Almost four million people in Ireland live in what is called a ‘republic’. The majority of Irish citizens vote for parties which lay claim to a ‘republican’ heritage. In fact, on the island as a whole, only the unionist parties reject the idea of a republic—this being largely due to the fact that a republic is not a Kingdom, and so precludes the basic unionist principle of loyalty to the Protestant British Crown.
But even the unionist position admits of exceptions. Certain proponents of a liberal unionist tradition proudly, if selectively, invoke the original project of pro-Enlightenment Irish Protestants for a society based on ‘civil and religious liberties’. Thus, paradoxically, a reason sometimes cited for Northern Protestant opposition to unity with the South is the view that the existing republic has betrayed the original goal of the United Irishmen to reconcile ‘Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter’. It was after all the episcopalian Tone, a leader of the 1798 rebellion, who denounced the Catholic clergy as ‘tyrants of the people and slaves of Government’. Here was a secular enlightened view of a non-denominational republic. ‘When it comes to religion’, Tone explained, ‘my belief is that we should work for the overthrow of the official church, without erecting another in its place’. A far cry from the common equation of Irish republicanism with Catholic nationalism!
Mainstream unionism resists the idea of a republic because it sees it (rightly or wrongly) as representing a threefold threat: (1) to the continuation of Ulster within the United Kingdom; (2) to the religious tradition of Protestantism; (3) to the distinct integrity of the Ulster British as a people. This threefold threat was focused, for several decades, on the use of the term ‘republican’ by the IRA. Since the inception of the Provisional IRA campaign in 1971, to be ‘anti-republican’ increasingly came to mean, on both sides of the border, to be against bombing a million Protestants into a republic (Cardinal Conway’s phrase). Little wonder then that the very term ‘republican’ fell into