April 12, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Be careful what you wish for, Mary Lou

Sinn Féin is pushing for a Border poll and, in the run-up to St Patrick’s Day, pressed its case in America with  large and expensive newspaper ads, financed by a group of its supporters.

The party should be careful what it wishes for.

Its campaign is based on a correct assumption that the population of Northern Ireland is now equally divided between people from a Catholic background and those with a Protestant heritage.

But it is also guided by a flawed analysis of the Brexit vote, and the vote at the last Assembly election, which has led Sinn Féin to believe that a poll would produce a majority in favour of Irish unity.

In theory, a wafer-thin majority might be reached with the unanimous support of the Catholic community. In practice that unanimity would be very hard to achieve and, in any case, a wafer-thin majority is not a sensible foundation on which to build a new, united country.  That requires a reasonable level of consent from Northern Ireland’s Protestants.

Not all northern Protestants vote for unionist parties and quite a few of them were opposed to Brexit. But almost no northern Protestants vote for nationalist parties and, at the end of what would certainly be a bitter and divisive referendum debate, very few of them would be voting for Irish unity. Not the unionist voters, obviously. But not many of the Alliance voters, either. Nor the Independent voters. Nor those who vote for parties of the Left. And not many of the Protestants who opposed Brexit, regardless of which parties they vote for.

That united front is unlikely to be matched on the Catholic side.  In Northern Ireland, Unionist-voting Catholics are as rare as nationalist-voting Protestants. But centrist parties like Alliance, and the many shades of Labour, have always drawn a disproportionately large part of their support from the Catholic population.  Not all of this electorate will vote for unity.

Sinn Féin banks on a referendum taking place on both sides of the Border and assumes that the majority here will back Irish unity. They are right. But I am not sure it would be an overwhelming majority unless all-party support is achieved, which seems unlikely if Sinn Féin is leading the charge for the unity campaign.

In any case, it is hard to estimate support for a united Ireland when we have no idea what shape the new State would take. Some people still believe we might simply hoist the Tricolour over Stormont and extend the Republic’s borders around the fourth green field. But then some people  believe the world was created six thousand years ago and others believe that a reptilian race is plotting to take it over.

Realists accept that we would have to move towards some sort of federal state. Would it mirror the present arrangement, with Stormont ultimately answerable to the Dáil instead of Westminster? Or would it involve a reshaping of the entire country, with regional parliaments and greater local autonomy?

Would there be different levels of taxation? Different health and education systems? If we are serious about holding a Border poll in the foreseeable future we need to be working on these issues now.

In 1983, Garret FitzGerald’s government set up a New Ireland Forum to do just that. It was stymied by the insistence of Fianna Fáil leader, Charles Haughey, that the only future he could fully support was one based on a simple unitary state, and by the intransigence of Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who refused to countenance any role for Dublin in the governance of Northern Ireland.

But the forum’s real undermining weakness was that it had no input from the unionist community. Northern nationalists were represented, and a few token Prods were coaxed down from Belfast, but no unionists accepted the invitation.

If we want a different outcome we must find a way to get unionists to the table. I have no idea how this can be achieved. but, then, I am not calling for a Border poll. Sinn Féin is. So what’s your plan Mary Lou?

It’s not the most important issue, but a little respect for the people you are addressing would be a step in the right direction. Throughout this article I have referred to ‘Northern Ireland’, the legal name recognised by the Irish and British governments and the Good Friday Agreement.

Neither Ms McDonald nor any of her elected party members seem capable of getting their tongues around those two words. For them it is ‘the north’ or ‘the north of Ireland’ or sometimes ‘the six counties’. And some of them still refer to our republic as ‘the Free State’.

If we want to build a new, shared Ireland it would be helpful if we could at least share the language for the one we have now.

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