NATO and Irish unity…

Journalists, politicians, and political writers have a tendency to project their own political preferences onto their visions for the future, and nowhere is this more evident than when Irish writers express their visions for a united Ireland. Fintan O’Toole and Andy Pollak have frequently lamented the state of Irish society and vented their feelings about how things must change, allegedly to accommodate unionists, but in reality, to satisfy their own political preferences.

Former TD, MEP, and government Minister, Gay Mitchell is the latest to join the throng. Writing on the letter’s page of the Irish Times he opines:

NATO and Irish unity – Letters, Wed Apr 26, 2023

Sir, – John Maguire (Letters, April 24th) is quite right. Sean MacBride expressed opposition to NATO in 1982, and at other times. By then he was a recipient of the Noble Peace Prize (1974) and shortly afterwards the Lenin Peace Prize. He was addressing a very broad audience at that time, in an international capacity. Nevertheless, it was he who based Ireland’s opposition to joining NATO, on its formation, solely on partition. The ending of partition, if it ever comes about, will put the issue of NATO membership centre stage.

Brendan Butler (April 24th) is right that countries are free to leave NATO but other countries are also free to oppose such moves in a democratic manner.

My point is that negotiations on a united Ireland would require agreement of the UK and, very likely, the support of the US and EU states to bring it about, just as the Belfast Agreement did. We can hardly expect those states which are part of NATO to be cheerleaders for Northern Ireland to leave NATO.

As I have already stated, those who are most vociferous in seeking a border poll are equally vociferous in opposition to NATO.

If this is their reaction to this one issue, how difficult would it be to agree a united Ireland with NATO membership, Commonwealth membership, dual currencies, equality for both British and Irish identity throughout the island, continued consultation rights for the British government on issues related to what would be the British minority (as the Irish Government currently has in Northern Ireland), regional parliaments, a role for the British monarch, and, dare I mention it, the circa €15 billion annual subsidy to Northern Ireland currently paid by the UK?

There is need for much more research and debate on what a united Ireland could entail. – Yours, etc,


I was particularly concerned with his assertion that:

My point is that negotiations on a united Ireland would require agreement of the UK and, very likely, the support of the US and EU states to bring it about”

Nowhere in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement is there any reference to a united Ireland only being possible through negotiation with other countries and Ireland meeting their demands in respect to membership of NATO or any other requirement.

So, I responded in the Irish Times as follows:

NATO and Irish unity – Progressive and peaceful changes to the world order

Letters – Thu Apr 27, 2023

A chara, – Gay Mitchell lists all the many compromises he considers necessary for the creation of a united Ireland, including membership of NATO (Letters, April 26th).

In reality, there is only one pre-condition for a united Ireland, and that is a majority vote in favour within Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Belfast Agreement. The UK is obligated by that international treaty to transfer sovereignty over Northern Ireland to Ireland without further preconditions in that circumstance.

Of course, the Irish government of the day will want to foster good relations with the UK and the unionist community in those circumstances, just as we seek to do now, but any decision on NATO membership and the other issues Mr Mitchell mentions will be a matter for the new sovereign united Ireland government and its people, including the unionist community.

Whether unionists seek to retain NATO membership as a matter of priority remains to be seen, but any promise of such membership is unlikely to sway many unionists to vote for a united Ireland in any border poll, while it may sway some of the electorate to vote against it.

We must distinguish between what is required to make a united Ireland possible and what the sovereign government and people of that new political entity will choose to do in the future. No doubt policy and constitutional changes will be sought by some unionists to make them feel more comfortable in the new state. Others may choose not to identify with the new state regardless of any changes proposed.

Sovereign states have a tendency to chart their own course, and of course that includes fostering good relations with neighbours, at home and abroad.

But who can say with certainty what the future holds for all of us in a world that is yet to be created?

Unionists could surprise us all and demand progressive and peaceful changes to the world order. There is, after all, a strong Quaker tradition in Northern Ireland. – Is mise,

It is almost an article of faith, in conservative Irish establishment circles, to observe that Ireland is freeloading on the security provided by NATO on Europe as a whole. According to this world view, the world is irrevocably divided into good and bad guys, and we must protect ourselves against the bad guys by becoming part of a military alliance of the good guys.

Never mind that for much of NATO’s history, it has been instrumental in the invasion or subversion of third countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria which have been more to do with neo-colonial geo-political conflicts of little relevance to Ireland. We too, have experience of colonial domination, allegedly for our own good, and know what that feels like on the receiving end.

But my purpose here is not to argue the merits or demerits of NATO or Irish membership thereof. That is an ongoing debate, and will no doubt survive any transition to a united Ireland. Unionists becoming part of the Irish polity will no doubt influence that debate, and many may indeed favour a united Ireland joining NATO. But that is a discussion for another day.

Unionists, quite rightly, in my view, refuse to engage in substantive discussions of Irish re-unification as that would be to undermine the very basis of their unionism. They need to maintain solidarity within their own community, and that community’s sense of self, of their own identity, is linked to the union with Britain, for better or worse.

It is, of course, quite natural for nationalists to argue that that union with Britain is, increasingly, for the worse, and to seek to persuade the persuadable that the time has come to unite with Ireland instead.

But that should not include disingenuous claims that Ireland can become more and more like Britain by joining NATO, the Commonwealth, and accepting a role for the British monarch and government in the future governance of Ireland.

A united Ireland, as a sovereign nation, will plot its own course, dependent only on the democratic will of its own people, then including unionists, and anything which is put into the constitution in response to pressure from other countries can be taken out again, by popular referendum. The history of the Irish state is one of constant evolution, with constitutional amendments playing a prominent role.

Even membership of the EU can be revoked, if that is the will of the Irish people, including unionists, at the time. There is nothing set in stone for evermore. Conservative nationalists may seek to make common cause with conservative unionists to promote membership of NATO, the Commonwealth, and a degree of re-union with Britain. – Yes, there is a significant anglophile section within the Irish establishment who would welcome such closer ties.

Some may also seek to roll back the liberalisation and secularisation of Irish society by creating alliances between nearly all the religious communities around issues like, abortion, marriage equality and divorce. Historical change is not necessarily always one way.

But what I am objecting to the Gay Mitchell’s letter is the faux necessary connection he makes between Irish re-unification and the realisation of his conservative agenda. A united Ireland is NOT dependent on negotiations and agreement with Britain, Europe or the USA on membership of NATO or any other organisations. It is ONLY depended on the will of the Northern Ireland people as expressed in a border poll.

Adding all sorts of other conditions to Irish re-unification is like Ian Paisley jnr. Seeking to change the 50%+1 majority vote enshrined in the Belfast Good Friday agreement into a requirement for a supermajority, as if the will of a minority should over-ride the will of a majority.

The other thing I object to is the seeming assumption that just because unionism has been led by extremely conservative and reactionary leaders in the past, that will necessarily always be the case in the future. When you meet unionists outside of the current context of Northern Ireland, you frequently find them to be as cosmopolitan, progressive, and diverse as anyone else.

The fear in some progressive circles in the south that an influx of large numbers of very conservative unionists (and nationalists) into the Irish polity could roll back the tide of progressive change since the 1980’s is, in my view, very misplaced. People can change, and generally do when the political context in which they must operate changes.

Without a union to defend, unionists could experience an utter transformation in the political, economic and social opportunities open to them. If they can be so pro-active and progressive when outside Ireland, why not within a united Ireland as well?

I have no doubt that some unionists will never accept the result of a border poll in favour of Irish unification. Some will live in denial, and retreat into their own communities. Some may emigrate. A few may even threaten violence. That sadly, is the way of much of the world.

But the vast majority of unionists could also accept the democratic result, embrace the new Ireland, and make a major contribution to making it a success, much as the small protestant minority in the south has done. And Ireland will be the richer for it.

But what we must not assume that a united Ireland will be created in the image of what has gone before, north or south, preserving existing elites, attitudes, and government or party political priorities. Unionists should not allow themselves to be used as an excuse by southern conservatives to promote an agenda that would otherwise be opposed by the vast majority.

The fact is, we do not know who would emerge as leaders in Northern Ireland post re-unification, what their policy priorities would be, and what their impact on the new Irish polity would be. Some will no doubt continue to proudly proclaim their British identity, and advocate for closer links to Britain. That would be their democratic right.

But others, freed from the constraints of current fears and anxieties, might choose another road to proclaim a uniquely northern Irish contribution to Irish, European, and world politics.

We can see it now in sport, in the arts, in community initiatives, and in new business ventures and technologies. Never let your vision of what is possible be limited by others, and especially not by an older generation whose vision has been curtailed by the pain and constraints of the past. It is time to see beyond the old battles and embrace the challenges of a new era.

The world is not a simple place divided into good guys and bad guys, communists and capitalists, western and eastern values, unionists and nationalists. We do not always have to fight the same battles, along the same fault lines, with the same results. Indeed, a better future depends on us identifying and addressing the real challenges we all face, and not let ourselves be distracted or deflected by the dualities of the past.

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