On this morning’s Sunday Politics, the Bel Tel Political Editor, Liam Clarke said that a poll will appear in tomorrow’s newspaper stating that a majority of those surveyed would like to see a border poll. Clarke did not go into who would win such a poll if it is held, but I thought I would pen some thoughts I have been developing over the past few months.
Last week I was in Scotland to live blog the referendum as the results came into the Edinburgh Count Centre. I was lucky that I was able to get around the room and chat with some of Yes Scotland who strategists who were watching as 55% of Scottish voters crush their dream of an independent nation. What went wrong? I asked, I thought this was supposed to be close? When one of them bluntly answered me “kid, never believe your own hype, always have an answer and get your bloody voters out.” This answer was given to me as the low 75% turnout figure had just come in from Glasgow. But, it did get me thinking what kind of campaign could Yes Ireland run if a border poll was approved. Here are some top tips that I would encourage political leaders to think about;
- Get the question right-One thing that Better Together campaigners found was really difficult was the appearance that their campaign was negative and this was largely due to the fact that they had conceded the wording of the question to the Scottish government. In our case, if the question is “should Northern Ireland remain part of the UK?” and not “should Northern Ireland join the Republic of Ireland?” Then immediately the case for unity is defined in a negative posture. Sounds silly, but the border poll campaign will be framed around the ballot question.
- “United we stand, divided we fall” Another striking thing for me from Yes Scotland was how many of them actually disliked the SNP, but were willing to set down the party membership cards for this campaign. I have always long believed that any campaign has to involve the wide range of parties and groups North & South that support unity. When it comes to the crunch, Unionism will come together to fight this campaign and republicanism needs to be equally as united when it makes the case.
- Healthcare, Healthcare, Healthcare-The good old NHS! Republicanism needs to before it plans any other part of its campaign get some common agreement between the main parties about how healthcare will be administered in a united Ireland. In my view, if Yes Ireland is not promising a universal system, it is on a road to a hiding and needs a common platform that says “in a united Ireland, the government will legislate for a universal system free at the point of use.” Argue for a system that is more efficient and puts an end to long waiting lists, take those lemons and make some lemonade, by taking the current problems in the HSC and address solutions that a united system can give.
- Constitution-Another area of common agreement has to be on constitutional reform. There has to be new clauses on recognition of British culture on this island and what we will do to protect this in a united Ireland. In my opinion, we need to go further than just commonwealth membership, I think we need to be bold, consideration should be given to mandatory coalition in the Irish government for Unionists for a period, keeping Stormont and possibly offering another referendum within 7 years if the constitutional promises offered by the Yes campaign are not honoured. These are just some ideas, but any constitutional review, would need to be chaired by the European Union and not the Irish government. I am not arguing they all are adopted but we should debate them.
- Economy-Unlike the Scottish example, we can actually envisage the economy we will be joining in a border poll. Unionism will trot out its usual line of “blue skies of Ulster, grey mists of the Republic.” Yet, what on paper seems like a solid argument, I think is really quick-sand. When you look at most of the indicators of prosperity and future trends the Republic of Ireland is miles ahead of Northern Ireland. We need to talk up the strengths of job creation, enterprise and living standards that exist already in this country, whilst being honest about failures and how they can be addressed.
- Our place in making major decisions-Northern Ireland, in my view has suffered from the fact that for decades we have been basically shut out of the main corridors of power. From 21-72, we had what Jim Callaghan once referred to as glorified “county council” and today we have the Executive. We are at the moment 2% of the House of Commons, yet under unity we would be 25-28% of Dail Eireann. As a campaign Yes Ireland, cannot honestly say a yes vote is a way out of poverty etc., but it is a vote to give us the capacity to make our circumstances better. It is about putting Northern Ireland back as a central player in a sovereign parliament.
- Nation building-Republicans can draw upon many nation building traditions, yet there are many of these same traditions on the Unionist side that any campaign needs to incorporate. I am thinking of Edward Carson, when he spoke of governments respecting minority rights and rejecting factions, Lord Londonderry with his radical education proposals and William Grant, who gave Northern Ireland free healthcare. These traditions from Unionism are for me a sense of pride and a key to drawing in the Orange part of the flag.
There are things in here that I have not addressed. But, if we do in the future get a border poll, these are just some things that a Yes Ireland campaign will need to address and debate before it sets out its plan. At the time of writing I read a tweet which for me captures the attitude that republicanism needs to adopt perfectly
“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream, not only plan, but also believe.” – Anatole France
If those wanting a poll are not going into it with a the belief of winning, then it is pointless. Yes Scotland people were so shattered on the night because they thought they would actually win it. It was not entered into to make a point, rather it was to begin a conversation and conclude with independence. Republicanism has enough campaigns that did not end in success to draw upon, this possible future campaign needs to focus on success and how it can accommodate and respect those who oppose it. It cannot be about taking down symbols of Britishness or settling old scores, rather it has to be about building things up and incorporating new aspects to our wider island wide identity.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs