Living in Belfast during my early twenties had a profound effect on how I see Irish identities and politics, and it was an experience I look back upon with fondness. Living just off the Dublin Road in a loyalist part of south-central Belfast, however, meant that there were some flags, murals, and other emblems that would’ve made the inexperienced southerner (as I was when I moved there first) pretty nervous.
During my first few weeks there, when I first walked to a friend’s house in east Belfast, there were so many Union Jack flags tied to streetlight posts that I was afraid to speak, for fear of my Dublin accent giving me away as an outsider. I remember the annoyance and confusion that hit me when a guy called me a “filthy Free Stater” after I turned him down from making a romantic pass at me in the smoking area of the Kremlin. I remember a teenager at another nightclub asking what I thought of Belfast “as someone from abroad”, and telling myself not to react to his drunken attempts to start an argument.
That was only my initial experience on what I knew of the Protestant, unionist, and/or loyalist community in Northern Ireland, and as time went on, it became much more positive than I had anticipated. I became good friends with people from that community, most notably Stephen Donnan and Gareth Russell. It was Stephen who invited me to go as moral support to a beginner’s Irish language class in the East Belfast Mission, and it was wonderful to experience people in the heart of unionist Belfast explore their connections with Irish. Gareth Russell, meanwhile, is a wonderful writer and historian who opened me up to the fascinating history of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, including the linguistic and political actions of a very distant relative of mine. These two people, hailing from different parts of Belfast’s unionist community, are wonderful friends of mine whom I miss greatly during this pandemic, and they – along with others like them – have been positive influences on my life. I also fondly remember interviewing the historian Jason Burke for the Huffington Post years ago, and how he had “no problem calling [himself] Irish, and a lot of [his] band’s members have no problem calling themselves Irish – [they are] Irish citizens of the United Kingdom.”
Considering my experiences of the PUL community in Northern Ireland, my political outlook before Brexit was that the Irish border didn’t matter, and almost didn’t exist to my generation, because all of Ireland was under the EU flag. That is now no longer the case, and while it may be expected for nationalists in the Six Counties to seek representation in Irish politics, Northern Ireland’s unionists should also always be welcome to give their voice to affairs that affect our island. It’s for that reason that I was sorry to see that with the end of Ian Marshall’s seat in Seanad Éireann, it is also the end (for now) of any unionist voice at the table in Dublin’s government.
It may be fair to say, however, that unionist representation in Leinster House is not necessarily needed. Why would you waste a seat on a unionist, one might say, when they may regard a Dublin government as foreign and probably hostile? If a seat were to be offered to any representatives from the north, why not keep it to those who want to see a united Ireland? My answer to such an argument, however, is this: We have had, and continue to have, northern nationalist representation in the Oireachtas with the presence of Niall Ó Donnghaile. If a united Ireland is to ever happen, however, it must require support from – and dialogue with – Northern Ireland’s unionist community. So, why not start that dialogue and representation now? On the other side, if unification never happens, what harm would it do to offer the platform in the name of reconciliation and cooperation?
Elected representatives are able to hold bilateral meetings and arrange cooperation where and when they like, such as through the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. It is, however, a very clear gesture to the PUL community in Northern Ireland (or indeed, those who may live on the Republic’s side of the border) that they are welcome to contribute to our political discourse should they so wish. That gesture does not set out to undermine Stormont’s legitimacy as a devolved institution, but it does recognise, like Burke’s description above, the Irish aspect of their UK citizenship.
Unionist representation in Irish politics would not be regressive, either, nor would it be anachronistic. As Marshall said in an interview with the Irish News in 2019, “Strong unionism is about sitting down with other people who have different views. Weak unionism is about circling the wagons,” and suggested that a stronger unionist leader would see no problem in travelling to Dublin more often.
It is for that same reason, I feel, that the departure of Mike Nesbitt and demise of Basil McCrea from unionist politics were to the detriment of Northern Irish society, as both were relatively progressive politicians who had more confidence in the future and fate of their homeland. I personally didn’t always agree with Mike Nesbitt, for example, but I had a deep respect for his style of leadership and desire to rehumanise politics. A figure like Nesbitt, therefore, would be an ideal candidate to represent (and in many ways, explain) moderate Unionist thoughts on all-Ireland affairs and issues affecting both sides of the border, like agriculture, business, community engagement, and more.
While the latest government has not appointed someone like Ian Marshall, or anyone else from the unionist community to take a seat in the new Oireachtas, I’d personally like to see a new figure step forward in the future to take on such a role. If I were Taoiseach tomorrow, my first choice would be Linda Ervine, who has done incredible work to make the Irish language accessible once again to her community, something I will never forget seeing at the East Belfast Mission years ago. While her work has always focused solely on her love of the language, she is a shining example of the shared heritage and culture of this island’s inhabitants, and proof that divisions and suspicions are not necessary in a 21st Century Ireland.
Time will tell what happens next for the new Irish government and how it interacts with Stormont and Northern Ireland overall, but I certainly hope, for the sake of my friends in Belfast and elsewhere, that we see an example set by extending a warmer welcome to the PUL community. After all, as Carson was a Dubliner, unionism’s own heritage manages to cross today’s borders.