O’Neill is the former author of the blog ‘A Pint of Unionist Lite’.
In 2009 Mark Perryman published “Breaking Up Britain”, a collection of essays from mainly anti-Union luminaries such as Gerry Adams, Leanne Woods, Mike Parker and Richard Thomson. The singer Billy Bragg in complimenting the book remarked that it:
“…helps us understand what Scots, Welsh, Irish and English neighbours, freed from unhappy Union, might look like”.
It was (against my expectations) not that bad a read actually but what struck me most at the time was the “inevitability” of the Union’s collapse which was genuinely believed and propagated by not just the vast majority of the contributors but also by such notable commentators on constitutional affairs as Tom Nairn and Gerry Hassan.
Maybe it was an understandable belief to hold; after all Salmond and the SNP were riding a crest of a wave and if that first domino of Scotland were to fall then surely that would give the momentum for both Welsh and Irish nationalism to push for their own separation from the greater whole. The English, through the medium of organizations such as the Campaign for an English Parliament, were also showing signs of, if not quite separatism, then at least more self-awareness of their own potential devolutionary strength.
The demise of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom had, of course, been predicted as a logical inevitability right from its creation in 1921.
And, to be fair, it wasn’t just Irish nationalism which was hailing the “inevitability”; in Dean Godson’s excellent biography of David Trimble he reported on a private conversation with a senior member of the DUP who basically also was of the opinion that a United Ireland would be along very shortly and the fundamental role of the DUP in the 32 county state would be to protect the interests of the protestant minority in North East Ulster.
There were lone voices preaching against this pessimism, notably the University of Ulster professor Arthur Aughey, who warned Unionists from falling for this philosophy of “endism” as he labeled it. David Trimble, however, had been perhaps the first major British figure to see the dangers behind the sense of defeatism which had seeped into the Unionist sub-consciousness post the Belfast Agreement, a defeatism which had solidified with the apparently inexorable rise of Scottish nationalism after 2008 or so.
In 1998, when there was an outbreak of the serious jitters round about the time of the Agreement’s signing, he had pointed the Young Unionists towards a work by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper entitled “The Poverty of Historicism”. As it so happens, my better and much more intellectual half was and remains a devotee of Popper’s other seminal work which dealt with the necessity of the Open Society for the smooth operation of democracy. A decade after Trimble’s advice, it was she who helped guide me (with great deal of patience) through “The Poverty of Historicism”.
Its argument can be summed up in the following three interconnecting points:
1) The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge.
2) We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge.
3) We cannot therefore predict the future course of history.
There is no such thing as historical inevitability.
Could it had been predicted in 2008 that the SNP would have scored such a spectacular and unnecessary own goal as it did with the question of continuing European Union membership post-separation?
Could it have been predicted in 1998, that a Northern Ireland fourteen years on from the Belfast Agreement would deliver both a protestant “minority” and a sole “Irish identity” figure of less than 30% of the population?
“No”, to both questions.
Does the acquisition of this “knowledge” influence the perceived strength of the Union in a positive direction at this point in time? At this “point in time”, yes, quite obviously it does. At this specific “point in time” for a variety of reasons, some positive, some negative, I think the Union (if not necessarily the Northern Irish or Scottish pro-Union parties) is at the strongest point it has been for maybe the last 10 years.
Great then, Union secured…
Before we get too complacent however let’s introduce an infamous quotation from Donald Rumsfeld to further illustrate Popper’s theory:
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
In the Northern Irish context, our most important “known knowns” in terms of determining the present strength of the Union are the figures delivered by the last election and census. Those tell us that the Union is at this present moment in time indeed secure.
Our “known unknowns” are, for example, how future elections will pan out, how will the younger generation treat the question of national identity. Also there are other such issues as the speed of the recovery of the Republic’s economy, the results of the Scottish referendum and even such seemingly unconnected matters as the tuition fee structure in the mainland’s universities. We know that all these factors will affect the strength of the Union, we simply don’t know how and to what extent.
Finally, the “unknown unknowns”. These are, by , definition, impossible to predict but off the top of my head one could be a more civic style of Irish nationalism replacing the narrow, monocultural, communalist version which presently exists in Northern Ireland. That seems given the present nature of both the SDLP and Sinn Fein very difficult to imagine at the moment but if it were to happen would it affect the strength of the Union? Probably.
So, no, the Union is only secure given our present circumstances and previous events.
We (Unionism) have been lucky enough to be delivered the set of conditions which exist at the present moment, 10th of January 2013, in the United Kingdom.
But absolutely nothing can be taken for granted in terms of the impact of future events – how then can we prepare both in Northern Ireland and on the wider national stage for any eventuality which might happen within the short and medium term?Share on Facebook