Northern Irish politics has been all about polls for the past week. According to the Times, Theresa May isn’t too confident that unionists would win a border poll. The Prime Minister is that cack-handed people worried she’d triggered a border poll by accident. She hadn’t. Then, on the 21st May, two polls by ICM and MORI were released that showed support for the union, but with caveats that should keep unionists on their toes.
The prospect of a border poll looms large in politics today in a way it hasn’t before. Brexit is the obvious reason for that. It feels as though we are being stretched and pulled in every direction, the tension tight like an elastic band. Everyone is waiting for the snap.
It’s right that Brexit is such a huge part of the conversation now. We should be careful not to let it dominate discussion. What with confusion over a customs union and the single market, we have no idea where Northern Ireland will be in the next few years. Unionists and nationalist should be wary of relying on Brexit to get what they want.
Whatever happens, for bad or good, any border poll will focus on one question: what sort of country do people want to live in? Yes, this can be linked to Brexit, but the question would still be posed even if we were staying in the European Union.
If and when a border poll happens it will be for republicans and nationalists to whisper into the ears of voters, wind arms around their necks and point to a promised, bright land across the border. Unionists will make the Union dance and impress while telling a scary tale about the shadowy place south of Newry. We will all be presented with a choice, two visions of the future.
What people forget is that Brexit is not the only major thing to happen in Northern Ireland over the past few years. Austerity and the devastating cuts made to our public services will play a huge role in any border poll. I fear, as a unionist, that austerity will do more damage than Brexit.
Unionists will be hoping that voters, no matter how insecure or unhappy, will vote to stay in the union because a united Ireland is too risky and costly. Better the devil you know. The argument that that unity will lead to a loss is getting harder to make these days.
On the 21st May Arlene Foster wrote an article in The Times, the piece pitched as some sort of outreach to nationalists. Ms Foster wrote about shared values and how the NHS was a cherished institution. She spoke of her pride in the welfare state.
The NHS is in poor shape these days. Waiting lists in Northern Ireland have been creeping upwards for years now. I’ve experienced the impact of the devastating impact of cuts to services through my family. Getting an appointment with a GP is harder than ever.
We used to have a welfare state we could be proud of. Universal Credit will start to roll out in Northern Ireland over the next year. It is, in my opinion, a cruel system that will only make life miserable for single parents, people with low incomes and the unemployed. The safety net we once had is gone.
370,000 people in Northern Ireland live in poverty. Many young people are leaving Northern Ireland to find better opportunities elsewhere. Wages are being squeezed and economic inactivity is increasing. We are not building enough social housing.
Politicians from every creed have supported the harmful cuts and policies that lead to this.
In Northern Ireland people make the mistake of falling for the duck fallacy. We believe that if the country looks the way we want, if we paper it in flags and banners, half the battle is won. Everyone does it. Some unionists think that as long as you can see the red, white and blue, as long as Northern Ireland looks like it’s in the union, it is a victory of sorts. The people that rely on this strategy are in for a rude awakening.
The Republic has its own problems and issues. Nobody pretends that it is a paradise. The south is doing well economically now but that could change. In any case, you can’t scare voters with the argument that a united Ireland is economically disastrous when they have nothing to lose.
A border poll will not just be about the choice between the union and a united Ireland. Any border poll will be a referendum on Northern Ireland itself. While this place remains so distinct and different from both Britain and the Republic, it is all unionist politicians have to offer. It is not the case that we have to do everything Britain does, but when people here want prosperity and rights like gay marriage and don’t get it, the narrative is set. The foundation is there for nationalists and republicans to argue that Northern Ireland doesn’t work. Unionism has walked itself into a precarious place.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.