Jumping to conclusions over ‘unity’ talk

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

The summer schools are over now and ‘it’s back to porridge’ for another year.

For the month of August it seemed there wasn’t a politician or academic in the country who wasn’t holding forth on some literary, historical or political issue in some obscure part of the island.

What a great idea to attract a bit of money to places in counties Clare or Mayo or Wicklow that wouldn’t otherwise clap eyes on a stranger.

The one contribution that stood out as challenging and thought-provoking came from the north - Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s talk to the Merriman School in Lisdoonvarna, a place, which this month will be echoing to the screeches of desperate culchies doing hand-brake turns in tractors to impress equally desperate, love-lorn women.

Sir Ken may be 76 but he is prepared to look ahead and is not afraid to think the unthinkable.

The most instructive element of his talk was to take as a starting point that the political and institutional arrangements are neither static nor set in stone.

That led him to consider what requirements are necessary to accommodate any changes that may occur. This basic acceptance in Bloomfield’s address of inevitable change was ignored in the knee-jerk responses unionists made to his remarks.

Instead they concentrated on one sentence in which Bloomfield said: “I do not find the idea of some form of Irish unity or closer association in any way unthinkable in principle.” Shock, horror.

For the doyen of the liberal unionist establishment, even though he is not associated with any political party, to come out with that line - however hedged around with qualifications - was too much for the political pygmies who populate the unionist landscape.

The printable reactions were automatic dismissal, derision, amazement. In short, no more than you would expect and perhaps a lot less than Bloomfield himself anticipated.

Few read the full text of his talk and why he concluded that closer links with the Republic are not unthinkable. He reached this conclusion because of what he called “that parody of democratic government, described as ‘direct rule’,” which he could not bear returning to. Also because “we have been governed by a party, which had not received or even invited a single vote from the people of Northern Ireland.

“We have had our laws whisked through the British parliament with a minimum of debate and no opportunity for amendment.

“We have been made to feel peculiarly unloved by many of those to whom we have pledged our loyalty for generations.”

Home truths unionists need to contemplate.

He also pointed out that there is a “growing sense in the north (his choice of name) of the need to be more self-sufficient”. He left the question unasked but how else is that to be achieved by a local administration, which has no tax-raising or tax-varying powers?

Is Gordon Brown’s refusal to alter corporation tax a message?

If you want tax-varying powers then maybe align yourself with someone else.

In one of the most important passages of his talk Bloomfield envisaged “the prospect of ultimate unity or a changed relationship as a process, not a single dramatic step. “Let us rather think of it as a possible or potential contract between distinct groups of people, with all the cards on the table. The process of which I speak should have a modest beginning and no pre-determined end.” He suggested looking at various systems, including federation or variations of devolved institutions. Bloomfield would know that de Valera had made provision in his constitution for a subordinate administration in the north.

Again, because unionists did not read Bloomfield’s paper they were not aware that he posed serious and difficult questions for any Irish government, including what alterations they would make to Irish institutions to accommodate the Britishness and unionism of people in the north, and the costs of subsidising the north, which he compared with the impact on Germany of absorbing East Germany.

There is no point in unionists dismissing his challenge. As Bloomfield said, “Irish unity is the heart of the matter”. The issue will not go away you know.

Unionists who took him under their notice at all said, No, the Good Friday Agreement is it.

Disraeli said, “change is constant”.

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