A Chara,- Peter Cardwell writes "Unionism [is] not emotionally ready for conversation about united Ireland" (Opinion, 14th. April) and declares that those, like Jim O'Callaghan, who wish to start a debate about a united Ireland "must not go beyond unionism so quickly, rather meet unionists halfway, starting a more low-key discussion cognisant of first principles and current realities".
In other words, unionism at present, is open only to a discussion about possible reforms within the current constitutional structure. He recalls how David Trimble, when asked what unionism really wanted, said simply: "To be left alone." There never was a half-way house for unionists.
Indeed, if all Trimble wanted as a unionist was to be "left alone", why then did he actively support a hard Brexit, against the opposition of the vast majority in N. Ireland? And if unionists find it hard to engage in a conversation about a united Ireland now, how do they think nationalists feel about being declared British at every turn by unionists for the past 100 years?
"What is unionism without the union? " is indeed a good question, but it is one only unionists can truly answer: "What do they want to be?" seems an appropriate response.
Just as the EU had a hard time negotiating Brexit with the UK because the UK never seemed to be able to make up its mind as to what kind of Brexit it truly wanted, it is almost impossible for nationalists to engage constructively with unionists on a united Ireland because the response always seems to be a childishly petulant "I don't want it! Ulster says NO!"
That means, effectively, that if a referendum on Irish unity is ever passed, north and south, unionists will have played no part in determining what sort of a united Ireland will be formed in its aftermath. Some have declared their determination to emigrate to Britain in that event, on the grounds that you can only be British under British sovereignty. Tell that to the millions of British expats around the world!
But ultimately, we don't want unionists to feel like expats living in a foreign country if Ireland is united. They are being invited to help shape that possible future, but you can take a horse to the water; you can't make it drink: ultimately it is their free choice whether to engage or not.
But it is unionism's failure to offer an attractive alternative future to the people of N. Ireland that will ultimately determine their fate. What are they offering nationalists as an alternative? A Northern Ireland outside the EU and part of a union which may disintegrate with the emergence of English nationalism and Scottish independence?
The fact that Mr. Cardwell seems to be relying on the appointment of a civil servant, Sue Gray, as second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office in London to maintain the union is telling. Is insider dealing by a civil servant in London unionism's best hope?
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to be governed by an international Treaty which explicitly recognises the legitimacy and equality of both unionist and nationalist aspirations and declares that the UK government has no self-interested motives in furthering either outcome. It was never as "British as Finchley" as Thatcher declared, but now that is formally recognised in the Good Friday Agreement.
It was this hybrid constitutional structure which unionists supporting Brexit threatened to overturn and which has now forced the UK government into explicitly rejecting that attempted overthrow.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is the mechanism by which N. Ireland can remain both within the UK and within the EU Single Market and Customs Union. It may be an inelegant device, but it is the only way that both identities can be granted "equality of esteem." Unionists who thought they could have it all their own way again have indeed been "slow learners" as Seamus Mallon once declared.
Unionists may feel let down that their loyalty to Britain is not being reciprocated but they have been loyal to a Britishness which has not been dominant since the days of empire. Unionists may not be "emotionally ready" to have a conversation about a united Ireland, but time and tide wait for no man. It is their unwillingness to even discuss changing realities that has led to this emotional unreadiness.
Andrew Trimble apart, the lack of leadership in the unionist community has been staggering. Arlene Foster's declaration that she would rather emigrate than live in a united Ireland says it all. She is prepared to abandon her friends, relatives and neighbours rather than lead them through what would undoubtedly be a difficult transition for them. With leaders like that, who needs enemies?