Ireland: myths and realities
Conor Cruise O'Brien
It is, on the face of it, odd that the question of Northern Ireland could have been treated as a non-issue in the recent Irish general elections. All parties, after all, were agreed that the problem of Northern Ireland was a problem of major importance, affecting all Ireland. It is true that, even so, there could have been good reasons for not making an issue out of it, if, in fact, there existed substantial consensus between the two sides in the Republic on the fundamentals of an approach to the problem. But on at least one fundamental, there was no consensus. The then opposition said it would seek (and the then government had refused to seek), a commitment from Britain to withdraw from Northern Ireland. One might have thought that a divergence of such dimensions would necessitate sustained public debate on the subject; that the electorate would be offered reasons, on the one hand why such a commitment was desirable, and, on the other, why it was undesirable and dangerous.
This great debate was precisely what did not take place. That non-debate cannot be said to clarify attitudes in the Republic towards Northern Ireland, but it may dimly reflect the nebulous and uncertain character of those attitudes. I will refer to that later, but at this point I should like to concentrate on such concrete and measurable clues as we have to what these attitudes actually are.
Father Michael MacGriel's book Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland, published this year, sets forth the result of a survey of the attitudes of Dubliners, as declared by them .in answer to a questionnaire in 1972. Some of the questions answered were about attitudes to Northern Ireland. Some were about the closely related issues of attitudes towards Britain and the British, and attitudes towards the IRA. Ills necessary to recapitulate and examine these responses, together with other and sparser clues, in any attempt to assess atttitudes in the Republic towards Northern Ireland. Father MacGriel assumes that, as so many Dubliners are of recent rural origin, their declared opinions may be accepted as broadly representative of opinions in the Republic generally. I am content here to follow him in that assumption.
I shall cite the questions most closely bearing on this problem, with the percentages agreeing and disagreeing. Asked to say whether Northern Protestants had more in common with the rest of the Irish people than they have with the British, only 37.8 per cent of respondents said that they had, while 53.4 per cent said that they had not. You will note that the question embodies the nationalist assumption that the Protestants are part of the Irish people, and distinct from the British people, and that a majority of respondents resisted that assumption to the extent of embracing the apparent absurdity of saying that Northern Protestants have less in common with the other members of a people of which they are part than they have in common with a people of which they are not part. The absurdity here arises from the impossibility of expressing an apprehension of reality in terms defined by Nationalist assumptions which deny that reality.
'Do you believe that Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are two separate nations?' 42.8 per cent agreed with that formulation: the majority 55,4 per cent disagreed with it. There again the question is oddly framed; no one in the Republic, as far as I know, has ever claimed that Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are two separate nations. Those who consider that there are two nations in Ireland have never seen the two nations as being Northern Ireland and the Republic but as being (roughly speaking) Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics. The question as formulated virtually requires the answer 'No'. The fact that so large a minority as 42.8 per cent nevertheless answered 'yes' is surprising especially when it is remembered that the dominant orthodoxies of political life and of the media in the Republic are based on the concept of 'one nation'.
'Do you hold that national unity is an essential condition for the just solution of the present Northern problem?' 57.5 per cent said they agreed: 36.4 per cent disagreed. Again the scale of the dissent is significant, and the fact that not much more than half the sample were prepared to concur in an orthodoxy that is almost universally professed by politicians and in the media in the Republic. It is also odd that the proportion disagreeing with national unity should be lower than those believing in two nations. Some two nations people — 6.4 per cent in fact— seem to believe that one nation should drive the other out of existence.
'Would you agree or disagree that the use of violence, while regrettable, has been necessary for the achievement of nonUnionists' rights?' A majority — 61.6 per cent disagreed — but 35.3 per cent agreed. Again, considering the near-universality of formal condemnations of violence, the large size of the minority seeing violence as necessary is significant and disquieting. Further questions suggest themselves. Do non-Unionists' rights include the famous right to unity? Presumably they do, if unity is an 'essential condition for a just solution', as most of the respondents hold. In that case, the continuation of violence would be seen as regrettable but necessary by this sizeable minority. Fortunately, logical inference has little to do with these matters, and I doubt whether anything like 35.3 per cent would endorse the continuation of violence. Retrospective approval of past nationalist violence, and disapproval of any violence in the present, are among the mores of the Republic.
'Do you agree or disagree that Northerners on all sides tend to be extreme and unreasonable?' A majority — 55.2 per cent answered yes. 37.5 per cent answered no. The 'yes' majority is evidence of a fairly widespread aversion to the North and its problems, and of that aversion as extending to Northern Catholics. The answers to the following question seem to point in the same direction.
`Do you agree or disagree that Catholics in Northern Ireland have more in common with Northern Protestants than they have with Catholics in the Republic?' 59.0 per cent agreed and only 28.4 per cent disagreed. The 'don't knows' were unusually numerous at 12.7 per cent. These answers suggest that the tendency of Catholics in the Republic to identify with Catholics in the North is less than has generally been supposed. They also show how it is possible for over 40 per cent of respondents to identify Northern Ireland as a whole as a separate nation from the Republic. It is evident that a' substantial minority in the Republic wants to see Northern Ireland in that light, and not to concern itself with the internal divisions of the province.
Father MacGriel, in his comments on these responses states that it appears from this evidence that there is a strong majority Opinion in favour of Irish political unity, while there is recognition and acceptance of a plurality within Ireland. It is clear certainly that there is a declared majority in the Republic in favour of unity. Those saying they regard unity as essential are 57.5 per cent. An answer to another question of Father MacGriel's, however, appears to put the pro-unity proportion very much higher. Asked about possible solutions of the Northern Ireland question, 64 per cent of respondents regarded a thirty-two county republic with one central government as 'desirable' while 14 per cent regarded that as acceptable, giving a total of 78 per cent 'acceptable or desirable' and so enabling Father MacGreil in his commentary to claim a strong majority opinion in favour of Irish unity. 78 per cent would indeed be a strong majority. But another answer, in the same table, on which the author does not comment, seems to qualify that majority very significantly. Asked about the solution of 'Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom, with Civil Rights for all citizens,' 21 per cent found that solution desirable and 24 per cent find it acceptable making 45 per cent finding it acceptable or desirable: 55 per cent found 't undesirable. It appears therefore that not only must some of those who found a thirty-two county Republic 'acceptable' have also found Northern Ireland's integration with Britain acceptable or desirable, but that 9 per cent of those who considered a thirtytwo county Republic desirable must have found integration with Britain at least acceptable.
I don't think people who find integration of Northern Ireland with Great Britain 'acceptable or desirable' can seriously be claimed by the unity lobby. Anyone at all in earnest about a thirty-two county republic surely has to regard 'Northern Ireland an integral part of the United Kingdom' as unacceptable. That necessary limitation would give the unity people a real strength of not more than 55 per cent. There is some corroboration from another and later source that their strength is around that proportion. In .1972 a survey conducted by Irish Marketing Surveyors for RTE (Irish Television ) asked their people to give 'first choice' and 'second choice' solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland. 42 per cent gave 'United Ireland' as their first choice and 11 per cent as their second — a total of 53 per cent. I think we shall not be unduly minimising the extent of pro-unity sentiment if we shall put the proportion for the Republic at the figure of 57 per cent the figure for those who declared unity to be `essential' in the 1972 survey.
All this raises an extremely interesting question. If we grant that not more than 57.5 per cent of people in the Republic seem generally to favour unity, is there a majority at all in the island as a whole in favour of unity? It has long been taken for granted that there is such a majority, and this concept has formed the moral base for the assertion of Ireland's right to unity. But does this majority exist in fact? The results. of Professor MacGriel's survey of attitudes in the Republic, when compared with Professor Richard Rose's 'loyalty survey' carried out in Northern Ireland in 1968 and with a survey carried out for BBC Television in 1974 cast considerable doubt on that traditional assumptron.
That assumption has of course related to the known proportion of Catholics and Protestants in the island, and on the accepted opinion that Catholics are for unity and Protestants against. Professor Rose shows that, as the plebiscites, elections and other indications here show, the opinion that Ulster Protestants are against unity is correct, with only minor deviations. But Father MacGriel, Professor Rose and the BBC survey, taken together show that the opinion that Catholics are in favour of unity is a much shakier generalisation.
The survey carried out for the BBC Television Ulster by NOP Market Research Ltd in 1974, provides us with more recent, and directly relevant data. 76 per cent of respondents to that survey regarded a United Ireland as 'not acceptable' and only 16 per cent found it acceptable. While 90 per cent of those who found it acceptable were Catholics, the total of those finding it acceptable were of course less than half the proportion of Catholics in the population. It seems reasonable to take these figures 76 per cent against, 16 per cent for — as approximately representing the views of the population of Northern ;Ireland on the question of unity.
If 57.5 per cent of the approximately three million people in the Republic, plus 16 per cent of the approximately 1 million people in Northern Ireland, are in favour of unity this would mean, if I have got my sums approximately right, that the total favouring unity in the population of the island as a whole —counting children as adhering to the views of their elders — would be of the order of 1,965,000, made up of 1,725,000 in the Republic, plus 240,000 in Northern Ireland. The total figure of under 2,000,000 is of course well under half the total population of the island whose right to unity is claimed. I shall no doubt be accused of juggling with figures; I think myself I have leaned over backwards and that — because of a sizeable lip-service factor the 57.5 per cent pro-unity figure for the Republic is a large overstatement. In any case, I think it is reasonably clear that the proportion of those demanding unity in the island as a whole does not constitute any kind of mandate for overriding the wishes of 76 per cent of those who actually live in the area whose status it is proposed to change. Indeed, even if the majority in the Republic declaring its belief in unity as essential were more impre4 ssive than it is it still would not justify over:, riding a majority in Northern Ireland. As a! matter of observation I would say that many of those in the Republic who say that they regard unity as essential do not in fact want to with anything like the intensity of commitment which most Ulster Protestants bring to its rejection. In these circumstances, to advocate unity as the solution to the problems of Northern Ireland is unrealistic, unfruitful and even mis-, chevious, through the encouragement' which it gives to those who seek to win by force something which they are told is being. unjustly and undemocratically withheld.
As long as unity is the professed majority doctrine in the Republic, however listlessly it may in fact be endorsed by some of that majority, it will continue to be advocated, quite naturally, by politicians in the Republic. I would suggest that those who listen to such advocacy should bear in mind the indications which suggest that the demand for unity may be a minority demand, not only as far as the people of Northern Ireland are concerned, but also concerns the people of all Ireland, in whose: name the demand is made, without demoi cratic sanction.
The main problem, as I have suggested, in: interpreting the responses of such samples is to determine what degree of commitment: they represent. Agreement to a proposition: is likely to represent a range of opinion going from apathetic acquiescence at one end to fanatical conviction at the other. How much of the 'pro-unity' majority in the Republic is in fact strongly committed to that view and ready to support it actively?
Some clues as to a possible answer may be gleaned from statements of Father MacGriel's respondents about related subjects: Britain and the British, and the IRA. One of the main criteria in the MacGriel survey is that of willingness to admit a member of a given group to the respondent's family. In that criteria the English and British are extremely popular in Ireland. In fact, of all groups considered, other than Southern Irish, English are first at 87.3 per cent, and British second at 82.4 per cent. Northern Irish come third at 79.5 per cent. Thus, the people whose alien presence in Northern Ireland is deemed to be the cause of the trouble are in practice regarded by Dubliners as more acceptable than the native inhabitants of the territory in question.
On this table of seventy groups the Provisional IRA finish sixty-seventh. The three groups to whom they are regarded as preferable are drug addicts, communists and drug pushers.
However, unpopular as the Provisionals certainly are, as far as a majority in the ittepublic is concerned, it would be unwise to underestimate either the size or the virulence of minority support for them. You will recall that 35.3 per cent of the sample agreed with the proposition that violence, while regrettable, has been necessary for the achievement of non-Unionists' rights. That figure should not be taken as registering the extent of sympathy with the Provisionals, which is certainly much lower. But it does give an indication of the high proportion of the population which has been impressed to a considerable degree by the arguments of the Provisionals. That proportion may well have been higher — at the time of the survey (1972-3) not long after the prorogation of Stormont, which many people in the Republic (and in Northern Ireland too) saw as a victory for the Provisional IRA. There have not been many 'victories' since then.
If the proportion which can be impressed by some of the Provisionals' arguments is as itigh as around 35 per cent, the number of sympathisers with them may be about half that, That is a much higher figure than I would have been inclined to guess myself. It is much higher than the vote for Provisional Sinn Fein, who got only 6.4 per cent of the vote in areas contested by them in the local elections of 1974. A much higher level of extreme nationalism is however suggested by one answer in the MacGriel survey. People were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the proposition: 'I would be happy if Britain were brought to her knees!' 79.3 per cent disagreed with that proposition. But 17.1 per cent declared themselves in agreement with it. Considering the nature of the proposition, the size of that minority is disquietingly high. The reactions to Britain or even more — the British Government are distinctly less favourable than those to British people. The proposition, 'I don't object to the British people but I don't like the British Government!' was rejected by a majority, but the majority was here only 54.7 per cent (as against 88.8 per cent regarding the British as pretty decent people) and the sizeable minority of 36.2 per cent agreed: around the same number as considered that violence had helped the Northern minority. And, in between the 17,1 per cent hard core of English-haters and the 35 per cent or so who don't like the British Government, there are medium degrees of Anglophobia: 20.3 per cent who are not happy to see British people getting on in Ireland; 22.1 per cent who on the whole don't like the British, 27.5 per cent who regard British soldiers as generally cruel and brutal.
Inevitably all this range of attitudes to Britain has a direct relevance to the Republic's attitudes to Northern Ireland. The attempt to sum up impressions of these fascinating and confusing spectra of declared attitudes is not an easy task but it has to be attempted. It seems that, as far as the British people are concerned a large majority is well-disposed to them, and a small minority ill-disposed. Where the abstract 'Britain' and the 'British Government' are concerned there is still a majority in favour and a minority against; but the majority is smaller and the minority larger. The sizeable minority of 17.1 per cent professes intense hostility to Britain.
As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, a majority in the Republic favours unity, but it is not a large majority; nearly half the sample — 45 per cent — are prepared to accept Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom; almost as many — 42.5 per cent — regarded Northern Ireland as a separate nation from the Republic. There is little sense of a shared identity with the Northern Irish generally, and a majority see Northern Protestants as having more in common with the British than with 'the rest of the Irish', However, when we associate the pattern of attitudes to Britain with attitudes to Northern Ireland, we begin, I think, to see the actual pattern of attitudes to Northern Ireland more clearly. Those who would be happy to see Britain brought to her knees have to be regarded as sympathetic to the IRA's campaign in Northern Ireland. From among that 17 per cent or so, the IRA can look for its safe houses, for support in its propaganda campaigns, and for its efforts to circumvent the law. And the survey findings further suggest that around 35 per cent of the population have been responsive in some degree to the propaganda campaigns in question. This means that, despite the remarkable unpopularity of the Provisional IRA in the Republic, the friends of that organisation should be able to muster considerable support for objectives favoured by them, if those objectives are not visibly and undeniably associated with the menacing persons and practices of the Provisionals. Experience suggests that this is in fact the case.
This review of the strange contours of public opinion in the Republic in relation to Northern Ireland may go some way to explaining why politicians generally liked to leave the issue aside in the general election. There are certainly more doves than there are hawks; on the other hand the hawks are most interested in the subject. A prudent politician might still decide to propitiate the hawks a bit by a commitment to unity and 'Brits out', and then reassure the doves by indicating that there is no urgency about the matter; it does not, somehow, belong in the domain of practical political choices, such as are discussed at election times.
Some very prudent politicians did cope with the problem along those lines, and successfully. Unfortunately, what is prudent in terms of the domestic politics of the Republic is imprudent in relation to Northern Ireland, and therefore in the long term imprudent also in relation to the real interests of the people of the Republic. In the short term, however, it may be imprudent to attempt to discern those interests and to serve them.
There is some danger that a call for unity, coming from Dublin, and generated by the rather peculiar processes I have tried to describe, may be received more uncritically in England than is desirable. For the strange thing is that there appears to be a great deal more support for Irish unity in Britain than there is in Ireland. A 1976 survey carried out by NOP Market Research Ltd for BBC television shows 49 per cent of the sample finding a United Ireland acceptable and only 22 per cent finding it unacceptable. 49 per cent, that is to say, were in favour of encouraging the North and South of Ireland to unite into one county: 51 per cent were in favour of withdrawing the troops, and only 15 per cent against. In terms of British public opinion therefore — as distinct from informed British policy — Dublin is pushing an open door.
The only consolation there lies in the knowledge that if Dublin thinks there is really any danger of that door actually opening, Dublin can be relied on not to push very hard. I appreciate that those in Britain who want to encourage unity in Ireland are animated by goodwill towards Ireland, as well perhaps as by a wish to get rid of that part of Ireland which wishes to remain within the United Kingdom. I would ask those who call for unity out of goodwill to reflect on the patterns I have tried to describe. In terms of these patterns pressure td bring about unity, whether from Dublin or from London, can only exacerbate divisions. Goodwill towards an imaginary Ireland is dangerous to those who live in the real Ireland, and to others, Goodwill towards the real Ireland requires patience, even-headed justice to all sections inside Northern Ireland, and the capacity to take certain reiterated aspirations with a grain of salt.
This article was recently delivered as an address to the British-Irish Association at Oxford University.