I argued in an earlier piece that the word “Unionism” should be handled with extreme care, because it has become overloaded with far too many overlapping yet inconsistent meanings. For slightly different reasons, we should also avoid using the phrase “United Ireland”.
“Unionism” refers to a collection of existing things that can, with effort, be distinguished from each other. “United Ireland”, or its modern euphemism “New Ireland”, means nothing much at all, because it refers to a hypothetical something that has never existed or even been clearly defined.
Because it means nothing, the reader or listener is free to choose what to perceive in it. And just like a meaningless Rorschach inkblot, the reader’s perceptions are determined by the reader’s mind alone. If the reader is inclined to favour Irish Nationalism, then the ideas evoked are likely to be favourable, even Utopian. If the reader is not so inclined, then the phrase “United Ireland” will prompt unease, distaste and even fear.
Because what comes to mind when a vague phrase is uttered is equally vague. Nobody believes for a second that a United Ireland would lead to Protestants being driven into the Bann. But such associations are stored in the subconscious and, even if not remembered explicitly, their presence colours and shapes the reaction to even marginally related ideas. How many people reading the words “United Ireland” involuntarily hear it in an Andytown-accented inner voice?
The art of persuasion is mainly the art of minimising the number of negative associations while maximising the positive ones. And a speaker who wishes to persuade, to sell, must work backwards from what he wants the listener to think, not forwards from what he himself wants to say.
Brexit was such an inkblot. There were well-informed people on both sides, but the majority would freely admit to being ignorant (to varying degrees) of the workings of the EU and the consequences of leaving it. The question was deceptively simple, but it has become painfully obvious in hindsight that those who campaigned for it and voted for it had wildly divergent perceptions of what Brexit actually meant in practice.
Free-traders looked upon the inkblot and saw great ships bestriding the waves. Libertarians saw a bonfire of statutes and judgements. Others saw the return of jobs to provincial towns, or an end to demographic change. Not all of these could possibly be true simultaneously. Maybe none of them will end up being true. The inkblot remains inscrutable.
The 8th amendment referendum could have been as confusing, but the Irish Government took the decision to avoid a Rorschach calamity by publishing the heads of their proposed legislation. No matter what way the result falls next week, nobody can seriously claim that they were not informed.
Now obviously, full legislation could not and should not have been drawn up in advance of the result, and no amount of written detail could ever completely insulate a debate from misinformation or partisanship. But it was rightly recognised that allowing a referendum to go ahead without any constraint on the collective imagination of the electorate would have left the government with no defence against the wildest excesses of Project Fear.
And a border poll will be fought entirely on the basis of Project Fear. Fear of Brexit versus fear of a United Ireland. By the time any such poll eventually comes around, the shape of Brexit will have become much more concrete. And unless a “United Ireland” has also become more concrete, the devil that Northern Ireland knows may not seem so fearsome by comparison.
So anyone in Ireland who would like to see a border poll in their lifetime would be well advised to propose a practical constitutional framework now. Like the 8th amendment, every detail cannot and should not be drawn up in advance. Blank space must be reserved for the meaningful input afterwards of those who will understandably demur at contributing beforehand. But equally, those in favour of change must clearly demonstrate that they have given the fullest consideration to the concerns of all sides, whether actively engaged or not.
That means publishing the constitutional equivalent of the heads of bill, setting advance constraints on the scope of any post-referendum negotiations, and defending these self-imposed limitations against cries of sellout from the back benches.
Start by ruling out the vast majority of options. Cast out the bogeymen, the fevered nightmares, the implausible and the irresponsible. In this context, “United Ireland” ceases to be useful, because it rules nothing out.
It doesn’t rule out the unitary socialist republic of the old Republican faithful, a vision so removed from modern Ireland that it would attract single figures support south of the border. So why allow that spectre to haunt the debate? Rule it out.
Same with anything that doesn’t preserve the minority rights so hard won in the GFA. The principles that protect one minority community while NI remains in the UK must also protect the other minority community in any future settlement. Republican leaders have at times declared that all identities should be protected and embraced, but aspirational statements can be easily dismissed as rhetoric. Be specific about the legal changes you could never support, and rule them out.
Rule out the things you know Unionists most fear. Rule out the things you know southerners won’t countenance. Rein in the starry-eyed ambitions and limit the scope of this particular change. Not because ambition is wrong, or because the horizon must never be admired. But because the future is a journey that will always be in front of us, and destinations will change with the wind and the seasons.
Once you rule out the impossible, the fanciful, the unaffordable, only then can you give a meaningful shape to the thing that is left.
So what is the shape of that thing?
Northern Ireland will continue to exist. The Border will continue to exist. Jurisdictions cannot be simply bodged together, because a century of legal divergence would take decades to unpick. Stormont will continue to function, as will the rest of strand one. A Northern Ireland jurisdiction requires a Northern Ireland parliament, and that means a Northern Ireland executive. Direct Rule from Dublin would be no more democratic than from London. And meaningful formal ties to GB would be of crucial importance to keep everyone on board, so strand three will also survive.
The Republic will continue to exist in much the same form, because the only people who relish the thought of sixty crabbit TDs from the wee six overturning the political arithmetic of the Dáil are the Shinners. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil will gift Sinn Féin a parliamentary plurality. Nor will Ireland be quartered into provincial states, as per Éire Nua. There is no burning desire for parliaments in Cork or Galway, and despite its frustrations with Dublin, Donegal has no love for dysfunctional Stormont.
Strand two will be enhanced, but not replaced. The President, the Supreme Court and a reformed Senate could be shared between the jurisdictions, with equitable representation for north and south. European and foreign policy would be delegated to a beefed-up NSMC. These newly shared bodies would form the successor state to today’s Republic. But whatever the details it will be a lightweight, Belgian form of unity, nothing whatsoever like the centralised UK. Stephen Hawking was once warned that every equation in his book would halve its sales. Similarly, every extra power granted to the new Irish state will halve its legitimacy in the eyes of the losing side.
And just as the current relationship between the two parts of Ireland can only be changed by simultaneous referendums, so will any future changes to that relationship be subject to a double referendum lock, effectively preventing a future Irish government from simply abolishing the troublesome North.
Would this satisfy everyone? Not a chance. It may not satisfy anybody at all. It would meet a strict legal test for “Irish sovereignty”, but it’s not what many people – perhaps any people – would understand from the phrase “United Ireland”.
Which is exactly why “United Ireland” must be cast aside.
Because whatever emerges from the far side of constitutional change, whatever future may eventually come to pass, it won’t be what anyone currently expects. The GFA was “Sunningdale for slow learners” because everyone already knew what the only practical solution looked like; it just took longer than expected to negotiate the price. A border poll won’t be like that, because nobody yet has a clue what shape the framework will be.
All we have to go on is an ambiguous smudge called “United Ireland”. And so any border poll will be as ill-informed as Brexit unless nationalists and others (and it will have to include Others) produce a proposal with an actual text, and an actual name.
Call it a confederacy. Call it a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Call it what you will, but call it what you mean. If that causes discontent within the ranks, then good. These arguments need to be settled sooner rather than later.
Or would you prefer to sell the Irish people a pig in a poke, without even knowing yourself what animal is inside?
Andrew is a native Ulsterman and honorary Galwegian now living and working in Dublin. An IT manager by day and dilettante political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.