Unionists should back border poll - Ben Lowry

editorial image

UNIONISTS should not only agree to a border poll, they should push for it to be held promptly.

The likely result would be a devastating blow to republicans, and challenge the whole edifice of Irish nationalism.

The DUP recently floated the poll idea, but have retreated in the face of clear unionist opposition.

Yet a poll is the biggest unionist opportunity in decades.

Sinn Fein may not show it, but they are likely deeply unnerved by repeated evidence of the scale of Catholic support for the UK link. It undermines much of what they say about Northern Ireland, an entity whose name they still cannot utter.

The very people said to be oppressed by the ‘statelet’ are strangely happy to remain within it.

The steady rise in the proportion of the population here that is Catholic — once the great hope of those who gleefully ‘count the Catholics’ — has become meaningless to the unity project.

The BBC’s opinion poll, showing majority Catholic support for staying in the UK, is in line with 2011’s Life and Times survey.

Even the census, which has yet to be fully broken down by religion, only finds 25 per cent of the overall population who consider themselves exclusively Irish, despite 45 per cent either stating they are Catholic or whose background is deemed Catholic.

Whatever way you crunch these numbers, the old association between Catholicism and Irish nationalism is breaking down.

It may yet reappear, but the trend is the other way.

From an economic perspective, joining the south has rarely looked less attractive than now, which you might expect to be another unionist motive for a snap poll.

The key thing to know from the BBC result is that 80 per cent of those who expressed a preference on the border backed the Union (they split by a ratio of 65 to 17, which equates to four to one).

If a border poll replicated this and other findings, it would announce to the world — including many of the countless millions who are only vaguely aware of conflict here — that violence in support of Irish unity is an assault on the wishes of both traditions, and on the overwhelming bulk of the whole community.

Never before has it been possible for unionists to make such a point so simply and so clearly. Yet this extraordinary prospect has been dismissed out of hand by unionists.

The most powerful unionist argument against a border poll is that it would destabilise the Province by placing it on a permanent referendum footing. But this need not be so.

Given that there is (at present) no legal requirement for a poll, unionists could agree to one on the basis that an overwhelming majority vote in favour of the Union (say two thirds or more) settles the matter for a generation (or until evidence of a big shift in opinion).

Even if a first poll encouraged republicans to demand follow-on polls every seven years, the Secretary of State would be able to say no — as the incumbent minister is doing now.

But why would republicans want a repeat, after the humiliation of perhaps an 80 per cent vote to stay British in a border poll?

Even 70 per cent support for the UK would be embarrassment.

A ringing endorsement of partition might settle some of the insecurity that has fuelled the flags protests and may cause future crises.

The slippery slope argument that one referendum leads to another is dubious. In 1999, Australia voted 55 to 45 to keep the monarchy, while four years earlier Quebec voted a mere 51 to 49 to stay in Canada, much narrower margins against change than likely in a border poll here. Yet in both countries, reform has been off the agenda since.

Within Irish nationalism, republicans are hoovering up votes, but they are also challenged by the rise of detribalised Ulster folk such as the golfer Rory McIlroy, who said that he felt more British than Irish.

McIlroy seemed to retreat from his quote, but even if he does not in fact feel that way, hundreds of thousands of Catholics do.

A News Letter front page in 2008 highlighted a Life and Times finding that 33 per cent of Catholics consider themselves Northern Irish or British before Irish. A third of 800,000 people is more than 250,000 people.

Yet the reverse is not true. The 2008 survey had only four per cent of Protestants labelling themselves Irish. And the new BBC poll found that only two per cent of Protestants would back Irish unity.

That too, if confirmed in a border poll, would be an uncomfortable finding for nationalist Ireland. The Republic is a markedly changed nation from the 1950s or even the 1980s, but has entirely failed to persuade northern non-Catholics that it is a place worth joining.
If unionist obduracy once helped make Northern Ireland a cold place for Catholics, then the lingering mono-cultural roots of the Republic (think the Angelus or the Catholic Church’s central role in education) is still putting off Protestants.

There are risks to unionists in a border poll.

It might be that people become tribal in the ballot box, and the result was closer than expected, emboldening republicans.

But elections cannot, and should not, be one-way bets, and this is a sound bet for unionists.