Another poll in The Irish Times recently probes the unanchored certainties of those pushing an early unification without reference to the realities of the Belfast Agreement and the new binding articles of the Bunreacht na hÉireann.
Fintan O’Toole comments:
Those who want unity the most seem to see it is an extension of sameness: the North essentially dissolves into the South. But the survey shows how very far from Irish reality such an assumption remains. Any honest discussion of unity has to start with the acknowledgment of very profound differences.
In story telling the social anthropologist Joseph Campbell might reference such reflexive conservatism as a refusal to answer the call to adventure. For O’Toole unity currently exists in a dreamtime where uncomfortable realities need not be confronted.
Crossing the threshold into such an adventure would necessitate change, risk of loss in involved in leaving the warmth and snugness of living in a safe place (partition) where fantasies and comfortable abstractions predominate.
For proof of how far we are from the unity of the people laid out in the Bunreacht, he notes:
For Southerners, some Nordies are more alien than others (and vice versa).
In a major survey published by the ESRI in 1979, a startling 74 per cent of Southerners declared themselves antagonistic to “Northern Protestants”, with just 7 per cent claiming to be favourably disposed towards them.
How much this has really changed remains an open question. The ARINS survey does not ask the question so bluntly, but a very rough proxy might be the finding that respondents in the Republic overwhelmingly “feel very distant” from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Given that, like it or not, the DUP represents very many of the people that Southerners want to unite with, it is striking that, on a Richter scale of estrangement, where 5 represents a sense of absolute alienation, the average Southerner awards them a 4.6.
If past experience is anything to go by, most of our commenters won’t care too much about this. That’s fine, I don’t see it as my job here on Slugger to persuade as to inform them (and in the process myself), but as the study notes:
A mere 27 per cent of people in the North say they would vote for a United Ireland. That’s not much more than in 1978, when a large study by Queen’s University Belfast found that 22 percent favoured Irish unity in some form.
There’s a message to unionist parties too. Less than 50% of Protestants are worried about keeping Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom. We know that that’s not a preference to leave, because the figure in favour of unity is not budging.
Voters will judge the Union on how it performs against possible alternatives. They’ll be swayed by the relative performance of leaders associated with unionist and nationalist causes and the attractiveness of Britain and the Republic as partners.
A number of questions will come into play but, as in peacetime elections across the world, ‘what’s in it for me and my family?’ will become dominant. And, when deciding whether to go out and vote, something even more basic: ‘do I really care?’
What these figures (and the much more derided ones from the University of Liverpool) show is that when it comes to the constitutional issues, most people don’t care much when compared to housing, health and the economy.
Right now, ironically, the two main parties may even be happier to be outside of government than in in Northern Ireland because tackling any never mind all of those issues involves level of political pain they’ve gotten used to living without.
I suspect however, that the EU and UK governments (now slowly emerging from the negotiations tunnel) may be about to call the bluff of the DUP by bending further on checks than anyone previously expected.
It will still be the same protocol that lets local exporting companies off the hook their mainland GB compatriots have been stuck on since the UK left the EU, the Customs Union and the Single Market but it will be substantially what the UK has called for.
It may help to underwrite the stability of Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future in by providing it with a better future than many of the other struggling parts of the UK state (or the island of Ireland) by re-imposing a frictionless border inside the UK.
As LBJ once said, if you can’t read the numbers, you shouldn’t be in politics. Brexit put the frighteners on a lot of soft to moderate unionists precisely because it struck at the heart of their economic wellbeing, but nor did it shift them towards a UI.
The truth is they want more than they are getting just now from unionist and nationalist politicians. The numbers of those who find themselves indifferent towards the constitutionalist discourse in general are falling rapidly.
People, north and south, want the things that matter to them (not just their politicians) to come first. The trouble is that our northern politicians have never been under any pressure to acquire the knack of figuring out what that actually means.
People gotta eat…
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