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