Unionism Fighting a Border Poll…

There are two fixed rules within Unionism – (1) you do not talk about a ‘Border Referendum’ and (2) you do not talk about a ‘Border Referendum’. However, today I will break that cardinal rule and discuss how Unionism approaches such a referendum and what we can learn from the two recent big referendums, namely ‘Scottish Independence’ and ‘Brexit’.

It’s difficult to hide that calls for a ‘Border Referendum’ have been growing in recent years. We may not be quite there yet in terms of a poll being called. However, it would be churlish and indeed foolhardy for Unionism to be unprepared.

Current Problems within Unionism and the Union

At present, political Unionism is not in an ideal position to engage in such a critical referendum; it is at its weakest point since partition in terms of electoral strength. There is a dearth of talent, the frequent whiff of scandal engulfs Unionism, ongoing incompetence is an issue, leadership problems, and a complete lack of vision and strategy, all of which would be accentuated and used to Unionism’s disadvantage during a referendum. Further problems undermine the Union currently focusing on the fallout from Brexit which has resulted in a ‘Sea Border’ and ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ (NIP), all of which political Unionism is struggling to grapple with.

Prevention is Better than Cure

A border poll is not inevitable, but it is highly likely. The best way to secure Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is to prevent a border poll by making Northern Ireland work for all of its citizens. There have been some very public calls from elements within Unionism advocating an approach of making Northern Ireland ungovernable; this aims to stifle both the ‘Sea Border’ and ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’. Whilst government within Northern Ireland has been feeble since it returned in January 2020, making things worse ensures that Northern Ireland fails. This harms all of its citizens, with a discontented population people will inevitably call for change. Unionism needs to stop acting on a whim; there is a need to mitigate the NIP’s impact and ensure that trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is as seamless as possible. The NIP as detestable as it is at present may offer opportunities given Northern Ireland’s unique position. Exploiting these opportunities will require Unionism to be strategic and work with others, this is unfortunately not something Unionism has been good at in recent times. Calls to “Invoke Article 16” with no understanding of the repercussions will only result in Northern Ireland hopping from one problem to another and represents poor leadership. Is this the best Unionism can offer? During these problematic times, the population will be more sympathetic if accountability and solutions are offered rather than deflection and misinformation.

Unionism’s issues with the Irish language will need to be addressed by Unionism, in addition to this Unionism must be more confident and pragmatic about North-South relations. The pandemic was a good opportunity for Northern Ireland to capitalise on its geographical location and work with the Republic of Ireland on a joined-up approach to mutual interest areas. However, Unionism seemed too afraid to have this conversation, but a confident Unionism safe in the Union would jump at the opportunity, particularly during a pandemic.

Other areas within Northern Ireland that Unionism needs to be front and centre of and working with others to address include, health reform, suicide rates, the ongoing presence of Paramilitaries, and education reform to name but a few. These are critical areas, and universal themes that impact everyone, providing strong and competent leadership within these areas is a must.

In-house problems specific to Unionism also require addressing. Unionism must look at its conduct, how it presents itself to others, how it manages scandal, its long-term vision, and its ability to attract and keep talent. These are all key areas where Unionism has, is, and will continue to fail unless they are addressed, with such failure a ‘Border Poll’ gets ever nearer.

Beware of the Secretary of State

The good news for Unionism is that the Secretary of State can only call a ‘border poll’, the bad news for Unionism is that the calling of a ‘border poll’ is in the hands of the Secretary of State. I fear Unionism is too blasé about a poll feeling that a British Secretary of State would never call one, this is a huge mistake and should offer little comfort to Unionism. Let’s remember that Brandon Lewis publicly and foolishly denied the existence of the ‘Sea Border’, that attitude should unnerve Unionism and everyone else in Northern Ireland and this is certainly not someone who generates confidence.

If a Border Poll is Called

If a referendum is called Unionism will have several key areas to consider, some of these areas are as follows:

Tories are not friends of Unionism

This has been well documented in recent times; however, it’s always worth re-enforcing. It would also be a huge mistake for Unionism to allow an aloof Tory part to lead any pro-Remain campaign.


The leader or leaders will be critical during any campaign as they will be the embodiment of the Union, not only to those within Northern Ireland but also to the world. A referendum will get global coverage. For this reason, choosing the correct leadership team that can articulate the Union’s positives to a local and global audience, appealing to Unionists and Others whilst not energising the pro-unity campaign will not be easy. If a referendum were called today, the leader would be Arlene Foster as Foster currently leads the largest Unionist party. This would present many problems, Arlene Foster’s tenure at the helm of the DUP has been troubled all of which would be used against her in a referendum campaign and this will put off many people within the Other camp. This adds greater significance to Arlene Foster’s successor as they could have the huge responsibility of leading a Unity campaign; the wrong choice would be catastrophic.

Unionism may decide to have a consortium of leaders drawn from both political Unionism and Civic Unionism. As mentioned before in previous articles, Doug Beattie stands out as a natural leader within political Unionism aided by someone like Ian Marshall from Civic Unionism, fleshing out a pragmatic leadership team like this will certainly need to be on Unionism’s agenda, rushing around after a poll is called will not be of benefit to Unionism.

The Sinn Fein Bogeyman

A pro-Union campaign needs to avoid being underpinned by anti-Sinn Fein hysteria. This doesn’t mean that Sinn Fein cannot be scrutinised and there is little doubt that Sinn Fein will put as many people off Unity and draw towards it. However, as we have seen innumerable times in the past, going at Sinn Fein illustrates nothing else to offer. This won’t appeal to the moderates and will be problematic to the pro-Union campaign. As pointed out before, I feel Unionism would greatly benefit if it divested itself from Sinn Fein.

Avoid Fear

My greatest fear (no pun intended) is that a pro-Union campaign will be built on fear, the fear of what a United Ireland will offer, the fear of the unknown, and even the fear that our world will be turned upside down. There is no doubt that a United Ireland will cause many concerns for many people in Northern Ireland; however, building a campaign from this is not what the electorate will want. If we look at the ‘Scottish Independence Referendum’ and ‘Brexit’, David Cameron squeezed home with the Scottish referendum based on fear but lost Brexit which was heavily underpinned by fear. This doesn’t mean Unionism should not challenge what is being offered by the pro-unity campaign, are they like Brexit and overpromising with no clear set of values? It’s correct for Unionism to point out the pitfalls of decisions. The electorate will tire and get frustrated if Unionism’s entire campaign is based on fear and won’t aid a pro-Union campaign.

Civic Unionism

This is a key component of any pro-Union campaign, and it’s an area in which Unionism has got some good representatives. The launch of ‘We Make NI’ is an interesting and potentially important intervention at this point, and if it develops into a serious pro-Unionist movement, this will aid Unionism. Attracting more Unionists to get involved in Unionism via a Civic channel and linking this to the overall pro-Union campaign during a referendum will be important, but it will need strong management.

Key Themes and Central Messages

Getting across the key messages that are the selling points of the Union will be fundamental. The health service is one point; however, this should not be misconstrued that reforms are not needed or that the health service is anywhere near acceptable. Some people will also find it galling that several within Unionism who have publicly flouted COVID restrictions to protect our health service will then use the health service as a selling point of the Union. This is a justified criticism, and something Unionism needs to be much better at addressing. In addition to the health service Unionism will need to explain both the ‘Sea Border’ and ‘NIP’ and how they are mitigated, selling NI’s unique position as the potential gateway for trade and businesses both into Great Britain the EU is something to be examined.

The Eyes of the World

Northern Ireland Unionism does not travel well outside of Northern Ireland; it also doesn’t travel well within Northern Ireland. Often within Unionism, we are the authors of our downfall, and one thing to realise is that there will be little sympathy for a pro-Union campaign outside of Northern Ireland. That will certainly be a psychological blow for Unionism from the get-go, but it’s a reality that needs to be faced in advance. Many, particularly in the United States, will have sympathy and support for Ireland’s romantic notion becoming “united and free”. The Unionist perspective will be alien to many in America as it will be in most places. This is why Unionism must be putting its best foot forward and projecting a clear, logical, and positive message. We may not have much support outside of Northern Ireland, but there is an opportunity to be better understood. Also, Unionism should not worry when high-profile endorsements arrive for the pro-Unity campaign. This will be accentuated via the many Unity platforms, but it’s also expected that only those in Northern Ireland can decide on its future.

Others (Particularly the Alliance Party)

This group is effectively the kingmakers, a grouping in its own right now that genuinely represents a growing sector of the Northern Ireland population. It isn’t easy to know how Alliance and indeed the Green party will act during a referendum. They may allow their members to vote/campaign according to their conscience. It’s doubtful that the Alliance party will pick a side, but this cannot be ruled out. One thing Unionists are extremely conscious of at the moment is the Alliance party and their strong allegiances to the EU, it will be troublesome for Unionism if the Alliance party and its supporters see Unity as a way back into the EU. This should be a red flag for Unionism. An opportunity for it to re-evaluate its hostility to the EU, a more pragmatic relationship with the EU based on Northern Ireland’s unique position could help offset some of the concerns the Alliance party and its supporters feel towards leaving the EU. Unionism will also need to act more maturely if/when Alliance party members come out in favour of Unity, branding them as being part of a ‘Republican cabal’ will not only be unfair but it will win us few friends, echoes of the Anna Lo saga should still ring loudly as should all the other times when Unionists have linked the Alliance party to ‘Pan Nationalism’.

Loyal Orders, Bands, and Miscellaneous 

There is little doubt that these groups will want to play their part in the pro-Union campaign; some will see them as problematic and controversial. During the Scottish referendum, the Loyal Orders and bands were prevented from being aligned to the official ‘Remain’ campaign; the campaign also knew that this demographic was needed to win the referendum. The same is true in Northern Ireland. Loyal Orders and Bands should play their part in any referendum in Northern Ireland, but it will need to be managed carefully to ensure they are not causing problems for the overall campaign.

Big Hitters & Media Performers

Arguable what titled the scales for Brexit was Boris Johnson joining the ‘Leave’ campaign. Ruth Davidson came to prominence as a leading light on the Unionist side during the Scottish referendum. A Unity campaign would certainly have several big hitters, but few such equivalents on the Unionist side. Equally, short-handed are Unionists who are good media performers, which is particularly lacking within political Unionism. People like Alex Kane who falls into ‘Civic Unionism’ is one of Unionisms bests media performers; then there are people like Sarah Creighton, Tim Cairns and Newton Emerson who get regular media exposure on Unionist topics and perform well – if they get involved in a pro-Union campaign, they will all shore up an area where Unionism is particularly weak in and has been bad in for quite some considerable time. This is something Unionism should be addressing.

Ultimately can Unionism Win a Border Poll?

The answer is yes; however, it should not be taken for granted and Unionism must not merely win, but it must win well to solidify Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. There is much groundwork for Unionism to do both to avert a poll or if one is called to be ready for it. Unionism needs to stop hopping from crisis to crisis and turning more and more people off Northern Ireland and the Union. If Northern Ireland is to work, it has to work for everyone, and Unionism has a big part to play in this. Unionism still has a chance to save the Union, but it is not a comforting prospect for Unionists on current form.

Cuilcagh, Fermanagh” by Carl Meehan is licensed under CC BY

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