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25 February 2010 Edition

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Another View by Eoin Ó Broin

Supporting Irish Unity

Why would anyone support Irish reunification? Why would anyone support the ending of partition and the creation of a 32-county democratic nation-state?
To An Phoblacht readers this may seem a strange question. But it is one of the most important questions that nationalists must not only ask, but truly understand, if we are ever to achieve Irish unity.
One way of answering the question is to ask it historically. Why did large groups of people rally to the nationalist demand for a republic in the past?
At the end of the 18th century radical Presbyterians supported the republic as a means to good government and free trade while Catholics saw it as a means to securing political, cultural, religious and economic rights.
Throughout the 19th century nationalists continued to link The Republic to the attainment of rights, though not all wanted the same set of rights, or were willing to extend to others the rights they demanded for themselves.
The popular appeal of the Irish independence movement post 1916 was based on allowing people to believe that their diverse demands for social, economic, political and cultural rights could all be satisfied once The Republic was achieved, even when those rights were in conflict.
While Unionists never accepted any of this, many workers and women supported a radical interpretation of The Republic, believing that it would provide for their rights and material wellbeing.
In all cases, The Republic was not an end in itself, but a means to a bigger goal, namely a democratic and equal society. It was a means of achieving, for example; a democratic government, political and social rights for men and women, a fair distribution of the nations land, and better wages and conditions for workers.
Of course, history also tells us that the depth of democracy and equality of a republic can vary and that formal republics can be profoundly undemocratic and unequal. History also tells us that most newly established nation-states failed to deliver on the radical promise contained within their independence movements.
Historically, nationalism has promised much but for many people delivered little.
So why then should anyone support a political project that, at least for radical republicans, has offered little more than disappointment throughout our history?
Speaking at Sinn Féin’s Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda conference last Saturday, Margaret Ward and David Adams asked this very question. Margaret is feminist historian and activist. David is a unionist commentator and former politician. For this writer they were probably the two most important interventions at the conference.
For Margaret Ward, a united Ireland means nothing if it does not, ‘include a profound transformation of gender relations’. For David Adams nationalism can only succeed if it is ‘designed to accommodate, and then be sold to, unionists’.
The same point could be made for so many sections of Irish society today; how would The Republic address their concerns, needs, desires and aspirations? Only if we can answer this question, and answer it with more than rhetoric, will we have some chance of achieving our objective of a 32-county democratic nation-state.

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