By my reckoning – and it’s not an exact science of course – there’s at least 40% of the people living in this part of the United Kingdom who don’t actually want it to be a part of the United Kingdom.
They want an end of partition. They want a united Ireland. They want the demands of the 1916 Proclamation and the aspirations of A Nation Once Again translated into a geographical/constitutional reality.
It’s that dream, that hope of eventual unity, which has kept them here and voting now, in greater numbers, for Sinn Fein.
For the vast majority of that post-1921 constitutional minority, shifting from north to south was never a realistic option (uprooting an entire family is never easy, anyway). Their view: “This is our country, why should we move?”.
When Arlene Foster, in a recent interview with Patrick Kielty, suggested that she wasn’t sure she could remain in a united Ireland, I knew where she was coming from. And so should every republican. For in exactly the same way they never felt that Northern Ireland was their country, it would be enormously difficult for unionists to feel that a united Ireland would be their country.
I’m not, by the way, suggesting that unionists would have anything to fear in terms of discrimination in a ‘new’ Ireland; but I am saying that their very specific identity as ‘unionists’ would disappear. Republicans in Northern Ireland have always been able to cling to the hope of eventual unity, but in the event of that unity unionism is over. Completely finished.
There isn’t going to be a border poll every seven years to test the mood of unionists in what was Northern Ireland. Unionists will not be able to cling to the hope of an eventual reversal of fortunes and a return to the United Kingdom.
They will have a new head of state. A new way of being governed. A new currency. A new health service. New political parties. And what, for example, is the constitutional priority of a unionist party in a united Ireland? There isn’t one. How is the Orange Order accommodated in a new state? (And I ask that as someone who has never belonged to any of the loyal orders, yet who recognises their importance – and it would increase under unity – to hundreds of thousands of people).
The other people involved in all of this are the electorate of the South. They will not want a disgruntled unionism and a whole host of problems to deal with. Let’s not forget, either, that unionists in a united Ireland would form a substantial and important voting bloc and would, inevitably, have an influence in the Dail which could change the internal dynamics in a number of ways – some of which could be surprising.
At no point since 1921 did republicans in Northern Ireland give up their sense of identity. There may well have been long periods when they realised that the electoral maths and demographics were against them; yet they clung on to their beliefs. Many of them now believe that unity is closer than it has ever been. That’s why it is top of both the SF and SDLP agenda and why it’s even being discussed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
The Irish political establishment may not be particularly keen on a border poll anytime soon – they know the problems which could follow in its wake – but they also know that the issue isn’t going to go away anytime soon, either: even if there is a soft landing for the border in the final Brexit deal.
One thing I’ve noticed in the past five years or so – crucially, it predates the EU referendum – is the number of unionists who, albeit quietly, are talking about the likelihood and consequences of a border poll. The very fact that Arlene Foster gave an important answer to what she described as a ‘very hypothetical’ question (and a number of leading unionists also responded to media questions about what they would do in the event of unity) is an indication that unionists are beginning to consider the issue in a way they wouldn’t have done a decade ago. They know that the circumstances and dynamics have shifted.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece in which I suggested that, in the event of unity, I wasn’t sure if I would stay. That wasn’t the reaction of a bigot (which I’m not) or of someone who is anti-Irish (which I’m not). It was the reaction of someone who wondered what would happen to his identity in a new state. I was born in Belfast in 1955. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and no-one has ever presented me with a convincing case for swapping my citizenship. So, in the event of a majority of my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland deciding that they no longer wanted to remain in the UK, it is inevitable that I would want answers about my role, status, identity etc in a new state. I would also want to know what that new state would look like.
At the heart of the reuniting Ireland debate are huge questions – most of which remain unaddressed, let alone answered. A vote to leave the United Kingdom is one thing. But what, precisely, are we being offered in return? That is something which only an Irish government – backed by its own referendum – can answer.
Sinn Fein clearly has a plan for the ‘new’ Ireland: but Sinn Fein doesn’t speak for the Irish government or the Irish people. It doesn’t even speak for a majority in Northern Ireland.