In days gone by, the easiest way to ascertain someone’s political leanings in this country was to ask them where they stood on the national question.
Whereas this turn of phrase has since largely fallen out of use, it is inevitable that it will make a comeback in the not-so-distant future. As demographics change in Northern Ireland, and in the wake of a divisive Brexit result, which the North voted against, there are growing calls for a renewed examination of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement allows for a referendum on the status of Northern Ireland, or Border Poll as it is more commonly called, to be arranged by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, should they feel such a poll is warranted. The last round of NI Assembly elections saw the Unionist MLAs lose their majority for the first time. This is a sure sign that the green vs orange politics of old are fading away with non-aligned parties like Alliance and PBP making ground and taking new seats.
Subsequent Westminster elections and recent polls have shown that this trend has continued as the centre ground in the North continues to strengthen and grow. But does this mean it is now a good time for a Border Poll? In short, no. If one were to hold a vote tomorrow, it would most likely be defeated, thereby setting back the reunification movement by decades. As we learned from Brexit, going into such a massive constitutional referendum without knowing the future consequences on the other side is perilous and can lead to disaster.
On the contrary, our experiences here with citizens assemblies to flesh out ideas, supplemented by Oireachtas committees preparing legislation in advance of any referendum, so people know exactly what they are voting on, gives assurance and can bring people along which previously may have been hesitant. In short, I believe that those calling for a Border Poll now, although ideological and enthusiastic, are jumping the gun. Such an approach will only serve to alienate moderate people from a traditionally unionist background and even those non-aligned that have grown accustom to certain public services like the NHS and having a large say in the legislative process which may become diluted in a United Ireland.
The Taoiseach did inaugurate the Shared Island unit in his Department on taking up office last July, but this is yet to produce any concrete proposals or results. His Fianna Fáil backbench colleague Jim O’Callaghan, though, spoke this week at his alma mater, Cambridge University, outlining a position paper of his own that would see the island take up a somewhat federalist approach in the event of unity.
O’Callaghan is not the first Fianna Fáil politician to do a large volume of work on the prospect of a United Ireland. Senator Mark Daly also produced a detail financial analysis as to the cost of such a unification, in doing so dispelling many myths about the supposed cost being too great. It was based on many assumptions, mind you, but the logic was sound. Nevertheless, Míchéal Martin remains hesitant to discuss any such grand plans of unity with growing threats of violence from Loyalist gangs and poor EU-UK relations playing front and centre in his mind. That said, it is still remiss of him and his Government not to be more forthcoming on the promise to progress unity planning.
Not only was this a promise to the wider electorate ahead of the 2020 election, but a distinct promise to his own members ahead of the Programme for Government vote. As Sinn Féin continue to beat the Border Poll drum, hoping to simply win a Catholic versus Protestant headcount, Fianna Fáil has a real opportunity here. The party is stagnant with many members across the island refusing to renew their membership at the end of 2020, unhappy with party communications and performance in Government. A return of the party to the forefront of conversation on the national question is exactly what they need.
If Fianna Fáil can establish themselves as the only party with a concrete plan to delivery an inclusive United Ireland it would not only reinvigorate the party membership but grow popularity with a new cohort of younger voters for whom a 32-county state is a viable goal to be aiming for. The first stage in that process is planning. If FF cede this to SF, who presently do not seem to have any realistic UI plans of their own, they will be giving up one of the few unique characteristics it could possibly boast in what has become a crowded political field in Ireland. The main reason the political centre ground in the Republic is receding is because of a lack of a grand, bold vision. What could be more bold or grand an idea, than a one state island?