by Frank Schnittger
Sat May 27th, 2023 at 08:48:56 PM EST
A response to Andy Pollak's complaint about the southern Irish media
My friend Andy Pollak has written long and eloquently about the ignorance of the southern electorate of all things north of the border, and delights in quoting academics who share this view. Academic disdain for the ignorance of the masses is, of course, nothing new, but in fairness, Andy’s latest treatise on Slugger O'Toole on the ignorance of the southern media could only have been written by an insider who knows the industry well.
As someone who has never been published in the southern media other than in a couple of hundred Letters to the Editor or a feature, in the Village Magazine, critical of the Irish Times website reboot some years ago, I have no particular interest in defending it.
And yet I find myself in utter disagreement with Andy.
Ireland is a small country, with a limited media market and very few prominent titles, each with their own agenda. The state broadcaster, like any state broadcaster, tends not to stray too far from government policy.
The Irish Times isn’t bad, but If you want good coverage of international events you have to go to the Guardian, New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post, European titles or Al Jazeera. The BBC is increasingly significant for what it doesn’t report on rather than what it does, but all these outlets have their own agendas.
Thus it is hardly fair to single out Irish media for having an agenda, or not being over enthused about having extensive coverage of the North. Nobody outside Northern Ireland has. So, I felt moved to respond to Andy’s column with a comment which grew to over a thousand words, which in my view is too long for a comment. So, I have asked Slugger to publish it here as a separate post below.
Comments in response to Andy’s post:
1. The market for traditional "news" is declining the world over. Most in my extended circle, including many with doctorates, get their news via social media now.
2. The degree of knowledge of the north you get in the south, is still an order of magnitude greater than you will find in Britain.
3. Most find the north to be an incredibly boring and stagnant place in terms of its politics, economics or social development. There is only so much guff about the "protocol" which even the most engaged can take. The dominant narrative presented is one of backwardness, bigotry and decline. Who wants to read about that?
4. Mostly I read Andy’s diatribes about southern ignorance as a complaint that the vast majority refuse to engage with the north on his or on unionist terms. I don't have a problem with that. Engaging with unionism on its terms would drag southern society back 50 years, and that is not a price most are willing to pay.
5. Andy’s logic appears to be: if southerners want a united Ireland, they must engage with the current manifestations of unionism on their terms. But that is not the United Ireland most want. And if that means no united Ireland in our lifetimes, then so be it. Unionism does not get to have a veto on the ongoing development of Irish society, which is moving further and further away from a Britain centric view of the world to a European and globally centric view.
6. More and more it seems to me as if Andy is looking for a lifeline for a beleaguered and failing unionism and looking to the south as a likely sucker to save it. But as he says himself, the south isn't interested on those terms. If re-unification happens, it will be done on terms acceptable to the south, and no amount of threats of violence by unionists will change that. Indeed, such threats will only increase the determination of the south not it to engage with a political unionism always seeming to be only one step away from violence, bigotry, and delusions of superiority.
7. Andy may view all of this as simply more evidence of southern arrogance, ignorance, smugness, and complacency. But why should southerners abandon a model of society which works for them in order to appease a unionism which doesn't want to be part of them in the first place, and which hard experience shows simply can't be appeased?
8. There is only one circumstance which can lead to a united Ireland, and that is if a majority in Northern Ireland vote for it. (A cynic might observe that the UK will only allow such a vote if it , too, has come to the conclusion it is better off without Northern Ireland). In that circumstance the vast majority, the world over, and not only in Ireland, will expect the democratic will of the majority to be respected and honoured. No ifs, ands, or buts. Andy would be better advised encouraging the acceptance of such a democratic outcome rather than encouraging unionists to believe they could have a veto on the future shape of that unity which they could exercise through violence, non-cooperation, or sheer thran.
9. I am not as pessimistic as Andy. l believe the vast majority, north and south, would work day and night to make a united Ireland a success, politically, economically, and socially. Of course, there will have to be no end of consultation, mediation, and compromise with people of different backgrounds to give them time to get used to new realities and give them a sense of participation and ownership of a society that is evolving rapidly in any case. Unionists could have a profound influence on the future direction of travel of Ireland as a whole, but that would be through the democratic process, post re-unification, and not to spite it.
10. However it is futile to expect political unionism to engage in any such consultation, mediation, or compromise right now. That is tantamount to asking them to admit defeat prior to any border poll. Their focus now, quite rightly, in my view, is on winning such a border poll. Their current concern seems to be on trying to maintain solidarity and turnout within their own community rather than reaching out to “the middle ground”, but I have little doubt that in the event of a border poll being called, unionism will exert huge pressure on middle ground voters to support the constitutional status quo.
11. All advanced societies are a mix of many different ethnicities and identities with minority rights and rights of protest enshrined in law. It is the job of good statecraft and governance to ensure this pluralism is honoured and celebrated rather than suppressed. I have no doubt that many unionists will continue to celebrate their protestant and British identity, advocate for closer ties to Britain, and bring their distinctive northern culture to bear on the culture of the island as a whole. This should be welcomed. It cannot, however, be allowed to override the democratic process as a whole, subject to the guaranties of the European Charter of Fundamental rights, as enshrined in the Irish constitution.
12. A very few unionists may choose not to engage with a united Ireland in such a positive manner. That, too, is their entitlement, provided it is done within the law. Some may choose to emigrate, just as many “British” are relocating to Ireland as at the moment. Others may retreat into cultural ghettos. Some may not benefit directly from a thriving economy due to a lack of skills or qualifications. Every effort should be made to overcome such barriers to enable a successful and fulfilling engagement by all who want it. An advanced society should be capable of accommodating many different sub-cultures. But none of this can happen in the absence of respect for the democratic process as enshrined in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA). No advanced democracy can tolerate violence or threats of violence as a legitimate means of furthering a political agenda.
All of which brings me to my central point. The BGFA stipulates one condition, and one condition only for the transfer of sovereignty over Northern Ireland from Britain to Ireland: A simple majority vote within Northern Ireland. That is the basis for the peace settlement we currently enjoy. It does not stipulate this can only happen if Ireland becomes much more like Britain to make unionists feel more comfortable. Losers’ consent is already explicit in the treaty, and is required of nationalists now.
Attempts by unionists and others to reinterpret the BGFA to imply that a supermajority should be required or that Ireland must make numerous unspecified concessions to unionism in return for their acceptance of the democratic outcome of a border poll serve only to undermine that democratic peace settlement, not improve it. It is also disrespectful to unionists insofar as it implies that their sense of Britishness can be bought off by largely symbolic “concessions”, and to nationalists that they cannot have the united Ireland many have worked so hard for and waited so long to achieve.
The Irish people's determination not to engage with such wishful thinking is, in my view, wise. There should be no attempt to disingenuously dangle various "concessions" to unionism in the vain hope of persuading some to vote for a united Ireland. What Andy sees as wilful ignorance of Northern Ireland I see as a wise prioritisation of Ireland’s economic well-being and political future within an EU and a global context. There is little to be gained by obsessing on the unresolved conflicts and bitterness of the past.
Ireland will do more to encourage a positive future for all on this island by dealing with our public housing and healthcare crises, by addressing various infrastructural deficits and climate change challenges, and by building up a substantial sovereign wealth fund to mitigate future reductions in corporate tax receipts, the costs of an aging population, and other risks to future economic well-being. This should be our priority rather than any futile engagement with the few fringe civic unionists currently prepared to countenance discussions of a united Ireland.
Southern conservatives who jump on the “we must appease the unionists” bandwagon may also be doing so to further their own political agenda, down south, in order to roll back the tide of liberal and secular reforms and reaffirm the hegemony of the current propertied classes. Many share the unionists’ conservative moral, social and economic philosophies and would gladly make common cause with them to push back on the welfare “nanny” state and creeping European social democracy and integration. It wouldn’t be the first time that others have sought to leverage unionist conservatism to further their own agendas.
But at the end of the day, the citizens of sovereign states determine their own future, and that is as it should be. We will not be bound by the chains of the past. What some see as ignorance of unionist concerns, I see as a wise avoidance of entanglement in a past best left behind. There may have been some excellent Irish journalism during the troubles, but let us hope it is never required again. In the meantime, a new Ireland is being built before our eyes. That is the real story here that unionists and their sympathisers do not seem to wish to acknowledge. Unionists are welcome to join that new Ireland when Northern Ireland is good and ready to do so by way of a majority vote. In the meantime, our focus is, rightly, on making Ireland an even greater success than it already is.
For behold, I have made all things new.
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”