Time for a ‘unity referendum’? Making the argument for a united Ireland

Ireland’s Future, a civic nationalist group seeking a Border poll, is growing in ambition

Ireland's Future first came to public attention in 2017 with a series of open letters calling on then taoiseach Leo Varadkar to protect the rights of Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland from the consequences of Brexit.

By November 2019, the nationalist group had secured support of 1,000 often well-known figures across Ireland and from those living outside it, in calling on Varadkar to lead “a new conversation” about the constitutional future of the island.

On Thursday night, the group which supports a united Ireland, held a meeting in the Clayton Hotel in Limerick, chaired by broadcaster Vincent Browne, which heard speeches from Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan, Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe, and others. Next month, it will hold an event in Dundalk.

However, its ambitions are growing. In October, it is planning to hold a gathering in Dublin's 3Arena in front of 10,000 people with "major names" from Ireland, Europe and the US, "as the unity referendum moves into a new phase".

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Queen's University Belfast academic Prof Colin Harvey is at the heart of the project. He has attracted criticism from some pro-union quarters, including the House of Lords member and former Labour party MP, Kate Hoey, as well as writer Ruth Dudley Edwards.

The Democratic Unionist Party is believed to have opposed Harvey's appointment to an expert committee set up under the New Decade, New Approach agreement to draft a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, following an interview in June 2020.

In her Belfast Newsletter column in January, Dudley Edwards wanted to banish Harvey to a desert island: “I find him one of the most annoying people in Irish life and just the mention of his self-righteous organisation makes me groan.”

Other academics from the nationalist tradition, north and south of the Border, are engaged in talking about a united Ireland, but none seem to attract the same opprobrium as the softly-spoken QUB academic. Partly, this is because there is a lack of equivalent voices from the unionist side. Former Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken admitted as much in 2019 when he said there was an absence of a countering voice from academia.

The criticism from some is not just personal, Harvey says, but is designed to shut others up who might advocate a united Ireland. Neither will he stick to academia, as his critics have suggested. On the contrary he believes academics have a duty to contribute to public debates.

“Being a professor, being paid to profess so to speak, I believe academics should be involved in the public sphere. I am going to continue doing what I am doing,” he says. “Many of my critics appear to have little grasp of what I do in a professional capacity.

“I have been an academic for nearly 30 years. Teaching on constitutional and human rights law across these islands and internationally. I served as head of the law school at Queen’s. My professional record speaks for itself.”

Despite its many critics, Ireland’s Future has produced position papers on citizenship in a united Ireland, the economy, and the issues that should be addressed before a Border poll is called. They have not attracted much attention so far, but they will, he believes.

Movements start from the bottom up, from “civil society, with governments and others following eventually”, he told The Irish Times, adding that “hard, hard work” has to be done on what is needed before a Border poll happens.

“It is tedious, unglamorous and rather boring, but this is the work that needs to be done in advance,” he says. “Nobody wants to repeat the Brexit shambles, particularly on this island. Nobody wants a situation where people are painting lies on the sides of buses.”

The work must be done in an evidence-based way, to be done in advance of referendums that I am convinced are coming on this island and that are coming sooner than people realise,” he told The Irish Times.

Ireland’s Future has been accused of being an echo chamber, but in February last year it staged a panel discussion entirely with people from the unionist community. Harvey insists that he wants more unionist voices involved, not fewer.

“There has been a failure of political unionism to show leadership and to promote unionism,” he said. “What are they concretely doing to promote the case for the union? If we are heading towards a referendum, a case is going to have to be made. That can’t rely on traditional constituencies.”

Unionists and loyalists must interrogate the reasons in favour of staying in the union “when you look at Brexit, when you look at what is happening at Westminster, when you look at the future of Northern Ireland”.

If unionists are prepared to get involved in the argument, then they should be encouraged to do so at every turn: “If this is the beginning of a more positive case for the union, it should be encouraged and welcomed. They need to get on and do the work. Let’s hear it.”

Despite Harvey’s belief that a majority will be there for a united Ireland, opinion poll figures, such as they are, and with all of the usual caveats that have to be applied with such polls, are more nuanced.

A plurality of voters in Northern Ireland prefer the status quo to a united Ireland. In the Republic, there is almost a two-thirds majority in favour of a united Ireland (62 per cent) with just 16 per cent against, according to a poll in The Irish Times last month.

That support, though, is lukewarm with only 20 per cent regarding unification of the island as a priority and only 15 per cent want a Border poll now. An overwhelming majority are opposed to a change of flag, the anthem, or joining the Commonwealth. Moreover, voters in the Republic also said they would not accept higher taxes (79 per cent) or less money for public services (79 per cent) as the price to be paid for a united Ireland.

Nevertheless, Harvey believes that the consistent majority of people in the Republic who support a united Ireland – before one gets into the detail of what it could mean – is a good start as they are open to the merits of the argument.

He adds that, after the Good Friday Agreement, 95 per cent of people in the Republic approved a constitutional amendment which states that a united Ireland is the “firm will of the Irish nation” to be brought about “with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island”. In other words, a Border poll.

If you support the Good Friday Agreement “you have to really support the work around this [the Border poll],” he states firmly, though Taoiseach Micheál Martin is not alone in arguing that the preparations required are much deeper than that.

“Post-Brexit, you might not have a romantic or sentimental attachment to a united Ireland, but the Irish State has a firm strategic interest in a post-Brexit context in promoting this conversation,” argues Harvey.

Though a Border poll is likely to be driven in the first instance by issues around identity, he believes there is a rational, reasonable case to be made that a united Ireland within the European Union is a demonstrably better proposition than a divided Ireland with Northern Ireland outside the EU.

“Even if the Irish State does not have a forthright attachment to the constitutional commitment, there is a real strategic interest in it promoting this discussion to bring the entire territory back within the EU and to unlock that potential of the whole island as a unified state,” he explains.

“The evidence supports this. In the medium to long term it will be of benefit to everybody in the island. This will be a global good news story, a beacon of hope around the world.

“It will be welcomed within the European Union with tangible commitments. That is a success story waiting to happen in my view. There is a strong strategic interest to help make this happen.”

He has widespread support across the North not least from his university.

"A representative from the university leadership team has been in ongoing contact with Professor Harvey. Queen's outright condemns any abusive or threatening commentary towards any member of university staff," a spokeswoman said.

“The university strongly supports freedom of thought and expression, within a framework of respect for the rights of other persons. Academic freedom is enshrined as a guiding principle in the university’s charter and statutes.”

His students too have been supportive and none publicly have accused him of bias.

Amnesty International has criticised the "campaign of vilification" against him and questioned the "ability of academics and other individuals to participate in such public policy debates in Northern Ireland without fear as to their personal safety and professional standing".

Former GAA player Joe Brolly’s recent comments that people from the Republic do not really understand what partition did to Northern nationalists “clearly resonated with people in the North”, Harvey believes. Today, that lack of understanding is demonstrated by those who continue to display an unwillingness to prepare or take seriously the prospect of a united Ireland, the Belfast academic continues.

“There has been for a long time a very strong feeling of abandonment here. To take that discussion further, it is particularly notable that when people talk about a core concept in the Good Friday Agreement, the goalposts start getting moved.

"I completely understand the frustrations that Joe Brolly expressed. I think that reflects a very broad feeling among Irish citizens in the North who feel that, even when they raise things that are already there in the Good Friday Agreement, they are told it is never the right time. What we are saying very clearly is that this is the right time to have this discussion."