Demographic changes and some recent polls have injected an air of optimism, arguably even complacency into the campaign for Irish unity to the extent that its proponents regard it as inevitable within the medium-term. A quick review of the past two years in the United Kingdom however, offers a vivid example of how major constitutional change is not a simple matter, far from it.
The problem began with a referendum, posing the simple question:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
One can imagine a very similar question on an Irish border poll. The problem of course is that while everyone knows what the status quo looks like, no one can predict what a New Ireland or United Ireland will. Aspirations are one thing, hard economic realities quite another. The 2015 joint BBC/RTÉ poll indicated that support for a united Ireland in the Republic dropped to 31% if it meant paying more tax.[i] Some have a tendency to dismiss polls they don’t agree with but the same survey predicted the EU referendum result in N. Ireland to within 1% and found 64% of respondents in the Republic believed abortion should sometimes be available compared to the 66% who voted that way in the recent referendum.[ii] Northern Ireland’s economic weakness indicates that taxes will almost inevitably rise to pay for unity, the burning, and dare I say it, key question is by how much?
While I don’t pretend to have the answer as to how the practical difficulties of unity can solved, I can hopefully, nourish the debate. An initial, Northern Ireland-only poll to ascertain whether or not the majority wish to remain in the United Kingdom is the legal, first step as per the Belfast agreement. Unlike Brexit, the electorate should be presented with as much information as possible – perhaps a booklet in the style of the Good Friday Agreement, agreed by both governments outlying some comparisons between the two states such as overall taxation and income levels, health systems and the likely effect (if any) on the payment of current and future pensions. Agreement on principle on who pays what could be agreed by the two governments relatively quickly.
Assuming the poll expresses a desire for Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom, negotiations between the two governments could then begin to finalise changeover arrangements. Local political parties should be consulted but not allowed to veto any proposals (lest they go on forever) which should be completed in a reasonable time – no more than two years. The Irish government would then produce a new constitution which could include things such recognition and some protection for the new British minority and possibly arrangements for continuing devolution in the former Northern Ireland, a structure which Donegal, an economic victim of its isolation from the rest of ROI, could be invited to join.
To summarise, two years after the initial vote, the Irish people as a whole would then vote on a new constitution and economic arrangements making an informed choice as to what exactly will happen politically after considering the best estimates available as to the cost of the new state to its individual citizens.
Of course the people might say ‘No’. What happens then? As I said, major constitutional change is neither simple nor easy, something people should have borne in mind when they promised easy trade deals and £350m a week for the NHS. Brexit was born out of many things, frustration, feelings of exclusion, fears about immigration, but also wishful thinking, deception and outright lies about the outcome.
A New Ireland if it is to succeed, needs to be built on firmer foundations. There is a chance to build an entirely new state where everyone can feel at home and which works to the benefit of everyone. The mistakes of the past must be avoided. There will be only what shot at this and it is vital to get it right.
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam