A Border Poll one day? Then let’s do it right

In yet another eventful couple of weeks in politics, what caught my eye the most wasn’t plans for a national broadband service, fanciful budget splurges or cringey speeches and interviews. It wasn’t mini-electoral pacts across dozens of seats in England and the ever-changing sands of political alignment over the Great Brexit Divide. Closer to home, it wasn’t even Lady Hermon stepping down, loyalist paramilitary threats to UUP candidates, a stage-managed Sinn Fein leadership contest or the tiny dramas of other electoral pacts and arrangements in a handful of bear pit seats here, including in my old home of North Belfast.

Naturally, it was something I read in the Slugger comments, nestled there like gold in trampled reeds around it, as such things frequently do. It related to an article on a subject which grabs the attention like no other: the possibility, or not, of a United Ireland, and in a wider sense, the difficulties of orchestrating a discussion on such an emotive and momentous issue that is as realistic and respectful to everyone on this island as much as possible. Of all the things I have read on this most emotive of topics, and since Brexit I have read a lot, this made more sense than anything else. 

The suggestion, as humble was it was: Does anyone, who seriously wants this New Ireland project to work, think we can do this on two single, binary referendums North and South, within a few weeks or months of each other? Of course it can’t, and if such a project ever has a chance of getting off the newspaper and internet pages and onto the ground, then we need to be much smarter and creative about it. Put another way, look at how Brexit is tearing the UK and its politics apart and ask yourself: Is this what we want, when our question is infinitely more sensitive and life changing than that?

Quite simply: I do not see how else we can do this without two votes: one to officially kick start a real, meticulous and open discussion on this, based on Citizens Assembly outreach North and South, and a second to ratify the outcome and suggestions of that process in such a way that no one can challenge its legitimacy and the success of any New Ireland potentially resulting from it. And for anyone decrying this as more watering down of the consent principle under the Good Friday Agreement, it is anything but. The first vote would not be a meaningless, advisory farce: the question would be tightly-defined, kick-starting a time-limited and extensive outreach process North and South, across all lines and facets and issues of the debate, and officially supported and led equally by both the British and Irish governments. Crucially, at the end of this fixed period, say 5-7 years, it would result in a final vote where everyone going to the ballot box on that day knows exactly what they are voting for.

I have thought of this a lot, and I simply cannot see another way how this could be done that offers as comprehensive an opportunity as this. I also believe it has to happen at some point as Northern Ireland simply cannot continue to do the following two things: (i) exist in the current democratic vacuum and inaction, without significant and avoidable problems eventually occurring and (ii) fail to confront this issue at some point. This is especially the case if Northern Ireland is now reaching a point for which it was expressly designed to avoid: a possible majority in favour of leaving the UK and re-joining a unitary Irish state. I would prefer to confront that head on, with an official, democratically-mandated approach, than let it continue to paralyse every thing about this place completely.

Otherwise, nothing encapsulates the difficulties of starting such discussions on an unofficial, organic basis than a featured article last week by Eoghan Harris, questioning the legitimacy and motivations of the thousand or so public figures from Ireland north and south, named “Ireland’s Future”, who co-signed a letter to the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The point of this joint-letter, as with similar recent initiatives, was to begin a conversation “about our shared future on the island of Ireland” and to take the steps to start preparing for discussions on it as a matter of priority. The obvious point for Harris to make was what he saw as the total lack of any Unionist or Northern Protestant figures in those 1,000 names, and therefore, the letter’s exclusionary, “partisan”, and “delusional” assumptions.

I personally don’t agree with how Harris attacked the integrity and even the personal qualifications of the people on that list, or is aware of the religious or previous political affiliations of all of them, and certainly don’t want to go into the debated again which attracted most of the comments under that piece. But I do agree there is a basic point behind it, and that Harris isn’t the only one making it. Matthew O’Toole, from a Northern nationalist background himself, wrote a response with that same central point in the Irish Times. A New Ireland project, without any serious engagement and discussion addressing the critical issue of Unionist participation, will be such an unmitigated disaster that it will make Brexit seem like a spiffing success for the ages.

I have written on Slugger a few times to explain my interest in this conversation, but that interest is conditional on Unionist engagement being a fundamental part. If it doesn’t happen enough, I won’t be voting for it for reasons as idealist as they are practical. And I am sure I am not the only one from a nationalist background saying this.

But then, as many on Slugger have legitimately pointed out: how do realistically and practically you get Unionists involved and participating in something that is the anti-thesis of their political and cultural identity? Some Unionist commentators on these forums have even suggested that to do so is an assumption of interest bordering on insult; feelings from others (thankfully posted elsewhere than here) are so strong that civil disobedience in some form or scale is threatened as the natural and defensive response to a further betrayal of the Good Friday Agreement, which they saw (despite this possibility and mechanism being a central tenet) as maintaining the status quo for all time to come. It must be pointed out that not all Unionists or Northern Protestants would take anything like this approach, or feel they’d have to leave the place like Arlene Foster has said. Most, as suggested by Peter Robinson, would accept any such outcome, as hypothetical as it might be, as law-aboding democrats, and have a right and worth in the place in the same way as everyone else. However, we can’t deny that feelings on this run very high and deep indeed. 

Even if intentions are sound, starting any sort of discussion or process involving Unionist engagement is going to be difficult, and old wounds and hurt can quickly surface, neatly and amusingly encapsulated in the mocked-up, circular nature of how this would likely play out in a recent blog piece by Andy Pollack. Very quickly, we get onto arguing about bombs in various places, the legitimacy or not of the Northern state, Wolfe Tone’s idealist visions and even repartioning of most of Down and Antrim should the Union Flag finally fall. For once, for the sanity of us all, we want to stay on higher ground as much as possible.

Then there’s all the dozens of questions about what this New Ireland would even look like and mean to all of us. Would a Northern assembly of some form remain? Would people still have British nationality rights and for how long? Could we legislate for orange parade rights and a national holiday on the 12th in the North, and what sort of economic plans and costs would realigning the North to the South entail? Would loyalist areas be a target for much-needed investment and funding, as recommended by Senator Mark Daly in his 2017 Unity Report recommendations? Further still, would we retain all existing public services including a universal health system, as chronically disappointing as it is over here, or would we be switching to HSE (where at least we might get appointments within a few weeks), the Garda Síochána and An Post in a few months after the vote?

Also, on a different scale but no less important for some, what anthem would play at Windsor Park games and would there even be games there in the first place? Nationalists are mostly broadly aligned on the basic aim of a united Ireland, but as we have seen with Brexit, once these issues are opened up to spell out what it actually would mean, would they still be as united around it?

All of this is just the Northern side of the debate. Another one must happen down South too, and we can’t just presume they’ll be happy to cut Ireland into a federal country with four provincial assemblies because it seems like a good idea for the lads there too, not to mention rejoining the Commonwealth or changing their much-loved flag and anthems as some are suggesting. Even if Northern Ireland’s budgetary contribution to things like Trident missiles, Iraq and Afghanistan, HS2 and the Royal Family are taken out of the famous £10billion shortfall currently paid by the British Government to keep the lights on in the place: if this affects incomes and taxes enough, are people from Cavan to Cork still going to be as enthusiastic for it?

There is so much to consider here, and as the Financial Times asked this week too: it’s such weighty stuff that once it becomes a real discussion, people are entitled to ask if Reunification, or this New Ireland, is really what they want after all.

This is exactly why we need a two-stage referendum process. As polls are starting to show following Brexit, a majority of people at least willing to express an interest to kick-start an official discussion process may already be there. That’s not the same as winning an actual vote, but all the more reason that we have a defined and official process rather than just assuming this is something Unionists are going to come round to sooner or later. There needs to be a democratic imperative for this, and it needs to have official status and bilateral government endorsement. If a majority of voters in Northern Ireland express such an interest for process of this, then refusing participation can’t be sustained for much longer.

It is for the second vote that the real interesting phase will happen. Luckily, the tradition of Citizens’ Assemblies for important and divisive referenda already exists in the Republic of Ireland, and what better way than for the topic of a United Ireland to fit into an enlarged and bilateral version of this?

Such an Assembly, covering a North and South focus, and endorsed by London as well as Dublin, and factored into the GFA arrangements, could have the official mandate, resources, powers, and crucially, time-focus, to reach out to Unionists in a way that has never been seriously attempted before. It could cover every conceivable aspect of what a New Ireland would entail, including voices from the civil professions, academia, politicians and grass roots levels. Rather than exploring divisions, it would seek to remove them: focusing on our shared history and diversity as something to be proud of rather than the source of division it usually is. I sometimes think of Slugger, and someone like Choyaa who has sometimes posted excellent and enriching articles on here about the marching traditions of Orangemen; things that despite coming from Northern Ireland, I had precisely no previous idea about. I learned a lot from those pieces and that perspective and would want it included and respected in any new Irish state: If people like this aren’t brought into that debate, then is there any point in having it in the first place?

Such a program might also open up doors in unexpected places, particularly on the many economic opportunities and removing the competitive handicap that having two separate economies has on such a small and resource-limited island. We might start talking about the things we used to have that were actually pretty good: go into the Folk and Transport museum in Cultra, and marvel with the All-Ireland train network we used to have, and how much the very geography and economic success of places like Omagh, Enniskillen, Donegal and Galway utterly change when a big massive division is put right in between them. We might see that a common Irishness and ability to even speak that language was a feature of even the most working-class areas of Belfast even after the turn of the last century. Do most Unionists know that, and if a part-British identity can be recognised too, is that not something to bring us together rather than divide us?

Crucially, the big fear of this project for Unionists, the role of Sinn Fein and submersion in its own particular vision of an all-Ireland state, would be neutered. This process will involve Sinn Fein and its supporters obviously, as it will include everyone. But it certainly won’t be driven by them: it would be managed by London and Dublin together, as equal stakeholders, with some degree of independence from the body politic, so that it is driven solely by the views and wishes of the people it seeks to empower. Many Unionists may be pleasantly surprised at how different this vision will how many people and commentators down South share their views on Sinn Fein, and how much they even have in common in other areas with other Irish parties. They might also be reassured that Unionist-sympathetic views do exist from people down South, including writers like Harris, Ruth Dudley-Harris and others. There was a time, not long ago, that the South was dominated by a real Anglo tradition and heritage, from everything from Dublin Castle, to the Guinness Family to William Butler Yeats and Roger Casement. Even people down South may forget that sometimes, but again, it’s something to bring us together and show us that we all went through the exact same history for centuries and millennia together and nothing partition could ever do can erase that entirely.

Suddenly, what started as wholesale opposition may slowly turn to the crazy idea that this idea may not actually be that bad after all. It may even be seen as a chance, perish the thought, to finally put our history behind us and focus on a new and exciting future, in a state where we all have a massive say and even helped create together. As one Unionist friend remarked to me a few weeks ago, just how bad would a united Irish state actually be? At least we might have higher salaries, and a say in Parliament that dwarfs what we currently have in London, where even at times of maximum leverage, we’re ultimately disposable and ignorable there, even if it cuts to the heart of the most loyal Unionists in the place. We may not reach out successfully to people like Jamie Bryson and Arlene Foster. But we might get hundreds, thousands of others, who also agree: in practice, this isn’t such a disastrous thing after all.

So thank you Slugger contributor for the idea. I appreciate we may be some time off this happening, but until that day comes, I haven’t heard a better one as to how it actually will and might even have a chance of passing in some style to boot.

And in times like this, why shouldn’t we be positive and open about it all?


Photo by Pixabay is licensed under CC0