Commentators here and elsewhere have been keen to emphasize all the things Ireland must do to make a united Ireland an attractive proposition for unionists. The presumption seems to be that if you want something badly enough, you have to be prepared to pay for it. Some exhibit an impatience that no one – not Sinn Féin nor the Irish government – has started the bidding.
Conversely, opinion polls in the south, while supportive of Irish re-unification, generally show an unwillingness to make concessions that might make Ireland more “British,” and particularly any concessions that might cost real money. The assumption seems to be that unionists are welcome to join “us,” but they will be joining Ireland, not some pale imitation of a bygone Britain.
This is derided as a lack of realism, or of Ireland not being “ready for re-unification,” by those trying to promote the unionist cause or greater mutual understanding.
I think they misjudge the likely relative bargaining strengths of the negotiating parties in any post border poll discussions. The unionist bargaining position will be undermined if a border poll is carried. The default position is Northern Ireland joins Ireland as is. Anything else requires a referendum being carried in the south. Any hope of gaining major concessions rests on having negotiations prior to a border poll, while some unionist votes are still potentially up for grabs. But unionism cannot engage prior to a poll for fear of undermining their own absolutist pro-UK position.
Scratch the surface, and southerners worry about the costs of re-unification, the risks of political instability and violence, and the danger that re-unification could put Ireland’s economic ”success” and increasingly comfortable existence at risk.
We currently have a population explosion, a refugee accommodation crisis, a housing crisis for the younger generation, and a public healthcare, public transport, and environmental infrastructure under strain. Add to this global crises in Ukraine, the Middle East, and the Global South, and who needs unionists and their seemly insatiable demands to add to the mix? We have enough on our plate to be getting on with.
Sinn Féin are poised to become the largest party throughout the island in the next year or so, but they are doing so based on the current government’s failure to address the real needs of younger people in public housing, education, childcare and healthcare, and by kicking their aspiration to a united Ireland into the long grass.
Sure, they will continue to press for a border poll, or at least for the Secretary of State to define what criteria have to be met “in his opinion” in order for one to be called. But it’s a variant of St. Augustine’s prayer “O Lord, make us united but not just yet!” Hardly anyone seriously expects or wants it to happen any time soon – except for northern nationalists toiling under the yoke of a failing British empire.
But northern nationalists are not in a position to deliver the sort of concessions that might make the centre ground consider a united Ireland any time soon. Only an Irish government could do that, and they are not prepared to take that road just now. Almost no one is seriously courting unionists who are presumed to be uninterested in anything Irish, and likely to rebuff any attempts at bridge building. That is, of course, unfair on many unionists, but seems to be the defining characteristic of the dominant strands of political unionism.
So, it’s not going to happen, not anytime soon, unless Britain loses interest, or indeed decides it could be in their interests to off-load Northern Ireland.
But don’t assume that Ireland will then simply pick up the slack, just as you shouldn’t see Micheál Martin’s Shared Island initiative as a blank cheque to underwrite any infrastructural costs the UK can’t be bothered to fund.
Many down south will want to know what positive benefits a united Ireland could deliver for all, and particularly, what positive contribution unionists might have to make. That is a question no one seems to be asking right now, and particularly not those most interested in pleading the unionist case.
Few southerners know any northern unionists well personally, but what they see of political unionism in the media, they don’t like. Northern Ireland is seen as a declining historical anomaly and there is considerable sympathy for the nationalist’s plight. However, the dominant response is just to ignore the place, and hope that it will sort itself out in time. Why hitch your wagon to what appears to be, increasingly, a society heading for a dead end?
There is no sense that the majority would put their newfound prosperity at risk or tolerate a widespread resurgence of violence to accommodate some atavistic nationalist dream. Expect any majority for a united Ireland in the south to dwindle rapidly if it becomes clear that existing prosperity could be at risk, taxes might increase, public services diminish, British symbolism had to be adopted, or widespread violence could be the outcome.
“It just isn’t worth it, what’s so bad with our status quo” would soon become the dominant response. Ireland doesn’t need to do a reverse Brexit and rejoin the UK in any shape or form, no matter how symbolic. If it ain’t broke, why try to fix it?
100 years of partition have created a natural inertia for the status quo in both parts of Ireland. The ruling elites and dominant economic and social classes are all too comfortable with current “realities” to put their comfortable positions at risk. Only the radical left or right want major change of any kind. Nationalist parties come and go, but beyond the mandatory rhetoric of change, all seem to become increasingly comfortable with the status quo as they achieve power.
The Good Friday Agreement assumes that a United Ireland would come about more or less automatically if a border poll is carried. It doesn’t mandate any changes to the southern constitution to make it more acceptable to unionists. Indeed, a united Ireland can only happen automatically if it doesn’t require changes to the Irish constitution. Anything else will require a positive vote in favour.
So, the question will become, as in any negotiation, what will unionists have to offer in return for any changes they might request. Unionist “DEMANDS” will be met with a deaf ear, as was the case with the 7 DUP demands in response to the Winsor framework. In the real world you have to have something positive to give as part of any bargain.
Threats of violence will be met with a law-and-order response, the only way a true democracy can respond to attempts at intimidation and terror. The unionist bargaining position will diminish rapidly to zero if that is the response, even if only by a small minority of unionists. Negotiating with terrorists has had a long and unhappy history on the island, especially when a lot of the terrorism was state sponsored or facilitated.
As it stands a border poll can only be called at the whim of the Secretary of State (or acting under instruction from the Prime Minister). It can only be carried if a majority of the centre ground, those who vote for neither unionist nor nationalist parties, vote in favour. They, as well as some nationalists, will currently likely vote for the status quo on the basis that the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t.
A border poll will only be held and carried if the UK government decides it actually wants it to be carried, in which case they will make the status quo as unattractive as possible (and hope that the Irish government make the united Ireland alternative as attractive a proposition as possible). However, a more Machiavellian view is that they might also call a border poll as a distraction from other problems or to create political difficulties for their opponents.
That is why the narrative of my book, Sovereignty 2040, starts in Chequers this summer in the context of the problems faced by Rishi Sunak and his government in the run up to a general election. Irish re-unification may not happen, or at least not like that. But it cannot happen any time soon without the consent of the UK government, or at least a grave miscalculation on their part.
Thus, what is happening and not happening in Ireland north and south right now is largely irrelevant, except insofar as it might influence UK government thinking on the subject. The Good Friday Agreement prescribes a process, but only the UK government can trigger it.
In the meantime, all armchair strategists can do is contingency planning for the options which might arise at a time not of our choosing. Assuming it will never happen is the easy option. Few people have the luxury of never having to prepare for or respond to unexpected situations. We could all be faced with difficult decisions, especially if we haven’t prepared for them.
The bulk of Sovereignty 2040 isn’t about the border poll at all, but about what could happen afterwards. It is an optimistic look at what standard parliamentary politics and government, done well, can achieve. In a world where anti-democratic forces are on the rise, it is a salutary reminder not to take for granted the many positive features of democratic politics in a liberal constitutional framework and the freedoms it enables for different minority, religious, ethnic, and dissenting groups.
I have been accused of being over-optimistic in assuming the Irish and British governments, or at least their diplomatic advisors have been doing some comprehensive contingency planning in the background. If my book achieves nothing else, I would be happy if it gives an impetus to such important work. Having a good plan is halfway to making it work. The book goes some way towards outlining what such a plan must address.
Either way, I hope it is an entertaining yarn for political pundits and curious observers alike. Hopefully, it marks a change from what our current putrid politics is all about. As a committed European whose parents grew up in Nazi Germany, I have mixed feelings about nationalisms of all sorts, be they Irish, British, Russian, Ukrainian, Palestinian, or Zionist. Your basic freedoms should not depend on being part of the majority group in any state, and no state should be created to minister solely for the needs of one group, while discriminating against all others.
I have no issues with people who love their country or community, but it need not be at the expense of others. Sometimes a cohesive national identity is helpful in warding off external threats. But a state can also be strengthened, not weakened, by the diversity of its population. The key issue is whether you can create a political process and system which can deliver gradually improving outcomes for all who live within it. The test is whether this is actually happening either now or in the future.
Sovereignty 2040 portrays one such possible scenario, but there are many others possible. I would be more than happy to debate them all here. The first step to creating a different future is to imagine what it would be like, and how it could come about. And indeed, what you could do to help make it happen…