In the last fortnight Belfast has witnessed two big rallies – one concerning the Irish language and the other concerning the protocol and Irish unity. Each was impressive in its own way. Apart from large participation on each occasion, the theme of each rally was quite indicative of a polarised society. And the marching season is still to come.
It is well worth remembering that Peter Robinson used the terms “Planter” and “Gael” to describe the two main identities in the North in his own speeches as DUP leader without causing any offence. But like the “N-word”, is the term “Planter” deeply offensive on the lips of some people but acceptable on the lips of others, as TV audiences of The Wire witnessed?
The rise of Alliance is some ground for optimism that Northern politics may be moving on from a polarising obsession with the constitutional question and on to the sunlit uplands of conciliation and partnership. But there remains an attachment to politics of “zero-sum”, attritional combat on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland is deeply embedded in party politics north of the Border.
Talk of a Border poll must be seen in the context of some basic political realities.
First, the legal obligation to hold a Border poll is contingent on there being real reason to believe that a majority of Northern voters would vote for Irish unity if given that opportunity. That simply is not the case now.
Second, a future majority of voters in the North and, quite likely on either side of the Border, is highly unlikely to vote for unity without knowing the granular detail of what is proposed and what the likely consequences of unity will be.
Third, nobody has attempted to formulate any model of unity in granular detail or to spell out its likely consequences.
The response of Sinn Féin has been to prattle on about the need for an early poll and commencing an inclusive dialogue on unity. Anybody who queries its approach is labelled “partitionist”. With respect, that is all political claptrap. The sad thing is the number of people, including media commentators, who fall for it.
If Sinn Féin really believes in an early Border poll and in the need for an inclusive dialogue on unity, the very least it can and should do is to set out its own stall.
Tell us your proposals. Set out whether you are proposing a unitary state or a confederal type of unity. Tell us what institutions you are envisaging. Tell us exactly what the fiscal and economic consequences of your unity model are. Tell us exactly what your proposals for safeguarding the post-unity identity of those professing a British identity (as required by the Belfast Agreement) would be. If your model is still the establishment of a 32-county socialist republic, tell us exactly what the “socialist” dimension will be.
It is clever but deceitful to hide behind calls for an inclusive dialogue to avoid being specific. If the need for a poll is urgent (as a short timeframe suggests), do a bit of the hard work now. Come up with your proposal and let us all consider it.
Set it out in detail before the people of Northern Ireland and then test its acceptability by surveying attitudes there about it. If those proposals command majority support in reliable opinion polling carried out in the North, there is an unanswerable legal case for conducting a binding Border poll.
No doubt Sinn Féin’s answer is to dive into the verbal thicket of “all ears” rhetoric about the need for an inclusive dialogue and inviting unionists and loyalists to join nationalists and republicans on some vague “journey” towards an agreed approach to unity.
This cop-out is coming from a party demanding an early Border poll as a matter of urgency but at the same time deliberately failing to set out its own detailed proposals as to what voting for unity would entail. There is nothing “partitionist” about drawing attention to its cop-out.
The ridiculousness of posturing for holding of a Border poll as a priority in the complete absence of any evidence that a model of unity currently exists that would attract majority support in the North cannot be overstated. It is compounded when it comes from a party that claims to have devised remedies for all our social and economic ills – north and south of the Border.
There is simply no reality in expecting unionists, loyalists, or even constitutional agnostics such as Alliance to enter dialogue aimed at devising a model of Irish unity designed to command majority support in an early Border poll.
It all smacks of some magic show put on by a children’s entertainer – a visual feast for the gullible.