Kieran McCarthy, chief tour guide with Cobh Rebel Walking Tours in County Cork, is asking…
Engaging With Unionism Before That Border Poll
By Kieran McCarthy
There’s hardly a day goes by nowadays when one doesn’t pick up a newspaper or view some online publication without reading the comments or tweets of some celebrity writer, movie star, former or current senior politician, renowned economist, university professor, or just a trend-following journalist, who’s engaged with the hot topic of a future Irish border poll. That not all these commentators are even Irish, also adds to the feeling that something big is taking place in how others are viewing our Island and our future.
While most of this commentary to date has been mainly positive towards the idea of a border poll and indeed to the inevitability of Irish reunification, some have been more cautious and leaning towards the negative while warning of the consequences of even discussing the matter.
Whichever way you look at it, there is no doubt that the issues of Brexit and Covid 19, not to mention the real prospect of Scottish Independence, has fast-forwarded the discussion and for the first time ever, has resulted in people other than politicians and republicans, leading the case for what they see as an inevitable poll. In fact, except for Sinn Fein, most other political parties on this island has its head firmly in the sand around the issue, hoping it might just go away, just as they had instinctively resisted the Peace Process thirty years ago when others first began talking.
Breaking From The Union
The biggest influencer amongst those who would caution against debating and discussing a border poll at this time, no doubt, is the old and no longer relevant argument that to do so might upset unionist feelings and cause tensions in the wider northern community. Perhaps that is why the old political establishment ruling from Dublin, i.e., Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, when asked, often dismiss the idea of a border poll as the irresponsible and irrational game playing of their political rivals in Sinn Fein. However, such an argument hardly carries much weight any longer when the following is considered.
The matter of a future border poll and indeed Irish reunification is no longer something promoted and discussed by the Sinn Fein party or Irish republicans alone. Economists in Ireland, England, and Canada, as well as university professors, international writers and people associated with the arts, political opinion movers amongst Irish America in Washington, as well as a number of former British and Irish government ministers have all written about the merits and the inevitability of Irish reunification, and these are hardly people who would be described as supporters of Sinn Fein. But perhaps the biggest argument undermining the idea that to begin talking and preparing for a border poll will somehow upset and alienate unionism to the idea of unification, is the fact that unionism itself is already discussing the matter.
The Good Friday Agreement and Its Democratic Principles
When one considers the response numbers from people polled in the north as well as from available census data, that close to 40% of the population when asked, describe themselves as been neither nationalist or unionist, one is left wondering as to why unionist fears and sensibilities might often be allowed to override and be used as a block against any debate or discussion around constitutional change for the region. When added to that, the often-ignored principles contained in the Belfast Agreement around the holding of a future border poll, by those other than unionists who say the time isn’t right and or that, a quiet sizeable majority of unionists would first need to favour unity before a poll could be considered, then one could rightly argue that some are mischievously trying to move the goalposts and rewrite the terms and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
When such non-sensible arguments are coming from two political parties on either side of the border, from the SDLP in the north and Fine Gael in the south, one is left wondering about how much thought was put into what those involved are saying. I read one online report which suggested as much as 70% of unionists would first need to change before a poll should be called. That those who have made these outlandish suggestions would describe themselves as democrats while not seeing the irony of their words, is farcical. Let’s assume for a moment that a border poll was held tomorrow and resulted in 50.5% of those polled favouring to remain in the union with Britain. Would the Fine Gael and SDLP parties then step forward to inform unionists that the Union was lost because the poll result failed to reach the bar of 70% support, or would such a 70% bar only apply to those seeking change before the polled should be called? In other words, rendering the possibility of a real democratic poll ever being called, to being virtually nil.
Not only would such a stupid and backward suggestion be an anathema to democracy, but it would also be a fundamental breach of the Good Friday Agreement which both of those parties signed up to and more importantly, which the majority of Irish people north and south voted for. The Agreement is not the plaything of any political party that can be cherry-picked to suit their whims but is the property of all the Irish people. It states that the unification of Ireland will arrive when the majority of the Irish people decide so through their votes, meaning 50% plus one, in consecutive polls on either side of the border.
The argument of the goal post movers also ignores the bigger picture of what was behind the GFA and why all the constituent parties supported it and its principles. As someone who was associated with the physical force movement which resisted British rule in Ireland, I can say without equivocation that the principles contained in the GFA were high among those which persuaded me and my generation of republicans towards turning away from physical force as a means to achieving Irish reunification. So, anyone today who tries to thinker with or rewrite parts of that agreement would need to understand what high stakes they are playing for.
The Economic Case
There has been in recent years, more than a few studies and reports written by Irish, British, and International economists who studied and predicted the economic effects of what would likely be the costs associated with a United Ireland. Of the six or so financial reports and articles I have read on the matter to date, four have firmly predicted the likelihood of a vibrant and positive all-island economy post unity, while one predicted a likely negative outcome following the withdrawal of billions of euros in British annual subvention post unity, and one other report predicted a cost neutral outcome to Irish taxpayers post unity.
While it could and no doubt will be argued in the time ahead, when all the discussions and debates begin in the run up to the actual border poll itself, that economic reports really mean little and can be skewed or influenced to give a particular slanted outcome for those paying for its commission, a few things should be taken into account when considering same.
Firstly, all the existing reports to date are lacking one important detail, the actual official cost figures of running the north annually, in terms of how much subvention London pays in against how much it takes out in revenues. For reasons only it knows, London has consistently refused to release such information despite numerous requests to do so. Therefore, every published report to date has been based on sliding scale estimates. On the face of it, one can only assume that’s London’s refusal to release such information is motivated by a desire to not part with economic data that could be used to fast forward the campaign for a border poll.
The second point to be made regarding economic reports, is that once a commitment has been made towards a border referendum within a given timeframe, it would then be over to the two London and Dublin governments, backed by Brussels and Washington to undertake a thorough program of preparatory work in advance of the poll. Part of this I would expect, would involve a lot of economic modelling and report compiling by various independent bodies which would later make available its findings to the public for all to see before polling day, reports which will be thoroughly independent and free of the contamination of bias to either side of the debate.
“In my view – and I think it is substantiated by very voluminous research – Irish unification is a growth story, is a success story, is a prosperity story” – Michael Burke, former senior international economist at Citibank, London.
The Persuaders & Listeners
Through a unionist’s eyes
So, if I were a unionist and someone was trying to persuade me that my economic, cultural and security interests would be better served in a united Ireland, what would I be looking to for proof of such claims?
Well, I would probably discover for the first time, some comparisons relating to both economies on this island, that while the norths economy was twice that of the souths at the point of separation/partition in 1922, today the souths economy is six times greater than the norths. I might also learn that while the average income in the north today is €22K per head of population, in the south, it is €38K.
I would also learn from those campaigning to remain in the UK, that the northern health service NHS is far greater and more progressive than its southern counterpart in the HSE and is not something that should be easily sacrificed for a united Ireland. However, if I was to also read the literature and information on the same topic from those advocating change to a united Ireland, I would probably be told that there was already a raft of progressive policy proposals aimed at completely overhauling the southern health service by left leaning parties who were on the verge of coming to power in the south, and that a radical program of transformation of health, public housing and education etc, matching that of post war Britain by the then Labour party, was now imminent in the south. I would probably also learn and agree with the argument that there is little economic sense in having a duplication of national services on our small island, in terms of energy, health, transport and much more.
Because I’m a young moderate unionist with an eye to the future, I never really bought into all the old contentious propaganda and old wives’ tales that the south was a papist ridden backward society ruled by Rome and was inherently anti British and anti-protestant. Though I’m sure there was once a grain of truth relating to that in the past, not that I practice religion myself. From what I’ve already read, the south is away ahead of us in terms of social change and justice, i.e., same sex marriage, divorce, and abortion rights as well as openness to others.
What I would be concerned about however, would be my historic culture and how that might be tolerated and respected in a new all island state? I would like to think for example, that the war and sacrifices which my grandfather and his brothers lost their lives to, would be given the same level of prominence and respect by the new state in terms of commemorations, matching that of those who fought and died to bring about Irish Independence.
But as an open-minded unionist, I must say I am impressed by the generosity of spirit by those advocating change, who have publicly muted the idea of a new all- Ireland constitution, a new national anthem, and to consider looking at a new national flag, though it would be hard to imagine any new flag not having the same three colours of the current Irish flag.
I have much to think about here, but if I do decide to vote for change and go for a new all-Ireland state, it will probably have more to do with having the economic security and benefits of being a part of the E.U. Most people I know of my age voted as I did to remain in the EU and against Brexit, and even though we represented most voters here, our fate was still decided for us by others who hardly know or care about us. That said, I’m still of the unionist tradition and these are all things I wouldn’t be saying out loud before my parents or their generation.
Through a nationalist eye
As an elderly moderate nationalist, I see the economic arguments for a united Ireland, coupled with EU membership as a no -brainer. A moderate nationalist is a term I’d loosely apply to myself. I’m not a party person and would normally vote between the SDLP and Sinn Fein, depending on the given candidates and the circumstances of the election. I suppose I’m really a John Hume person and follower of his way of thinking. Hume predicted this day would come when we’d get to have this vote for unity through peaceful means. I also have to say, I can see the wisdom of getting Sinn Fein up there as the main party in the assembly and in Dublin to enable their democratic mandate to bring this referendum forward.
For me, this is not about green versus orange or who’s on top, it is simply about exercising one’s political strength to bring about very important change, change that I feel the majority of people in the north now wants and deserves and the same goes for the rest of our island, and I suppose, that’s what democracy is all about. John Hume would be very proud I’m sure. Of course, we will still have some hostile and nervous voices out there using their favourite two lettered word, but that’s to be expected and is all part of the democratic process, but in the end of the day, this is a people’s referendum which will decide all our futures and whichever side wins, will win and whichever side loses will have to accept that too.
As a nationalist, I must also hold some responsibility for how others might feel about all this and its therefore incumbent on all of us to help allay the fears and concerns of our neighbours who don’t necessarily view things the way we do. What I mean by that is, I would hate to think our unionist neighbours would be somehow labouring under the false notion, that if the result of the referendum were a yes to unity, they might then find themselves as an unwanted, marginalised, and discriminated minority community, who would now face a similar fate to that of the minority community here after this state came into being. I remember well the stories my mother used tell of how her father and her uncles were physically beaten and ran out of a Belfast shipyard in the 1934, simply because of their religion, and of course I had my own personal experiences of police batons when we tried to march for civil rights in the 1960’s and we all know where that led to. “A protestant state for a protestant people” was not just a simple slogan but was a very harsh reality for those of us on the other end of that.
But I have yet in my lifetime to meet a single nationalist or republican person, be they a politician or ordinary citizen who would dream of wanting to treat unionists or anyone else like that. For anyone to advocate or even think along those lines, would automatically be admitting failure to the United Ireland project before it even begins, so why would anyone even want to go there? Thankfully, I feel there is a bit of a developing gap/disconnect between how ordinary young protestant people today and their unionist politicians are viewing all of this. I don’t think these people whose families might have once described themselves as unionists, feel at all as threatened by the prospect of a united Ireland as their politicians do. It’s like they want to move on and not remain in the past, unlike those they have traditionally voted for. I think they can see clearly that no one is going to mistreat or resent them and that the economic benefits of a new united Ireland in Europe is where their real focus is now. They are of course looking to the future for their children and grandchildren.
“There is a significant and growing segment of the population in the north that is pragmatic and will cast their vote based on facts and evidence. This pragmatic middle will likely decide the referendums outcome.” Congressman Brendan F. Boyle, Pennsylvania & Washington
Through the eyes of the middle ground
As someone who along with my partner had voted in the last two Assembly and Westminster elections for candidates who were neither unionist or nationalist, I can tell you that my mind will be made up around how to vote in this referendum, not by the soundbites of the usual politicians and their parties, but by all the credible information and data that’s out there and available to me. I think because this referendum has such huge consequences for all our futures, it would probably be wise to conduct some of my own research and not to rely solely on the political material which will circulate from the traditional parties.
Since I was baptised and brought up as a protestant, I still have some occasional residual misconceptions towards nationalism and the idea of a united Ireland. However, my partner who comes from a nationalist background, regularly pulls me up and puts me back on track when this occurs. We are both normally careful and don’t wish to stray back into either a green or an orange pigeonhole. That’s exactly how we are rearing our daughter today. Like us, she has both a British and an Irish passport, thanks to Brexit.
I think if it weren’t for Brexit, this wouldn’t even be an issue for me, and my instinct would be to stick with the union and what I’m familiar with. Now however, everything has changed, and nothing is so sure or straightforward anymore. My partner and I were out for a meal recently with some friends and the topic came up for discussion. I made a point of not saying much but wanted to listen and see how others were viewing this. Of the six of us sitting around the table, only one made a half-hearted and unconvincing case for remaining with the union. It’s beginning to look like the economic arguments for change are strong and then there’s the prospect of Scottish independence on the horizon and what that might mean for a significantly reduced if not totally collapsed union. Later that evening after the meal, my partner and I discussed the topic again at home. We both agreed that it’s our daughter’s future that we’ll be deciding for here and indeed for her possible future siblings, and for their children. With that in mind, we both realise this might be one of the biggest decisions we will ever make and are also mindful that if we get it wrong, it could be another generation before it could be looked at again, and we may possibly not get another chance.
While we have so much to consider around this before polling day, there is a couple of positives I can already see regarding this referendum. The first is that we are been given a choice about our future, something that’s very rare to people here, so that is very welcome. The second thing is, if we are to take at face value the results of recent opinion polls, we can see that more and more people, particularly young people like us, are choosing to vote and describe ourselves as the middle, as opposed to supporting the traditional orange or green party blocks. I have a growing sense that its we in the middle who will eventually decide the outcome of this referendum and regardless of the outcome, that will at least be positive.
So where to from here?
Although the three examples of likely voters in a future referendum as given above, has deliberately excluded the two obvious voter blocks who would rigidly vote along historical and traditional party lines, with an either Yes or No to reunification when the poll is called, it is undoubtedly becoming more apparent by the day that a growing portion of the population in the north is at least considering the prospect of a future united Ireland.
What’s also becoming apparent, more so since Brexit, is that there are diverging views around this between political and civic unionism, where one of these groups is losing its grip and influence over the other. It would seem that political unionism, which traditionally has never had to even think about the practicalities and benefits of a united Ireland before, let alone consider discussing them, due to its traditional position of dominance in northern society, has today found itself a prisoner to its own political constraints which has left it totally unprepared for the changes that are undoubtedly coming.
While civic and business unionism is already discussing the practicalities and benefits of unification, there are some individual voices from within political unionism urging their colleagues to open up and catch up, most notably the former First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, who has urged his former colleagues to prepare for all eventualities, including a united Ireland. More recently another DUP MLA Gavin Robinson (no relation) has added his voice, saying the time for talking and preparing for change has arrived.
Separately, an Independent MLA and former Alliance Party Chairman Trevor Lunn, has called on all parties to prepare for a future border poll. But what was most interesting about Lunns comments, were those he reserved for the Irish Government, when he suggested it stops tiptoeing around unionism and to clearly lay out its stall on the constitutional issue of a united Ireland. It would seem, that Trevor Lunn, an MLA of thirteen years and of the political middle, has his finger firmly on the pulse of society in the north and recognises the encouragement and push that political unionism needs to kick start its preparations in advance of a future poll.
But if the north has its head in the sand through the leadership of political unionism, so too has the south with its political leadership in Dublin. What the old conservative civil war parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have in common with traditional unionism, is their absolute fear of addressing change and what it might mean for our future island. Both groups north and south has spent their entire existence having to not seriously address the big question and so never have. But what’s more, the Dublin establishment have further complicated the issue for themselves by adopting the false premise after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, with the belief that a final settlement had been reached.
In other words, they see the Good Friday Agreement as a settlement in itself, whereas the rest of nationalist and republican Ireland, and probably some within unionism correctly sees the GFA as a means to achieving a final democratic and peaceful solution. Just as political unionism is still in denial in the north and will eventually have to play catch up, so too will some in the south, and while the project for a border poll and eventual unification is not the preserve of Sinn Fein, unfortunately the current Dublin administration through its head in the sand approach are doing their best to make it so.
“Dublin, London, Brussels and Washington needs to also engage in the preparation efforts towards unity” – Congressman Brendan Boyle
That the united Ireland train has already left the station is hardly in question anymore. The only thing that remains in question, is why Dublin insists on not recognising that reality. If the obvious amount of real work and preparation that will be required to precede the announcement of a border poll (possibly years), must wait until Sinn Fein first takes up political office in Dublin, then it would seem we are in very sad place indeed.
One must assume from this distinct lack of leadership, that the current parties who make up the current coalition in Dublin have opted to put sectional interests before the national one, and the Taoiseach must surely be aware that his half-hearted and patronising attempt to woo unionists through his ‘shared island’ project is fooling no one. Unionists well understand that a Shared Island is but another name for a United Ireland. It’s time for Dublin and in particular, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to get serious and start to behave like leaders.
The one thing that these parties will eventually learn just as political unionism surely will, is that a united Ireland is coming, whether they like it or not. The big question remaining for them, is do they want to be part of the leadership that will influence the kind of United Ireland that we will see when the train finally arrives at the station, or will they leave that to others?