Just as a preamble let me say that my mother was from Northern Ireland. I've spent a lot of time in NI over the years with relatives, friends and associates from both communities. I've seen trouble, street riots and listened to many community level views over some 40 years.
I've read with interest Michael McDowell's article in Sunday Independant some weeks ago about Irish unification. From recollection it seemed similar to what another attacker of Sinn Fein/IRA - Conor Cruise O'Brien - had articulated some years ago. The essential point was that it would be in the Northern Ireland Loyalist's own interests to think long term of the benefits of us all on this island forming a new type of united political entity which is inclusive of Unionists. I could say that I agree with this - but what is more important is that the Loyalists are given the time and conditions in place to think this through themselves as a good or bad idea.
Such a union can only even begin to make sense to Northern Ireland folk if they start to see all Irish people as their friends and allies and that life will be better on this island if we work together in trust. President MacAleese continues to do a very good job at building bridges in helping to get the loyalists to know us better (admittedly with a few clumsy errors - but who's perfect?). More of this is needed by all of us. More trading, tourism, cultural, and sporting exchanges will help. If only the UK would join the Euro it would help too - crazy that you can go all the way to Italy with same currency and not be able to do the same up the road on the same island. This opens up another unity point - a better co-operating EC generally will help.
The Sinn Fein/IRA past and present is difficult for everyone. The violence has left huge scars which we can't expect to go away overnight - it will take years of patience. All the IRA announcements of ceasing armed struggle and decommissioning are great and exceptionally welcome. However it is the self-congratulatory and triumphalist way it is presented that makes it hard for loyalists and many nationalists to stomach. The violence should never have happened in the first place. I realise there was and is still violence from the Loyalist side - this must be addressed too - but during the last 30 years it was always much smaller in comparison to IRA activity.
As regards politics I actually think better bridges can be built in the short/medium term by the likes of blatently anti-IRA politicians like Michael McDowell and others. It's still hard to listen to Sinn Fein pontificating morality and inclusiveness. More short term progress can be made by listening to other parties. Sinn Fein need to back off in pushing too much too fast. Ironically - I've seen Gerry Adams putting together a very similar argument for unity as McDowell and Conor Cruise O'Brien, which is quite plausible. It's just that Adams is the wrong messenger at the wrong time to Unionists. I realise Sinn Fein have an electoral mandate but that does not mean that other parties can quickly and comfortably form a Government with them. Forced marriages are a mistake.
I'm old enough to remember when voting rights, jobs and policing were weighing heavily towards unionists and when the nationalists looked under heavy siege. Nationalists were burned out of their homes and we had Bloody Sunday etc. However, you can spend your life looking further back than is helpful to progress. The fact is that the IRA have wrongly and unneccesarily shattered lives in the name of protecting the nationalist community and advancing a united Ireland by force.
Great progress is taking place in terms of lasting peace. But Unionists need plenty of time and space and not be bullied. If eventually it makes sense to them to have a United Ireland then fine. If not, it just means we in the Republic are not seen as a better neighbour than the UK.