EDITORIAL: Imagining Unity

The late, great Jack Holland knew his hometown. Jack, honored author and Irish Echo columnist for many years, passed away twenty years ago but his wisdom yet resonates within the walls of the Echo office.

Jack was from the Markets area of Belfast and his family was mixed, so Catholic and Protestant. His work would often reflect this duality.

As a journalist he had contacts across the political and paramilitary spectrum. He would talk frequently of colorful characters such as "Cue Ball." Echo staffers would laugh hysterically at some of Jack's stories, or his relating of conversations with contacts back in the "Wee North."

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Jack seemed to know any number of Jackies, all of them loyalist.

One of the Jackies delivered a geographic assessment of a united Ireland that well illustrated the oft claustrophobic world view from behind the walls of inward looking loyalism.

Jackie told Jack that if Northern Ireland and the Republic joined together "we would be one of the biggest countries in the world."

And Jackie believed in this Russia-sized Ireland most genuinely and wholeheartedly.

The emerging peace process would see those leaders representing all the Jackies cross the Atlantic to the United States. They would walk through doors such as the Mutual of America building on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Their eyes would be opened to the true measure of the wider world. Their eyes and minds would be simply opened.

Geography and comparative geographic scale can reshape historical thought. And these loyalist leaders were considering and assessing geographic reality and the wider world beyond the streets in their corner of Ireland.

Commentators often refer to Ireland as being a small island. And sure, by comparison to a great many countries it is small, 32,000 square miles give or take.

But that square mileage actually makes Ireland the twentieth largest island on the planet. So it's no completely wee place at all.

Jackie might have been a bit off in his comparative assessment of size, but he was talking about a place that looms large, very large indeed, for millions of people on it, and around the world.

So Ireland, while not one of the biggest countries in the world, certainly can be bigger - and in more ways than one - should it rid itself of a border that has gone well beyond its sell by date.

The fact that Jackie was actually imagining a reunited Ireland gave a clue to a degree of loyalist thinking that wasn't completely closed minded. Jackie was imagining a bigger place; he was imagining unity.

A great many more unionists and loyalists in the North are today imagining a new and reunited Ireland. The thought makes some nervous. Some yet dread the idea. But many are giving the idea a chance, even as they apply for Irish passports as a counter to the new restrictions in their lives imposed by Brexit.

Some of the loyalist persuasion were considering a reunited Ireland at the gathering in Belfast last week organized by Ireland's Future.

The fact that so many in Ireland, of all persuasions, are now talking consistently of the future, as opposed to the past, is a giant leap forward.

Jackie, whoever he was, would for sure have something to say about it all. He would be thinking about it all too. And perhaps he would be dreaming about it. Dreaming big.