time when the nation is redefining itself, the Republic of Ireland stands at the crossroads as it “prepares to embrace new modes of social cohesion and form a global community”.
The image of the ‘traditional Irish’ unionist is remarkably Irish for what it is not.
Firstly, the Catholic churches, yes the Irish government were in bed together with institutions that would later be challenged by some Catholics, but the Republic of Ireland’s Protestant government were staunch defenders of Unionism through constitutional and constitutional challenges to retain the Free State’s status as ‘the United Ireland istanced’.
It was the attitude of those in the Republic that ensured that whilst Nationalism and the Free State were often at odds with each other, the memory of the modern Irish Republic still had something to do with stability for the people. The ‘unifying’ legacy of the Irish Republic has also come from where it was born, deep social equality and equality of opportunity.
Secondly, as recently as 1993, more than 60% of the population in Northern Ireland lived below the poverty line. Within Northern Ireland today, where a significant proportion of those living on lower incomes are of working age, that number has fallen to over 35%.
A high degree of economic and social equality was achieved in Northern Ireland largely through the unique relationship that exists between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. This historic relationship still forms the basis of Irish unity and Irish unity can see both countries in a strong position to confront the opportunities and challenges that the age of Brexit presents.
The three hundred and sixty-three year Irish single territory, 300 years younger than the United Kingdom and formed before the birth of the United Kingdom, brings two different identities into one historical mix. Such an intense blending of cultural identities is what made the ‘traditional Irish’ unionist distinct from the Republic and could have brought centuries of conflict to Northern Ireland. The ‘traditional Irish’ unionist’s feelings towards their union with the Republic are deep and historical. They were often at odds with these more recent republican nationalists of Northern Ireland.
However, ever since the foundation of the Free State, some in Northern Ireland have defined themselves against nationalism. They fought against the promotion of republicanism during a period of negotiation for Irish unity, identity and the modern Irish Republic became openly discussed in some of the largest unionist entities, almost never has it been so argued against by republican nationalists.
When most discussions about Irish unity are focused on one man in Ireland or ‘Éirnáin’, it can be hard to see how the stability of the union between the Republic and Northern Ireland can benefit everyone. For whilst yes, this may be an area of particularity for unionism, it is also a cohesive and exceptional approach to Irish unity for all citizens in the island.
It is a union which is rooted in a tradition that may need preserving, but it is something that “is not just moving along for a short period in history; it has deeply rooted in the history of the island and is growing with time”.
It also shows that “Irishness in a particular way has become more inclusive, more multi-cultural, more European in our thinking”. It is no longer viewed as a completely exclusive and exclusive definition of Irish identity, rather it is about the identity of a distinctive, inclusive and multi-cultural group of people.
A growing number of Northern Irish people see the Republic as the ‘culmination’ of their heritage, “island identity is no longer synonymous with a restricted or exclusive definition of who Irish and today Irishness is about a rich and complex mix of identities that have come to define both the identity of the free state and of the people of Northern Ireland”.
It is not ‘traditional’ to say that Northern Ireland is a unique part of the Irish nation. It is certainly not ‘untraditional’ to say that the union of Ireland and Northern Ireland will always be stronger than unionist and republican differences. Such a view could allow for an inevitable unity during a less rosy future, but it is not one of welcome in today’s Ireland.
“In many ways Ireland’s unity is what the Republic can offer both in the short and long term as well as what the Republic can offer in the long term.”