Have a border poll now to show Sinn Fein just how far away unity really is

It's getting to the stage where, if the UK won the Eurovision Song Contest and Ireland limped in with '˜nul points,' I wouldn't be surprised if Martin McGuinness issued a statement demanding a border poll on Irish unity.
Alex KaneAlex Kane
Alex Kane

The poll has become Sinn Fein’s single transferable mantra, trotted out whenever they can’t think of anything else to say, but want to pretend that the ‘Brits’ are still standing in the way of progress.

If it were my decision to make I would give them their poll right now, because they clearly need to get all of this out of their system and face the fact that Irish unity is further away today than it was in 1916, 1969 or 1998.

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Last Friday McGuinness gave the mantra another run around the paddock: “If Britain votes to leave the European Union then that could have huge implications for the entire island of Ireland and, given all the predictions, would run counter to the democratic wishes of the Irish people. If there is a vote in Britain to leave the EU there is a democratic imperative to provide Irish citizens with the right to vote in a border poll to end partition and retain a role in the EU.”

While it strikes me as very unlikely that there would, anytime soon (by which I mean a long, long time), be a majority in favour of removing Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, I have no objection to a serious debate on the subject. Indeed, I have spoken at a number of Sinn Fein events in which I have set out what I view as the main obstacles.

The primary one, of course, is what a new, united Ireland would look like and what accommodation would be made for the hundreds of thousands of unionists who would not support it? It is nonsensical to believe that they would remain mute and motionless. They would, as happened with nationalists in Northern Ireland, retain and support their own political vehicles and culture; and would, almost certainly, retain their own spaces and us-and-them outlook.

Another difficulty is that Sinn Fein is the main promoter of the Irish unity project and most unionists don’t trust Sinn Fein. In other words, all the soft language from the likes of McGuinness, Adams and Kearney about reconciliation and peace is falling on deaf ears.

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So we need to hear what Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil think: partly because they have been remarkably silent, but mostly because they remain the political majority in the Republic. My own impression is that most people in the Republic have no particular desire to take overall responsibility for the North; being reasonably content for London and Dublin to retain the sort of de facto joint stewardship they have now.

The key game changer would be input into the unity debate from the two big Irish parties, because that might swing a section of soft nationalism in Northern Ireland towards a yes vote. But such an input would damage the very cosy, consensual relationship that exists between the British and Irish governments at the moment – the best it has been for a century – and neither of them wants to wreck it. And those two big Irish parties aren’t going to do anything that could be construed as moving towards Sinn Fein’s unity project, either.

Sinn Fein did reasonably well in the Irish election, but there’s little evidence that they’ve tapped into a substantial ‘unity’ vote. It also looks likely that they won’t be in the First Minister’s office here in a few weeks time, so won’t be tapping into the psychological boost that that would give their ‘unity’ project. And, as I’ve said, the big Irish parties haven’t even bothered with reunification as an electoral or political platform, so it hasn’t become a water cooler conversation between Culdaff and Skibbereen. All of which is a bit of a dampener for Sinn Fein in the centenary anniversary of the Easter Rising.

This was supposed to be the big year. They’ve been working towards this date since the late 1960s and yet there’s a real sense of anti-climax at the heart of the unity project. They can never say that, of course, and they never will. Nothing ever stands still in republicanism: they think in terms of centuries and generations and there is always someone to lift the torch and wave it in the darkest night. As someone tweeted me on Sunday morning: “The thing unionists have to understand is there is no giving up of reunification aspirations by nationalists – probably ever.”

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He’s right: which is why republicans will never settle for an internal, partitionist settlement – ever, under any circumstances. It is not part of their DNA. All of which means that Sinn Fein can never settle for the political/constitutional status quo. They always need a project. They always need to fuel the hopes of their grassroots that unity is just around the corner. And they need to keep the dream alive because there is a very real danger that if Sinn Fein doesn’t seem capable of delivering the dream that a new generation will step in with the old tactics.

That’s why a border poll matters to Sinn Fein and it’s why I would let them have it – soon. Either unionists or Sinn Fein are wrong on the numbers, so maybe it is about time that both sides know where we stand.