Artillery Row

Irish irredentism?

You can’t back a “United Ireland” whilst condemning “Greater Hungary”

What are we to make of the fact that a spokesperson for Victor Orban, the nationalist Prime Minister of Hungary, sports a massive map of “Greater Hungary” on his wall? Nothing good, I’ll bet.

For those with better things to do than dwell mournfully on the loss of Austria-Hungary, the map shows the extent of the Kingdom of Hungary as it stood under the Habsburgs, before the partition of the Empire by Woodrow Wilson and his catspaws in 1918.

Irish nationalism gets an excuse note on revanchist nationalism

There isn’t much sign that this sort of nostalgia denotes any serious territorial ambitions on the part of the Hungarian government, although there have been some tensions over the treatment of ethnic Hungarians in western Ukraine. 

But it is noteworthy that there has been no suggestion in any respectable quarter that such ambitions would be legitimate. “Greater Hungary” belongs with the likes of “Greater Serbia” in a basket of phrases intended to denote a dark, revanchist nationalism from which modernity (and the EU) is supposed to have saved us.

That’s why you will never hear the phrase “Greater Ireland”.

That’s a little strange, once you take a moment to think about it. Because the republican project is an irredentist effort to establish a state which spans what nationalists believe to be the full extent of an historic homeland — even though a state with that shape has not existed in centuries, and a significant part of the contested territory wants no part of it.

Yet time and again, Irish nationalism gets an excuse note from the firewalls we are supposed to have built up around revanchist nationalism. 

Hence the phrase “united Ireland”, which does an end-run around unionists by presuming the existence of a single national culture across the whole of the island.

And hence too the aversion to using the word annexation” to describe the process of Northern Ireland getting absorbed by the Republic in the event of a “yes” vote in a border poll, despite that being nothing more than the technical term for what would happen. 

Think again about that map on the wall of the Hungarian official. When was the last time you saw any Irish politician or institution using a map or silhouette of the actual borders of the Republic?

One Irish friend of mine has an interesting theory that partition might have been easier to accept had Donegal become part of Northern Ireland, not because of any demographic argument but merely because the outline of the then-Free State would have looked more natural and less like something with a hole in it.

The Belfast Agreement could not have been better designed to inflame the issue

Indeed, despite Ireland having formally set aside its constitutional claim on Northern Ireland, there are still plenty of Irish nationalists who will call you out for naming it “the Republic”. The formal name of the country is simply “Ireland”, despite that referring to a geography which is partly in another country. 

That’s before we even get to the fact that Sinn Féin, a party which openly celebrates its links to a paramilitary organisation that waged a campaign of terror against civilians, is on track to end up running a European democracy in the next few years. Those demanding Brussels crack down on Fidesz, or Poland’s Law and Justice Party, are silent on what looks set to unfold in Dublin.

Finally, as critics pointed out when it was being drawn up and ratified, the Belfast Agreement itself is in some respects a notable deviation from the international norm for treaties governing contested territories, as was the Anglo-Irish Agreement before it.

In an essay for the first edition of The Idea of the Union, published in 1995, Robert McCartney QC outlines how both the UK and Ireland drew up the latter without heeding the United Nations’ guidelines for such matters, which were set out in the Capotorti Report of 1979:

It must be stressed, however, that cooperation with regard to the rights of minority groups shall be based on mutual respect for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States concerned and non-interference in their internal affairs.

This attitude continues to inform western countries’ approach to such questions. To pick a recent and relatively proximate example, there is no question that the Serbs of North Kosovo — a small strip of Serb-majority territory flush with the border of Serbia — should be given a chance to vote on joining a united — I mean, a Greater Serbia. 

Yet the Belfast Agreement seems unique inasmuch as it could not have been better designed to keep the issue inflamed. Not only does it uniquely entrench a mechanism for a transfer of sovereignty, but in the interim, it deeply interferes in the internal affairs of the UK, as the saga of the Protocol has made abundantly clear.

Worst of all, it contains only one exit door. Nationalists are freely able to talk of radical constitutional change as an escape from the Province’s dysfunctional settlement because voting for a “united Ireland” is the only way out of it. There is no mechanism by which unionists, perhaps by winning over enough nationalists to create some sort of supermajority, can permanently secure and fully restore Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

Of all the ways unionism has been outmanoeuvred, the establishment of this cordon sanitaire around Irish revanchism is one of the more subtle and more dangerous. All of us who care about safeguarding the UK should do our bit to chip away at it — and start referring to Greater Ireland by its proper name.

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