Today voters in the Irish Republic will head to the polls to decide whether to abolish their second chamber, the Seanad. This issue has dominated political debate in Dublin. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition, in alliance with Sinn Fein, has come out for abolishing Ireland’s second chamber. While the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil have come out against abolition.
However, as this debate has been going on south of the border, people in Northern Ireland, particularly nationalists seem to have a total lack of interest in this referendum campaign. When you pause for a moment to think about all the complaining that nationalism has done since partition about its lack of a voice in the corridors of power in Leinster House this is remarkable.
This is a debate about the very future structure of the Irish parliament and Northern nationalists are not taking the opportunity to take part in this discussion. As the conversation goes on about what would a reformed second chamber would look like there seems to be a total lack of political will from this side of the border to ensure that there is some form of representation from Northern Ireland. Nationalism is in effect taping their own mouths over this issue.
We need to recognise the fact that for those who want a closer political relationship with southern Ireland this is a golden opportunity to put the argument for the creation of thirty-two county political institutions. There is little point in expecting an embossed invitation to arrive from Dublin for contributions from Belfast. Northern nationalists need to be to the forefront of this debate if they truly want to have a voice in Leinster House.
At a time when support for Irish unity is at record low levels, it seems to me to be a form of lunacy that key figures within Northern nationalism are opting to stay silent on this issue. We can never demonstrate that all island politics works, if we don’t firstly, take a greater interest in the affairs of one another and second, attempt to create more all-island institutions.
Why are nationalists staying silent on this issue? From my view it is just another example of the general malaise that exists within the movement as a whole. Since 1998, nationalism has been on auto-pilot as it appears to be playing a waiting game for around three hundred thousand unionists to one day come to their senses and embrace Irish unity. There has been no new thinking or new ideas about what a united Ireland would look like. The reason Irish unity has massively low approval ratings are due to the fact that nobody has bothered to make it an attractive proposition.
The Seanad referendum will simply be like countless others; a missed opportunity to advance an all island agenda. If Northern nationalism wants reunification to ever happen, then it will need to start putting much more effort into how it approaches debates like this.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs