Nationalism should focus on Presidential Voting Rights, rather than an immediate Border Poll

Kevin Meagher wrote an article during the week writing about the inevitability of a United Ireland due to the current circumstances that we now face.

I have always been suspicious of any view that sees any political outcome as inevitable. It tends to stifle debate and any new thinking on an issue and I have never believed for a moment that this will just fall into our laps. This outcome will have to be argued for and driven forward as a campaign of persuasion.

However, one thing has struck me in the debates about this topic over the past week and something fundamental is being missed.

Just a few days ago Taoiseach, Enda Kenny announced his government’s intention to hold a referendum on Presidential voting rights for Northern Ireland and the wider Irish Diaspora.

This vote is a chance for those wanting a border poll to test arguments and tease out voters in Southern Ireland’s desire for all island politics. It will also serve as a useful training ground for understanding a potential No side in a future referendum.

Arguments around the structure of the Irish state, who is viewed as a part of that state and what rights should be given across the island will all chime with arguments about a United Ireland.

Nationalists across the island should park the drive for an immediate border poll and focus all of their energies on getting the Presidential voting rights referendum over the line. The cool reaction in some quarters to this proposal shows that a Yes campaign will have a fight on its hands and the ability to come up with clear and convincing arguments for this proposal will be useful for future electoral battles.

As he looked back on the success of the Vote Leave campaign, Chief Executive Matthew Elliott noted how he used the No to AV campaign in 2012 as a warm up act for a potential referendum on the EU down the track. Working on voting reform helped him understand attitudes and how to win people over to your side of the argument. Many of the top figures in the successful No to AV campaign went onto to run the Vote Leave campaign.

The training they received in 2012, paid dividends for their campaign in 2016.

People who seek a border poll need to view the Presidential voting rights referendum in the same way.

The approaches, arguments and organisation will have synergies across the electoral campaigns. It is important to learn about people’s concerns and then find arguments that put them at ease.

Much like a border poll, there are no guarantees that the Presidential Voting Rights referendum will go through. People tend to back the status quo in a referendum and a No campaign does have some clear arguments against.

A Border Poll is unlikely to happen before Brexit is completed, were as the voting rights issue will be tabled before 2019. This is the first hurdle and one that needs to be cleared. Stop putting the kart before the horse and focus on the battles that need to be won first.

Presidential voting rights should be the focus, not an immediate border poll in 2017.

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