Irish Republicanism needs to be more Levesque and a little less Salmond on a border poll

À la prochaine fois!, (until next time) declared the separatist premier, Rene Levesque as he conceded defeat on the night the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum failed. Standing like a proud general with his supporters weeping as their dream of an independent francophone Quebec went up in smoke, Levesque knew that while his objective of achieving sovereignty was over, he had run a respectable campaign and had garnered enough support (40%) to leave the movement an opportunity have another go at a future date.

Before you say it, yes I know Quebec 34 years on is still a part of the Canadian Federation. But, I think that one of the greatest gifts a leader can leave either his party or his movement in defeat is the chance to rise again and fight again another day. However, Levesque did not totally discredit the separatist movement and 15 years later they were able to hold a second referendum which was lost by a narrow margin.

I could not help but think watching the debate between Alex Salmond and Alastair Darling that the lack of obvious preparation and guesswork done by the Yes side not only plays into the hands of their opponents, but also makes it harder for a future generation to make the case forcefully that another poll should be held at some point in the future.

There were a lot of lessons for Irish nationalism contained within that debate on Tuesday night. We need to imagine how people like Gerry Adams et al would respond to simple questions like ‘what healthcare system would we adopt in a unitary state?’ or ‘You are a huge supporter of the Irish language would you continue the compulsory Irish policy for all children in Northern Ireland?” These questions are just the tip of a very large iceberg of thinking that many people arguing for a border poll now have not done. When we talk about compromises for Unionism in a united Ireland, just what exactly are we talking about? Commonwealth membership? Abolition of compulsory Irish? New flag? A mandatory coalition for the first 15 years of independence?

I am just simply throwing out questions here, but the fact that none of the people charging like Custer’s foot soldiers towards this border poll don’t have any answers to these questions merely makes my point for me that before you focus on the end destination, you must first work out how you want to get there. All Unionism needs to do is create enough doubt about a United Ireland and they win. Republicanism needs to do put in twice as much effort to win people over and therefore needs to put in a great deal more work into any plan for reunification.

Essentially, we need to stop idolising Salmond for his political skill and realise that on Tuesday night he was caught on many issues with his pants down. How do we avoid the same thing in a future debate here? How do we ensure that when Arlene Foster/Peter Robinson asks us the hard economic questions, we come back with sensible and realistic plans?

None of this is interesting or sexy, but then again building a country isn’t about gimmicks or press conferences. It is about cool, calm and detailed policy work that can remove those shreds of doubt. Tuesday night proved Salmond is great at the campaign launches and not so hot on the policy and I will leave it up to the Slugger jury to decide which is more important.

If a border poll is held here at some point in the future, I would really like to think that if we lose, we haven’t screwed the people coming behind us. I don’t want a scorched earth policy that ruins the cause of Irish unity for a generation. In essence, Irish republicanism needs to be a little more Levesque and a little less Salmond, when it comes to referenda.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs

  • Zeno1

    They have a mandate form 14.7% of the electorate, Just over 85% didn’t vote for them.

  • gendjinn

    “At present, the RoI benefits from being an English speaking country with an educated population that is in the EU and in the Eurozone, and has a low rate of Corporation tax.”

    All of which applies to the 6 counties btw, well the tax rate post re-unification.

    “There seems to be a suggestion that the lack of employment legislation is a big plus too.”

    Now where did you get lack? Different systems, different obligations, complexity. Not sure of the details but I believe the UK has better notice and severance legislation than the Republic (can anyone provide more details? and can we get them in Ireland too!). Either way, we are doubling our office in Dublin and have candidates in the north that we can’t hire. So there is an upside that is not being taken advantage of.

    So there’s your boost.

    “So I doubt your company is as desperate for staff as you suggest (nor is it as tempting an employer as you suggest).”

    🙂 Spoken with the true confidence of zero knowledge of the company.

    In summation, the subvention can be cut by 3.5 billion without impacting the economy in the slightest – or have you not looked at Morpheus’ numbers?

    Do you support a bloated civil service in NI, money that could be redirected into useful economic activity?

  • gendjinn


    “The only thing that is clear from the census is that the None/Other categories are growing much faster than the others.”

    Given the None/Other is growing, then Nationalism shouldn’t have to exceed 50% of the vote/elected reps, but just exceed the Unionist bloc.

    The GFA wording does not stipulate the criteria for making the decision, it stipulates that if there is a likelihood of it passing the poll should be called.

    In your statements above Nationalists could have 49.9% of the vote/seats, Unionists could have 38% and others 12% and there wouldn’t be a poll called.

  • The numbers voting for Nationalist parties has fallen by 60,000 since the GFA was signed in 1998 (if memory is correct) that is in the face of a growing Catholic Population.
    Tour du lich nha trang gia re!

  • You would think that MJH but almost a thousand years of occupation says otherwise.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I disagree with David’s premise – that when a side loses on a big constitutional vote, it should take it as only a temporary setback and remain ready to go again. That’s a recipe for permanent uncertainty – and instability. And it represents a failure to respect the wishes of the people. I think most of us laughed when the Danes and the Irish had EU-related referenda and were then asked to try again a few years later.

    The referendum in Scotland like in Quebec should be the last one for a generation. That way, people can relax and get on with their lives without a sword of Damocles hanging over their every move. That’s what’s happened in Northern Ireland and it’s one of the big deeper cause of inter-community tension. I think there should be some minimum period, say 20 years, between sovereignty referenda, so it’s there as a possibility for people to make a change, but it’s off the agenda for 18 or 19 years out of every 20. Wouldn’t that be an improvement?

    Also, in our case, clearly any referendum voting for a united Ireland should not be the last. There should surely be the opportunity to change back again too. If the NI within the UK is subject to future referenda, NI within a future all-island state would also have to have that possibility of an ‘out’. Especially given the high risks involved in any “united Ireland” experiment.

  • Morpheus

    The minimum of 7 years between referenda is there in black and white and the do-over is not – it was presented to the people and passed. Which is it MU, is the GFA a Machiavellian masterstroke from political unionism or not?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Machiavellian masterstroke is your term not mine. I think it’s a fair settlement and one that unionists can feel comfortable with. I explained why it works from a unionist point of view; but don’t worry I don’t expect nationalists to see it exactly like that. Just stop carrying on as if they are on their way to a united Ireland. They’re not and it’s a dangerous delusion which affects both communities for the worse.

  • Morpheus

    I find it just as exasperating as you do when people talk as if a UI is on it’s way.The reality is, it’s not. Not even close. Nationalists are standing at the bottom of a mountain but don’t even know how big the mountain is because they have been so incredibly lazy that they haven’t even asked for confirmation on what the triggers are for a border poll.

    But you can spot the ones who think it’s plain sailing and on the way soon very easily, few in reality actually believe that