Unionism needs to step out from the shadows on the Unity referendum question…

It’s difficult to avoid the reality that discussions about a referendum on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland are gaining momentum. For better or for worse it has become part of our daily lexicon in which every problem within Northern Ireland that arises is a result of partition which can easily be rectified if only the island was united. It also means that every mistake Unionism makes (and there are innumerable) make the demands for a referendum louder. The conversations are spooking those of us in the Unionist camp and this has become evident through a series of rash actions that many feels are destined to fail. However, ignoring all calls for a referendum only adds power to the discussions and is no longer a sustainable course of action, Unionism needs to take control of the debate.

Set the Date

Alarmingly, at the moment Unionism is placing false confidence in the Secretary of State to never call a ‘border poll’. This is a ludicrous faith to have in someone who still denies the existence of the problematic ‘Sea Border’ and who is a member of a party that has a history of shafting Northern Irish Unionism at its convenience. Unionism must be in control of setting the date in conjunction with the other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. Having a referendum of this scale thrust upon Unionism unexpectedly in the future would be catastrophic as preparations would not have begun from the Unionist side. There is also some merit in the fact that there is a majority at present within Northern Ireland who want to remain a part of the United Kingdom, however, the future is less certain. This does not mean that Unionism should take a referendum in the immediate term as a sure-fire win, this would be ludicrous, the stakes for Unionism on a referendum are high, but managing the risk is key. The risks are prevalent now but they are only going to increase as time progresses and the more mistakes Unionism makes the higher the risks to the Union become.

Set the Date for the Rematch

There is an expectation that once Northern Ireland goes to the polls on its constitutional position that this will continue every seven years until Irish unification is achieved. Such a scenario is not explicitly stated within the Belfast Agreement, the Secretary of State can call one every seven years if s/he thinks conditions have been met, however, this again leaves Northern Ireland in a state of unending limbo. It also must be noted that the time taken to prepare a referendum and carry out the campaigns, leaves Northern Ireland with around five years of governance before we are again drawn into another constitutional battle. This in no way will allow Northern Ireland to develop or make any meaningful progress between referendums, it’s therefore hugely important that a substantial period elapses before the next referendum. Looking at the ‘Independence Referendum’ in Scotland, this was to be a ‘once in a generation’ referendum, however, the word “generation” was never clearly outlined, and with Brexit, calls are growing for a second referendum there. It is therefore important Unionism outlines its desire for a once-in-a-generation poll, with the generation term specified. This will require the agreement of other stakeholders across Northern Ireland but having such a referendum every 30 years is not an unreasonable expectation, especially if one considers that if Unionism loses the first referendum and unification comes about, there will be no rematch.

Get in ahead of a Scottish Referendum

I strongly believe that if Scotland leaves the United Kingdom then Northern Ireland’s exit will be almost inevitable. It’s irrefutable that Scotland leaving the UK would be a body blow to Unionism in Northern Ireland and one that it may not be able to recover from. In addition to this, with the loss of Scotland, it’s unlikely that the UK government will even give lip service to wanting Northern Ireland to remain a part of the ‘new UK’ which will be a further blow to Unionism. Having a referendum ahead of any Scottish referendum will take this momentum out of the equation and there is a strong argument to be made that if Unionism wins such a referendum in Northern Ireland then this could take the impetus out of the Scottish independence debate. If politics is anything then it is uncertain, the problems that the SNP is currently enduring show that independence in Scotland is far from a certainty.

Unity Planning does not need Unionism

Some Unionists have expressed concerns behind the scenes that if they’re not involved in putting their views forward for a ‘United Ireland’ then if one comes about, they will have had no say how it looks and operates. This I feel is unnecessarily complicating issues, Unionism does not need to get involved in such discussions and I feel they should not get involved. Most Nationalists have accepted that it’s inconceivable that Unionists would join discussions ahead of a referendum aimed at bringing to an end to their raison d’être. Nationalists are now using this time wisely to draw up plans on what a ‘New Ireland’ would look like and indeed how a referendum would be managed from their perspective. Interestingly, they’re looking to sideline Sinn Fein in some way and bring Protestants/former Unionists into the campaign to improve their messaging, this could play out well with ‘persuadables’. Patrick Kielty was mooted as a possibility for running such a campaign which brought about some amusing responses; however, it did illustrate that Nationalists are starting to pull themselves together and are putting the right concepts forward. Unionism needs to be looking at its campaign, a campaign that will need to minimise the DUP’s input and will require a broader civic Unionist approach that can both positively sell the Union but also ensure that those undecideds are not put off by a campaign fuelled by fear.

When does Unionism get involved in Unity Discussions?

Emma DeSouza made an interesting point in that ahead of any initial referendum, those seeking a ‘New Ireland’ will need to send a copy of what this will look like to every home in Northern Ireland, akin to what happened ahead of the Belfast Agreement referendum. This draft will have been designed by all of the key stakeholders; however, this will not have included Unionism and therefore won’t be similar to what happened leading up to the Belfast Agreement. I believe Emma’s concept will work for those seeking constitutional change, and what it will do is give the public an idea of what a ‘New Ireland’ could look like. I believe Unionism should only join ‘New Ireland’ discussions post-referendum if the result is in favour of a constitutional change. I have always felt that like Brexit, this is where the real details on what a ‘New Ireland’ will look like will become known, it will have the input of both the British and Irish governments along with Unionism and all other stakeholders. It’s unlikely that the British government will get involved in any ‘New Ireland’ discussion ahead of a referendum and it’s not certain the Irish government will either and both will need to be involved to support politically and financially the significant change that unification will entail. Where I feel these discussions should differ from Brexit is that once a post-referendum agreement has been reached, this will need to be put to the public in the form of a ‘supportive referendum’, this will then allow the public to make a fully informed decision on whether they want to remain in the UK or back the proposals for a ‘New Ireland’. Almost inevitably Unionism despite having been involved in such discussions regarding the agreement will campaign against it in any referendum, however, if they lose the second referendum it would as least mean that they’ve had initial input on the ‘New Ireland’ that will ensue.

Unionist Reset

I firmly believe that a constitutional referendum is necessary to give an ailing political Unionism the reset it seriously needs. Before the referendum it allows Unionism to redefine how it looks, the personnel involved, and how it sells the Union to a new Northern Ireland. Post-referendum (subject to Unionism winning) there is a much broader conversation to be had within Unionism on how it operates within a modern Northern Ireland. One thing that Unionism is accused of is the undemocratic formation of Northern Ireland, it’s a stigma that is frequently put-on Unionists in 2021 which is not only unfair but unjustified, a democratic referendum is the chance to wipe the slate clean and rectify this anomaly. I also don’t believe it is outrageous for Nationalists after 100 years to ask for such a vote, if Unionism puts forward a positive vision for Northern Ireland then there is nothing to fear from a referendum. Whilst the stakes are high there is much to be gained from a referendum:

  • It’s a chance to give Northern Ireland a democratic legitimacy
  • It will give Unionism a much-needed reset
  • It gives Northern Ireland a chance to reset, there is then an opportunity to begin looking at some of the problems we face, particularly within a dysfunctional Assembly.
  • It puts to bed the ongoing debates on unity.

The Time is Now

Unionism is looking shaky and nervous; this is accentuated by problems with the ‘Sea Border’ and the increasing talk of a ‘Border Poll’. If Unionism continues to ignore the inevitable it will weaken its chances of winning the referendum when it happens. Unionism must start asking itself some difficult questions, it must do some serious introspection and it must make some difficult decisions. One of those decisions is to take control of the referendum debate and start outlining its requirements and its preferred date. Grasping the nettle now will be much less painful than being pushed into a bed of nettles by the Tory party at a later date when Unionism is much more vulnerable.

Photo by mounsey is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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