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Garbage in The Times on Irish Unity

The Times on Irish Unity

A recent article in the Times by A N Wilson advocated a path to Irish Unity. The fact that the article was full of inaccuracies, and indeed contained no accurate arguments at all, embarrassingly failed to be noticed by the editorial staff at the paper.

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The Times last Saturday published an opinion piece by the literary critic and novelist A N Wilson arguing that the UK should abandon Northern Ireland to a future in an united Ireland. The article was so low-grade that one despairs of the Times and its lack of fact checkers.

Wilson made a series of points which were factually wrong or just silly.  He asserted that a majority of people in GB would support Irish unity. If he had merely googled the subject, he would have discovered how wrong he was. The most recent poll on this question (by Ipsos Mori in 2019) discovered that only 19% of respondents held this view. Almost twice as many preferred Northern Ireland to remain the UK and 45% had no view or were undecided. In Northern Ireland itself, the lastest large poll (undertaken by the Dublin-based  Royal Irish Association) showed a two-to-one majority for remaining in the UK.

This should have been enough to cause any sensible person to abandon an argument that there was a preference for Irish Unity anywhere in the UK. Nothing daunted Wilson ploughed on. His next piece of evidence came from a remembered drunken conversation with the novelist Iris Murdoch who died in 2013. Murdoch apparently argued against Irish Unity on the basis that in the Republic most children were taught by nuns in Catholic schools. The irrelevance of this odd reference is shown by the absence of ‘Rome rule’ arguments by Ulster unionists for more than half a century.

Wilson then turned to Patrick Mayhew, Northern Ireland Secretary of State 1992-97 who died in 2016. Wilson claimed that Mayhew had replied to his suggestion that Irish Unity would eventually occur by saying “Oh I do hope so, it is bound to happen surely”. He also said that Mayhew lived part of the year in County Cork. Two days after Wilson’s article was published, Mayhew’s two children wrote a letter to the Times to say that this was entirely untrue. Mayhew had never in their view supported Irish Unity. Moreover, his sojourns in Cork amounted to short summer holidays prior to 1978.

Wilson then argued that Gladstone and Parnell’s support for Irish Home Rule would have succeeded if not for Parnell’s fall once his liaison with Captain O’Shea’s wife Catherine (later defamed as Kitty) became public knowledge. As Another letter in the Times showed,  this too was wrong. Gladstone’s support for Home Rule continued after Parnell’s fall in 1890 but was blocked in the Lords. The letter could have added that the third Home Rule Bill was passed through Parliament in 1914 but delayed by the onset of war and never enacted due to subsequent events in Ireland. All of this happened long after Parnell’s death in 1891.

Having utterly failed to make his case, Wilson sailed blithely on to suggest a ‘refreshing’ way forward towards solving a problem that does not exist. This is a ‘grand Pan-British-Irish Conference’ chaired perhaps by Julia Neuberger, Rowan Williams, Jonathan Sumption or even King Charles III. The most that might be said of this silly idea is that, at least, the suggested chairpersons are still alive.

Why has this ‘refreshing’ idea not been taken up. The reason says Wilson is that ‘the so-called sensible parties do not dare to address the central question, and the central hope-which is not that of Sinn Fein alone – namely that one day, pray soon, there will be united Ireland”. Surely the real reason why the UK’s major political parties (as opposed to its regional nationalist parties) have not taken this up, is that they support the union and find no nation-wide popular support for any alternative policy.  This has been the situation for over a century. Where there is strong popular support for devolution or independence then referendums have been organized. The UK is a strongly liberal nation in this respect, unlike say Spain.  In Northern Ireland the Good Friday Agreement, and its legislative enactment, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, stipulate a border poll whenever there is evidence of majority support for Irish Unity. Needless to say, there has never been such evidence, and despite Sinn Fein’s illusions we are still far away from seeing any.

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