IThe uncertainty surrounding the Brexit process is driving what often comes across as feverish talk of a United Ireland. Make no mistake, Brexit (even a soft one) will change relations on and between these islands for good.
But island unity is no foregone conclusion.
In his column for the Irish Times week before last, Noel Whelan picked up the same United Ireland issue our Slugger panel will be discussing this Tuesday evening (still a few tickets left). He usefully puts his finger on the chaos that is UK politics just now:
There is frankly no Brexit outcome which will not loosen Northern Ireland’s de facto position in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is likely post-Brexit to have something akin to special status within the EU or be in absolute regulatory alignment with the EU for a lengthy transition period.
An exploration of the provisions and the likely constitutional chronologies suggests that the scenarios under which Northern Ireland would decide to join with the Republic and how constitutional expression would be given to that decision are extremely complex. [Emphasis added]
In the medium to long-term (notwithstanding the bilateral treaty which underwrites the Belfast Agreement), Brexit will lead to a drift in relations between the UK and the Republic.
Neither has infinite resources/opportunity to run trade and diplomatic operations. Inside the EU, Ireland must press on against the machinations of the French and others to defend every small advantage it has wrought as a small country on the periphery of the EU.
Outside, the UK for the first time in a couple of centuries will be isolated from the mainframe of intra-European diplomacy and trade discussions. Wherever and however it ends up aligning, the connection with Ireland will be via the lobby in Brussels.
Listen to the most committed Brexiteers within unionism, and you’ll hear them argue that exit is only the beginning of a long evolutionary journey. Re-enforcement of sovereignty to them means repatriating subsidiarity to the UK from the EU.
It’s not a voice that’s often heard within a media which desperately wishes (as I do myself) that Brexit hadn’t happened. But it is a legitimate and important counter to those suggesting that Brexit is necessarily an accelerant to a united Ireland.
One of the more dismal themes of the discussion of any future united Ireland is how the discourse retreats back into the subject of demography. The temptation is understandable given the high correlation between religion and constitutional choice.
The polls give different readings. The latest phone/internet poll from Lucid Talk, says NI is onlt marginally for staying in the UK: 45% to 42%. The Life and Times survey, based on face to face interviews, says 55% to 22%. A Mori poll gave a similar figure.
As Peter has noted, it may be that people may be too shy to tell face-to-face interviewers what they really think. But as he also notes, if there’s a quickening taste for the exit, Brexit is the likely active ingredient.
A general catastrophising of the highly secretive Brexit process drives a sense of disaffection (largely amongst NI Catholics) from the idea of belonging to a UK that’s outside the EU.
Whilst the largest single proportion of the NILTS sample say it will make no difference, some 33% say it makes it more likely, whilst just 9% say it will make it less likely.
The latest poll commissioned by Michael Ashcroft also found a general indifference in Britain as to whether there was a hard border or not…
May’s election only reproduced the polarisation of the Referendum result gifting the DUP the role of UK dealmakers. It confers considerable negative power upon the DUP, but the scope for a “good” Brexit is small.
The border is not a high priority on their Brexiteer friend’s list.
The result though is that whilst a UI has possibly never been as popular amongst Northern Ireland’s Catholics, it remains as deeply unpopular as it has always been amongst its Protestants.
Need for policy and investment
Little has been done since the Belfast Agreement to substantially address NI’s structural weakness, never mind build the plausibility of a UI. Most benefits have been driven by London initiated policy. Few have Dublin (or Belfast’s) imprimatur on them.
For all it’s emotionally challenged public dealings, the DUP has delivered £1 billion on top of a £9 billion annual subvention to an economy that is structurally weak due to its highly peripheral position within the UK market and 30-years of communal violence.
In any prematurely called border poll, the first questions are likely not just to be the NHS vs the HSE question, but a more direct: where’s yer money, and how are you going make it to work? As well as, what’s in it for me and my family?
Even the most positive of these polls show a losing margin. Whilst the Scottish independence referendum started the campaign way down at 24%, the continuing polarisation of NI society means there’s virtually no new free ground to be won.
Rather than opening the necessary new ground, any putative border poll campaign build on current lines of tribal logic will bombard the electorate with “images and texts that reinforce and encourage us to remain inside our favourite confusions.”
In fact, demography is a lazy distraction from the essential political spadework that needs doing now, not in five or ten years time. As Paul Nolan notes at the end of his piece:
It may be that the political future of Northern Ireland rests with another group entirely.
While the issue is usually presented as an arm wrestle between unionism and nationalism, this completely neglects the growing importance of those who do not identify with either of the two blocs.
In the March 2017 Assembly election these “Others” took 16 per cent of the vote. In the knife-edge scenario of the 50 per cent plus one majority required by a Border poll these votes will matter.
As one demographer put it to me, “If there is to be a united Ireland it may be because of a Chinese woman in Finaghy.” [Emphasis added]
Ending culture war as a coping strategy
Ulster Protestants are more than cyphers for someone’s careless reckoning that their deeply felt Britishness is a fiction. Key to a UI is developing an understanding of how they persist in self-identifying as Irish AND the ways in which they are alienated from it.
One of my two oldest friends is Presbyterian, and he spent all his childhood summers in a tiny cottage in the west Donegal Gaeltacht. He voted for Hume in the first European election and thinks warmly of an Ireland that for him has long been socially united.
But he’s not a fool. He knows what the IRA did to relatives in south Armagh and wouldn’t trust them or their representative as far as he could throw them. He can sing Amhrain na bhFainn and has drunk Champaigne from Sam Maguire when Donegal brought it home in 92.
But he’s also a Linfield fan and he understands very well the deep contempt in which he and his own culture is held.
Sinn Fein has popularised the talk of a united Ireland. No question about that. But another glorious failure is of no use to them, NI or Ireland. The social debt of the Republican movement to that section of the population it actively targeted remains an active block to achieving what many continue to dream of.
Clearing that debt should be a key piece of work in dealing with the past. But we also need to start providing real leadership in our own northern society and to build confidence and spendable capital with folks like my old Presbyterian friend. And not just “our own”.
That means a renewed commitment to building new infrastructure, new jobs and new opportunities regardless of wherever it is they come from: rather than just relying on time’s natural corrosion to disappear the old ones.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty