Why a #BorderPoll ill-serves the cause of a united island

“I live in terror of not being misunderstood.”

From The Critic as Artist, by Oscar Wilde

So, what is a reasonable, even a Nationalist, objection to the calling of a Border Poll in the next parliamentary term north and south? The most obvious is that from what we know of the current public will in Northern Ireland, it will be lost.

And why? Because what we know of the polling in this area already tells us that there is not much more than a marginal interest amongst the wider population of Northern Ireland.

A nationalist project that was serious about bringing about unification would be constantly sampling and testing how it’s own actions effect, positively or negatively, changes in broader sentiment of the Northern Irish population.

As Paul Evans pointed out in his excellent blog essay for Slugger a couple of years back, referendums are generally little more than framing exercises, often encompassing choices that the population would rather not have to make.

As we’ve seen with the Nice and Lisbon Referendums, the public are generally expected to comply so they get asked over and over until they get it right. If a Border Poll fails, we will be expected to come back time and time again. And, as Paul notes:

Referendums are often used to deal with the difficult questions that political parties dare not address during elections. They allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.

Though anyone watching last night’s dismal performance from Alex Maskey on Nolan might quibble the idea that politicians were being let off the hook. Though to some extent that relates to another point  Paul makes, and that is how referendums tend to manufacture false certainty:

Doubt and equivocation are a good thing. Instinctive certainty often isn’t. As Darwin put it, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. Doubters and equivocators are more likely to abstain in referendums, and – following the logic of the Dunning-Kruger effect, that’s a bad thing

Looking at Stormont, where it takes the most senior office six months to NOT AGREE something as simple and uncomplicated as putting out a job advert it’s hardly any wonder the party is keen to distract of the realities of the here and now, and instead foreground a decision that more properly belongs in the distant future.

In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.

Miyamoto Musashi

Despite the negative views of Mr Robinson, Mr Wilson, Ms Foster and Co, a genuinely popular vote for a united Ireland does remain possible. The subvention is a block to unification but, unlike the NHS, it’s not one that any of us can or should be proud of.

Whether you think it is ten or eleven billion pounds or nearer six per year, the current Dail is straining at the seams (with a Sinn Fein opposition rightly biting at their heels) to bring the yearly budget down by a further three billion Euros per anum and not bust the social structure of southern society.

The Republic, with luck, will get through these hard times. But the question remains of whether Northern Ireland ever can or will make itself an affordable bride for the southern polity. And who is going to drive the change required to get to that point, if not Irish Republicans?

With the best will in the world, foregrounding an event that clearly belongs to the future to feed an impoverished political present is not alternative to a credible and realisable present. But economics is not the only problem faced by Republican strategists.

“…the essence of a nation is that they not only have things in common but that they have also forgotten their differences”

David Amerland paraphrasing Ernest Renan

This is the real problem. And it is not just a matter of the team that led the war being the same as the one now trying to win the peace. The imperative of the Irish Constitution is clear that it is

…the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions.

That suggests that a genuine and successful bid to unify the island must start by not simply building a commonality of interest between, wait for it, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, but by allowing people as quickly as is feasible, to allow the trauma of the past to fade and for a promising shadow of an inclusive future to emerge.

In short, a Border Poll in and of itself will not bring about a united island until and unless the conditions that will effect such an outcome pre-exist such a binding poll. This was well understood by the drafters of the legislation, and of the Irish Constitution. And it ought to inform the near term actions of any genuinely ambitious Republican movement.

Instead we have daily reminders of the abiding division that split Ulster Catholic from Ulster Protestant within just a few short years of the battle of Ballynahinch rather than the creation of common bonds that might in some future time serve to bind us in the common name of Irish man or woman.

The change, if it comes, certainly won’t arrive in shape of some lucky Tett offensive in a plebiscite lottery system.  It will have to be organic and wrought from dozens of tiny changes in the way things are done and, critically, in the way we chose to view each other.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

The Cure At Troy, Seamus Heaney

For more on why The Cure at Troy may not be getting as much of an airing as it did a few years back.

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