Yesterday I asked two friends from the southern Catholic nationalist tribe into which I was born how they would feel about a united Ireland.

Published: 31 January 2023

​One said “Utterly negative. I don’t want my nice country messed up.”

The second one screamed, which I took to mean she didn’t like the idea.

I can’t pretend that a sample of two is significant compared to polls showing that more than 60% of southern Irish are in favour of unity, but in frank conversations I’ve found few that didn’t agree that Irish nationalists are prone to hypocrisy on what is known as the national question.

The pro-unity numbers drop dramatically if there is any question of it requiring, for example, changing the national anthem, joining the Commonwealth or putting a penny on taxes.

A couple of weeks back, responding to nationalist bewilderment that people could take offence at a rendition of a ‘harmless’ rebel song, Patrick Kielty gently told a simple truth on RTE’s The Tommy Tiernan Show.

“You can’t physically unite the island and have nearly a million unionists up the road joining this country without changing some furniture to make those people feel welcome,” he said.

“I think you could probably start with not singing, ‘Oooh ah, up the ‘RA’’ in the changing rooms…”

When I began to get involved in conferences about Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, and go there regularly, I found the subject was largely a turn-off down south — except of course for committed republicans, who mostly had fixed opinions which they didn’t want challenged.

I did however become involved in some contentious arguments when I began to write about it in the 1990s and was critical about appeasement of the IRA.

When tribal fires were blazing, as, for instance, in reaction to violence over parades, it fascinated me how little well educated, sophisticated people down south actually knew about the province.

I recall vividly visiting Dublin during one of the Drumcree stand-offs, listening to friends denouncing David Trimble for not calling off the protests and my inability to get through to them that being leader of the Ulster Unionist Party didn’t give you any control over the Orange Order.

What was most worrying was that they didn’t realise how ignorant they were, since with most of them — if they ever went to Northern Ireland at all — it was a brief visit to Belfast.

Nothing much has changed in the last quarter of a century, as was shown by yet another poll the Irish Times discussed at the weekend, which investigated cross-border relationships.

“The results show the extent to which partition has become a fact on the ground,” commented Pat Leahy, the newspaper’s political editor, “with the separation between the two societies on a personal level that is stark”.

More than half those polled in Northern Ireland said they had no friends in the Republic, two-thirds had no relations there, and a quarter had not travelled south in the past five years.

But they were well travelled compared to those in the Republic, two-thirds of whom had no friends up north, more than 80% had no relations there any more and half hadn’t crossed the border in the past five years.

But even those who did questioned how well accepted they were in the Republic. A woman in a focus group remarked, “My brother has been living in north Dublin for maybe two decades now and he still gets the ‘Nordie’ label down there.”

“I think the British people up there are even more British than the people living in England,” said another, “if you get me, and the Irish people up there are extremely Irish more than what we would be.”

I believe that the Union is safe because, as Leahy puts it, “Partition has become embedded in the daily lives of people on the island”.

I just wish unionists were better at making a positive case.

As Philip Smith, UUP Councillor and co-founder of the pro-Union campaign group Uniting UK, wrote the other day (Unionists should heed Napoleon’s advice, and wear a velvet, January glove over an iron fist), “they should remember that reaching out to others does not weaken the iron hand of your fundamental principle of remaining within the Union”.

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