ON March 8, 1973, a referendum in Northern Ireland asked two questions: Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom; (or) Do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside the United Kingdom?
Nationalists boycotted the poll, knowing full well what the answer would be. But 591,820 people – about 57 per cent of the total electorate – voted to remain in the United Kingdom.
It’s actually a fair bet that had nationalists not opted for a boycott (but at that point in our recent history the old habits hadn’t quite died out!) the percentage in favour of remaining would have been higher, because there have always been Roman Catholics who have preferred the authentic mammon of the United Kingdom to the bogus gods of a Darby O’Gill theme park.
Forty years on and Martin McGuinness now wants a second referendum on Irish unity, preferably in 2016: although why he wants it in the centenary year of yet another bungled rebellion by Irish republicans is beyond me. At least the SNP had the sense to opt for a year in which they actually scored a victory over the old enemy!
Anyway, McGuinness says that he does not believe the “disastrous period of the handling of the economy by the government in Dublin” would dissuade people from voting in favour of unification. Indeed, he goes further than that and argues that the present economic chaos would actually encourage people to vote for “greater political stability and greater economic control”.
Hang on, run that past me again, Martin. You actually think that the complete and utter dog’s dinner that passes for normal politics in the Dail and the fact that my daughter’s piggy-bank has a higher credit rating than the Irish economy would actually encourage people in Northern Ireland to throw their lot in with that mob?! Mind you, I suppose that’s the sort of logic we should expect from someone who – until quite recently – believed that terror was an acceptable version of the “unionist outreach” project.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Owen Paterson has rejected Mr McGuinness’ referendum plea and said that people in Northern Ireland were more worried about the economy than the constitution. I don’t entirely understand his logic, either. Is he suggesting that we should wait until the economy has improved (maybe even on both sides of the border) before having a referendum?
My own view is that this is the perfect time for a referendum. Bring it on, in fact! In 1973 we never got the chance to have a proper debate about the realities, consequences and ramifications of Irish unity. As is so often the case the nationalists ran away from it. In one sense, of course, you can’t blame them for not wanting a forensic examination of unification, for once you have sidelined the blarney, mythology and teary-eyed ballads about martyrs and incompetent revolts, you quickly discover that there’s nothing else in their cupboard.
So let’s cut the nonsense and have the debate. If Sinn Fein and the SDLP are convinced that Irish unity really does represent some sort of political utopia then perhaps they should set out the case. Let me put it bluntly: what would ever make me choose to swap my citizenship of the United Kingdom for a newly united Ireland? I only ask the question because I sometimes sense that republicans don’t actually know the answer themselves. Instead, they seem to have convinced themselves that there will come a day when there are more Roman Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland and that those Roman Catholics will, when given the choice, choose to vote themselves out of the United Kingdom.
Well, let me tell them something: that’s never going to happen. And no amount of Sinn Fein and the SDLP manipulating the political agenda and talking-up the wonders of unity is ever going to make it happen. No amount of being told that the grass is greener on the other side of the border is going to make a majority of people in Northern Ireland decide that they want to be first generation citizens of a sovereign, independent Irish state. Some will argue that Sinn Fein is on its way to be the largest party in Northern Ireland. I doubt that very much: I think that moment has passed them by. Even if they did, though, what would it matter? The larger Sinn Fein has become the more firmly it has locked itself into the government and identity of Northern Ireland.
You also need to look at this from the Republic’s perspective. For all of Sinn Fein’s propaganda about unity they still remain a minority voice. I see or hear very little evidence of either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael busting a gut to become persuaders for unification. I can’t actually point to one recent example of an Irish government doing anything to suggest that it wants to erase the border and welcome a million “unionists” into its political, electoral or social ranks.
And I use the word “unionists” very deliberately; because even if there was a vote in favour of unity (which, as I say, I don’t think will ever happen) unionists will still remain unionists and they will still want their identity and culture protected and promoted. We wouldn’t go away, you know!
So, as I say, let’s give Mr McGuinness his referendum on unity. Let’s not wait until 2016. I really do want to know what Sinn Fein and the SDLP (and it would be fun watching them trying to out-green each other) think are the clinching arguments. I want to know what the Irish government really thinks of the prospect of a few dozen DUP TDs holding the balance of power in the Dail. I want to know what the southern electorate really thinks of the prospect of having to stump up the billions that would previously have come from the UK Exchequer.
And just for once I would like to see republicans forced to prove that their sums and arguments add up, rather than constantly being allowed to get away in the dust of their own delusional, uncosted, untested, poor-us baloney. Let’s be honest, Martin, there’s more likelihood of me winning the Euro Millions lottery than there is of “your” day coming.