Half a billion years ago the land mass that makes up the island we recognise today as Ireland belonged to two primordial continents separated by an ancient ocean. The northern portion belonged to the continent of Laurentia, now preserved as parts of North American, while the south belonged to the supercontinent of Gondwana, which would form large parts of Europe, Africa, and Australia. About 470 million years ago, the process of plate tectonics caused these two ancient continents to drift across the planet and collide into one another. This resulted in the Earth’s crust buckling into mountain ranges along the boundary on which the two plates clashed.
While Ireland has nothing on the scale of the European Alps or the Himalaya, the Twelve Pins, some of the highest mountains in the west of Ireland, and the Dublin and Wicklow mountains in the east, are relics of the tectonic event known as the Caledonian Orogeny. The formation of this hardest of land borders was a lengthy process, taking about 150 million years, mainly between the late Cambrian (490 million years ago) and mid Devonian (390 million years ago). Recent research has linked this geological phenomenon to the ‘Cambrian Explosion’, considered to be one of our planet’s most important evolutionary events with a rapid expansion and diversification of animal life.
The political unification of Ireland should presumably take less time than its geological formation, but it would certainly represent one of our era’s most important evolutionary events. Furthermore, with an influx of up to 684,000 less than enthusiastic participants, the New Republic project would also witness a rapid expansion of perhaps not entirely welcome diversity. Based on recent Assembly results, of the 63% of the electorate who voted, only about 40% were fervent Republicans. A further 40% or so were Unionists of one stripe or another and 13.5% were Alliance supporters.
Something of the magnitude of a vote on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would presumably attract greater participation than that seen in Assembly elections. For the Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998 there was a turnout of 82% of registered voters. Nevertheless, if a border poll was called tomorrow, the additional proportion of voters required by Republicans to secure the simple majority necessary to achieve their desired outcome would probably still be 11% or so. To achieve such an increase in support for such a polarising issue as Irish Unity would be no mean feat and the obvious question is, where would these additional votes come from?
The untapped well of up to a third of the electorate who do not usually vote are an obvious target for any political group seeking to further their cause. However, the motivations of this cohort are not well understood. It might be easier, therefore, to change the minds of those who do vote than to engage with those who do not.
With a marked decline in support for the Democratic Unionist Party and concomitant increase in that for the Traditional Unionist Voice Party, Unionism appears to have lurched into a more entrenched position on all things constitutional. Furthermore, it would seem more likely that a disaffected ‘soft’ Unionist would switch to the Alliance Party, or even abstain from voting, rather than transfer their allegiance to Republicanism. The last remaining hope for a ‘positive’ outcome from a border poll would be the almost unanimous support of Alliance Party voters for a united Ireland. Alliance, however, intend to maintain an official position of strict neutrality, at least until the precise details of any merger of the two jurisdictions has been finalised and made public. They are staunchly pro-European and fundamentally opposed to any poorly formulated Brexit-style referendum.
Neutrality on the constitution question has been a difficult concept for many on the polarised margins of this debate to comprehend. In 1981, Ian Paisley, founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, declared that “Basically the Alliance Party has the same spirit as the Roman Inquisition, and would silence and put to death all who would raise their voices in protest against the errors, pernicious doctrines and idolatrous practices of the Roman Catholic system”. On the other hand, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams rather more succinctly once described Alliance as “one of the smaller unionist parties”.
Much has changed in the half-century since Jim Hendron, a founding father of the Alliance Party, declared that “Support for the position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom is a fundamental principle of the Alliance Party, not only for economic reasons but also because we firmly believe that a peaceful solution to our present tragic problems is only possible within a United Kingdom context. Either a Sinn Féin all-Ireland republic or a Vanguard-style Ulster republic would lead to disaster for all our people.” Not least of the new realities is that Sinn Féin are no longer the political wing of a paramilitary organisation and the idea of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the six counties of Northern Ireland has been consigned to the dustbin of antiquity. In any event, not even the most ardent of Slugger Commentators could wish to be debating the next big formation process in Ireland’s history for the next 150 million years.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.