I read with interest Micks piece earlier today on Unionist experiences and perspectives in the recent border poll debate and felt the need to offer a different view.
When one of my political heroes, then Taoiseach Sean Lemass addressed the Oxford Union in late 1959 on the topic of Irish Unity he said his concern wasn’t about dwelling on the past, but rather it was about looking to the future. That is something that has always motivated me in this debate. I cannot change what happened in the past, none of us can, but we can act to shape events in the present and the future.
Micks piece charts the isolation of Unionism. Some of it is very valid in terms of being isolated on the island of Ireland. But we have to remember a few basics on this debate. This place apart narrative is something that political Unionism not only supports but helped implement. Who was it that created Stormont? Who was it that for the past century has resisted any attempt from the local government franchise to marriage equality to bring British standards to Northern Ireland? The answer, the leadership of Unionism. If people are talking over their heads, it’s because as Arlene Fosters performance at the Pink News event demonstrated, talking directly to some parts of the leadership doesn’t seem to yield any substantive results.
But back to the wider border poll debate. Until 2016, many Nationalists (myself included) argued that now was not the time to have this debate and that it was in our strategic interests to make Northern Ireland work. That meant engaging and making the most of devolution. Shifting the political debate away from Westminster and demonstrating that it was local policy-makers who mattered was the right priority for Nationalism.
Then the EU referendum happened and as Colum Eastwood rightly said the results of that vote made Nationalism a restless people once again. They are not alone. Various sections of our community who are fed up of the failures of the previous Stormont administrations are also restless for change.
The border poll debate was not something that many Nationalists sought, it has actually been brought to us by those who argued to leave the EU. Whilst we may not have wanted to be in this situation, it would be a supreme act of folly to not recognise that things have changed.
We face a Northern Ireland following the rest of the UK out of the EU, in comparison we have the South of Ireland with the fastest growing economy in the EU and a rapid pace of social change. Never before since partition have both existed at once.
Northern Ireland has also changed. We have a vibrant “others” category of voters with Alliance and the Green Party firmly on the political map. These voters are also weighing up their options. We are a province of minorities, no one section can control the political debate or our direction.
The old certainties that we have had since 1921 are gone.
“That which we have, we hold” logic is simply self defeating in a world of change. Unionism in the main argued for Brexit. It also longed for a central role at Westminster. It now has both and such a seismic change that it seems wholly unprepared for. Mind you, Nationalism is reacting on the hop to all of this as well.
But in the world of honest conversations and building a broader tent, the fact that for decades Nationalism has been underdog is serving us well in this new environment. Health warning here, I am not saying this makes anything a cert in terms of winning a border poll.
The Nationalist case isn’t just about asking if you want a united Ireland but also why you want one. What values and aspirations do you have for a truly new Ireland? We don’t really have the full answers on this yet. But nearly two years into this Brexit process, If people like me are talking over the heads of Unionist politicians its simply because I am hearing nothing about their vision of the UK, other than “this far and no further” when the game has so completely changed.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs