“The mountain is so formed that it is always wearisome when one begins the ascent, but becomes easier the higher one climbs.”
– Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatorio
On Sunday I was part of a panel discussion at the Battle of Ideas entitled The Border Question: Can the Union Survive? It was lively, to say the least. The chair, Kevin Rooney, made sure there was plenty of time for audience questions.
The venue, Church House, is integral to the grounds of Westminster Abbey. Much of the audience where made up of largely agreeable Brexiteers, some of whom like Prof Peter Ramsay looked at the issue from a GB point of view.
Peter argued British institutions that facilitated the diversity of the UK are in trouble and that the Protocol proves that NI is no longer really a part of the UK, since the GFA meant the British couldn’t get agreement without Irish consent.
Things are less about the traditional Northern Irish question, so much as a British question. How can Northern Ireland claim to be British when it is semi detached from the new found sovereignty of British law making?
For a more comprehensive summary of the conversation, James Patterson’s report for the Irish Post is an excellent and accurate précis of the highlights of each presentation. (I’ll add the videos if/when they’re available).
My argument was less based in the top down constitutional logic of Professor Ramsay’s presentation, and alone of all the presenters focused on the demos of Northern Ireland: ie, the cornerstone of our historic agreement.
People forget (if they ever knew) what a journey Alex Salmond took the SNP decades before wrangling David Cameron into calling the first independence referendum. It’s instructive of just how short the border poll lobby currently is.
In 1982 Party President (and former SNP leader) Billy Wolfe protested the Pope’s state visit when he it was “neither a city nor a state” and therefore not entitled to send a diplomatic representative to the “Protestant United Kingdom”.
It took most of the next 30 years for Salmond and others to earn the trust of the Irish catholic population of western central Scotland to drop their suspicion of the SNP and desert (almost en masse) the UK Labour Party.
Even then it was not enough to win the first #IndyRef, which as we have seen from Brexit, largely works by triggering broadly held reflexes. Nicola Sturgeon has since angered her fundamentalists by setting 60% poll rate as a target.
For those advocating Irish unity that reflex just isn’t held widely enough yet to win, and indeed the inevitable polarisation is only likely to re-scar the otherwise closed healing wounds of the past to the detriment of a UI.
The first slide of my presentation highlights the bare bones of my argument:
- To survive Unionists only have to make Northern Ireland hospitable to ALL its people;
- Nationalism cannot win a border poll on the votes of Catholics (and a few disgruntled dissenters) alone;
- Changing a constitutional status that’s been in place for 100 years is where the greater challenge lies.
Why? Well, some of the data I’ve used to arrive at that conclusion is relatively soft, for example survey evidence that the number of those declaring as non unionist/non nationalist now outnumbers the constitutionally committed.
A polarising border poll may force people to choose and likely therefore to drive the numbers up. But until such times as polls indicate a possible majority polarisation is only likely to leave the change proposition in a minority position.
Unlike Scotland, the union in Northern Ireland has been built on large amounts of blood and treasure spent within living memory, unlike parting from the EU it’s not an abstract government to government treaty that can be pinned on elites.
Rather than building bridges and seeking common cause across old communal boundaries in order to build a comfortable majority the loudest advocates of unification also champion the Republican long war (2152 killings).
One audience member took exception to the inclusion of that figure. Why not mention state force killing? In my view, I explained afterwards, Sinn Féin’s insouciance over its wider movement’s part in the killing is not compatible with the reconciliation needed to create the numbers for unity.
In the particular context of a changing Northern Ireland, yes, the number of Protestants is dropping (and quite rapidly) but (what hardly one in the press noted at the time) between 2001 and 2011 the growth of Catholics was less than 1%.
Indeed taboos in education that in the 70s prevented a lot of Catholic parents from sending their kids to state schools, are rapidly dying out. Many “Catholics” now demand entrance to state grammars (and the right to play British sports).
Rather than an uneasy 50/50 stand off, the number of ‘neither’ has grown to something around the 20% mark. There is certainly a stand off, but it only exists between two super minorities, both of which need to change in order to ‘win’.
In fact I think it would be safe to say that neither of them are sure what it means to win any more.
The idea that a border poll in the near term is now so front loaded in the mind it’s cutting off other options by crowding out positive actions in the short terms that are capable (as per the new Bunreacht) of “unit[ing] all the people”.
There is a journey to be gone on, without preconditions (as Gerry Adams used to say in the early peace process days) to enlarge the shadow of the future with the promise of better days ahead. There are a few (if still scant) hopeful signs.
Doug Beattie’s Union of People is a brave attempt to shift the unionist narrative, but it is also compatible with full blooded co-operation with nationalist partners in government (a pre-requisite for making the Belfast Agreement work).
Although again, it has largely been ignored by mainstream media, the shared island initiative of the FF led government in Dublin is an invitation for everyone to “play” where it makes the broadest possible sense.
The utility of calling for a border poll is not that it will bring a United Ireland closer but, as Paul Evans noted on these pages years before either the Scottish Independence or Brexit referendums, it’s a distraction from ongoing failures…
Referendums allow politicians to park awkward or divisive questions when they’d be better offering joined-up answers. They provide a way of letting the political class off the hook.
You don’t have to think about roads, hospitals, or housing, just identity. And the political bonus is that whilst you are in charge, nothing can be done and as things get worse all the better to prove your public thesis that nothing works.
But the thesis in question has been with us for quite a long time. Graham Gudgin, writing in the Belfast Telegraph in December 2002 wrote of the (disappointing for nationalism at least) census results from the year before that:
Nationalist expectations of a future Catholic majority have risen so high it will take more than a single census to bring them back down to earth. Sooner or later, though, there will have to be a re-assessment.
2011 came and went and still the penny did not drop that the population of Northern Ireland has exploited the long peace to mix, ditch religious belonging, and turn their backs on the interminable round of sectarian/constitutional rows.
Any campaign based on demographics only is little more than a bid for tribal dominance. It runs against the imperative of the Bunreacht to unite all (not just some of) the people, more importantly since the numbers aren’t there it will fail.
There will always be those looking for a shortcut up the mountain of building a shared island. But it’s more effective to follow the commingling and confluencing of the NI population with dialogue, creativity and embracing mutuality.
As Bryan Delaney reminds us, that means being vigilant about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Ben Okri said “Sick storytellers can make nations sick”. So the choice is between stories that shrink life and those that expand it.
Regardless whether that’s within the present United Kingdom or a future politically unified island.
It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society.
-Tim Snyder, On Tyranny
You can find the original slides from Sunday here:
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty