Although unionists of all shades refuse to take part in any discussion of a United Ireland, they are happy to cherry-pick comments from such discussions where they suit the unionist agenda.
Hence it is inevitable that the speech made by Professor Brendan O'Leary at the Unite Ireland conference in New York on 13 June will be book-marked by unionists and repeated ad nauseam as if it were gospel.
O'Leary – soon to be beatified by unionists – "dismissed the argument that the nationalist population can out breed the unionists, though he did point out that the gap has closed significantly". His precise arguments are not revealed, so it is unfortunately not easy to counter them, but there is adequate evidence on this blog alone to question whether he is correct.
He also said that "it might make sense to preserve Northern Ireland as a unit and leave the South to decide whether it wishes to disaggregate into two or three units or just to have a two-unit federation. This, to my mind, is consistent with the principle of pluralism rather than assimilation." These are, of course, not new suggestions – many people have put forward possible structures for a post-reunification Ireland.
In essence, of course, O'Leary was arguing for the debate on reunification to move beyond the sectarian headcount. In order to try to move it there, though, he is trying to discourage those who count heads by telling them that that method will not work. This is also an old trick, one that was practiced for years by such eminent (but mistaken) thinkers as Garret Fitzgerald. In trying to move beyond head-counting into persuasion O'Leary has a very valid point, but it is a shame he muddied his argument by misrepresenting the demographic evidence.
It is the strongly-held opinion of this blogger that the best path to a united Ireland is through the identification of a majority of the population of Northern Ireland with the island as a whole – culturally, politically, historically, economically and socially. If that majority identification happens to come about through demographic changes, then it is just as valid a majority as if it came about through persuasion or incremental reorientation. But better yet would be the positive and deliberate participation in the life of the nation by all of its children, irrespective of religion or origin. At present, though, for reasons that most commentators prefer to ignore, a large part of the northern Protestant population chooses to ignore, denigrate or actively oppose participation in the life of the island as a whole – even where logic and rationality would argue for closer cooperation and participation.
In these circumstances, although many people will continue to work towards the creation of a new agreed Ireland in which all of us feel comfortable, the absence of the unionist voice in the conversation makes it difficult. The demographic argument is a valid card to play, if for no other reason than to alert unionists to the dangers of their continuing boycott of the subject. It would be better for them, and for the country, for them to abandon the irrational aspects of their position and to join the debate. If, as some argue, there are sound economic or social arguments in favour of the UK, then how could it hurt if these were explained? An open conversation between the peoples of the island implies no pre-determined outcome, and so nobody should fear it. Unfortunately, though, O'Leary's recent comments make it less rather than more likely that unionists will come out of their bunker and talk.