Prospect of Irish unity recedes as SF and SDLP can't convince their own voters

It was hard not to feel sorry for Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney on Thursday's The View.
Alex KaneAlex Kane
Alex Kane

He had been invited on to talk about the results of a BBC-commissioned survey about border polls and Irish unity in the wake of the Brexit result and I’m pretty sure that he was expecting a noticeable surge in support. After all, the pro-EU vote in Northern Ireland, accompanied by the demand for Irish passports and the chorus of over-rehearsed panic from business, community, banking, civic and political circles (including people in the UUP who should have known better) was surely an indication that the tide was turning, dramatically and decisively, in favour of a newly united Ireland?

But no: the poll didn’t indicate any significant change at all. Which made it pretty difficult for the SDLP’s Claire Hanna, too. Mind you, the SDLP position on Irish unity is so contrived, convoluted and incomprehensible that all she had to do was regurgitate a serial variation of “now’s not the time for a poll. It would be divisive and destabilising”. Come on, Claire, a poll is always going to be divisive and destabilising!

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I wasn’t surprised by the results. I wrote, before and after the EU vote, that it was “a mistake to assume that a vote to Remain should be interpreted as support for Irish unity in the event that the UK votes to Leave”. And in a series of radio and television interviews after the referendum I kept making the point that a demand for Irish passports and Twitter/Facebook outrage about leaving the EU would not translate into a demand for Irish unity.

I know that some strategists in both the SDLP and Sinn Fein are now building their hopes around Scotland leaving the UK some time soon; but my gut instinct is that Scotland is less likely to opt for independence now than it was in September 2014. In other words, I think the likelihood of a constitutional crisis has receded.

The most interesting aspect of this latest poll – as is has been with other polls and the regular Life and Times Survey questions about Irish unity – is the fact that the pro-unity lobby is finding it so difficult to convince what should be its key target audience. Forty-seven per cent of Catholics don’t want a border poll. Only 43% of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland. That’s up 8% since 2013, yet that seems an unexpectedly small increase given the background to the latest poll.

Gerry Adams and Colum Eastwood (remember him, he’s the leader of the SDLP) have both spoken about the need to reach out to unionists about the benefits of unity: yet the figures suggest that they would be better advised to reach out to their own likely voter base first.

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Because not only is the combined nationalist vote slipping; it may be slipping because a very significant section of Catholics have no interest in Irish unity and no interest, either, in the unity agenda advanced by nationalists in Northern Ireland.

Given the amount of criticism that the SDLP and Sinn Fein have heaped on unionists and unionism down the years (some of it justified, by the way) it strikes me as astonishing that so many Catholics still seem content with the constitutional status quo. All of which suggests that even in the event of there being more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland at some point, it doesn’t follow that there would be an Irish unity majority.

This raises an important question: why is nationalism failing to maximise support for Irish unity in the very voting base where support should be highest? What are they doing wrong?

Some would argue that, given their relationship with the IRA, Sinn Fein will always prove toxic to a section of nationalism. Yet figures indicate that the SDLP hasn’t been able to attract that support, either.

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There’s also an argument that the unity debate will never develop the necessary traction until the Irish government and mainstream parties take the lead in the debate and set out their own constitutional case, agenda and framework. One hears the occasional noise from the South – usually at summer schools and British/Irish chit-chats at weekends in Oxford – but nothing of substance. And since they don’t want to rock the Good Friday Agreement boat too much, that reticence to interfere is understandable.

The era when unionists could do their own thing and rule their own roost has also gone, meaning that Catholics, broadly speaking, can no longer make the case that they are treated as second-class citizens and deprived of basic social/political/electoral rights. That change to their circumstances since the late 1960s onwards – copper-fastened by the 1998 and 2007 agreements – has also decreased the demand for Irish unity rather than continuing membership of the UK; a membership which is based on the best relationship between London and Dublin for over a century.

There will always been a market for Irish unity in Northern Ireland. But will the market ever be big enough to deliver that unity? Unlikely, in my opinion, unless a very substantial majority of Catholics can be persuaded to support it – which is a long way from happening.

And therein lies a key challenge for both nationalists and unionists. In the ongoing ideological tussle between MacNeice’s bogus gods and authentic mammon the champions of both sides are still missing key points and aiming at the wrong targets.