Kathy Sheridan: Brexit serves up a warning on a Border poll

Right now, the don’t knows and undecideds seem by far the most sane and rational of thinkers

Finally, the Brexit referendum campaign reveals a silver lining.

For the vast numbers on this island breathless for an early united Ireland poll, that charlatans’ charter serves up a warning.

Seven years ago we all watched in real time as the Leave campaign tapped into a groundswell of popular resentment and fired up a slew of combustible and complex small wars, igniting tribal divisions with blatant lies and racist dog whistles that carried them all the way to the polling booth and victory.

The people of Northern Ireland held their nerve. They gave Remain 56 per cent of the vote – 12 points ahead of the Leave side. But they might as well have stayed at home. Far from building bridges, DUP MPs swaggered around Westminster leveraging their crucial votes to rescue the deranged Brexit project. Sinn Féin MPs, whose votes would have been pivotal, chose not to exercise theirs at all.


If this was the DUP’s reaction to a decision by a clear majority of its own region, imagine how they might approach the concept of “losers’ consent” in the event of a Yes vote for a united Ireland.

The undecideds/“persuadables” are the story of this Irish Times North and South project. They lived through the hell of indifference and ignorance, the backstop and the back-stabbing and somehow emerged with the best of Britain and the EU, so it’s hardly shocking that a quarter of them cannot decide where they want to belong given a choice of two sovereign states.

Who would they listen to? Who can they trust?

On the one side are the vainglorious DUP sell-outs. On the other is Sinn Féin with its social media battalions, routinely trashing the Republic as a failed state this side of the border while simultaneously trying to sell it as the Promised Land to their brethren on the other side.

Where would the landing point be for the don’t knows in the event of a referendum?

Right now, the don’t knows/undecideds/persuadables seem by far the most sane and rational of thinkers.

They make up the focus groups assembled by John Garry and Brendan O’Leary, which explains the reflective, non-binary nature of their responses. They repeatedly express concern for unionists who are fearful of losing their identity after a referendum. To quote a young female southerner: “if someone came along to me and said, ‘Look, you are going to be British from now on’, I don’t think I’d take it too well.”

How much of this is sadness for unionists’ wounded feelings and how much is concern about the potential for violence that such feelings might unleash is unclear. But the sentiment features often enough to chime with a lot of hesitant, cautious, short-lived conversations going on in the Republic.

Woven through such conversations and focus group findings are degrees of fear. Fear that no compromise could be enough for that fifth of Northern Ireland voters who say they would find a Yes vote “almost impossible to accept”. Fear about the potential for instability and violence that any such vote could unleash. Fear of sinister actors ready to exploit divisions that would fall to the Republic to sort out.

Like the dog who catches the car, we are a people conditioned by history, song and story to yearn for a united Ireland now suddenly confronted with an array of hard compromises needed to facilitate that glorious outcome. How vast would those compromises have to be to obtain “loser’s consent”? Are we ready for that? Not even nearly, according to the polls.

“Why would we compromise?”, asked a mild-mannered Northern nationalist yesterday. “Did you see them compromising with us when they were discriminating and gerrymandering and colluding with their all-powerful Protestant mates in their Protestant state?” A letter arrived from another man – a fluent Irish-speaking southerner born to a Belfast nationalist – arguing the opposite, presumably on foot of Monday’s poll results. He is “deeply saddened” by what he calls “the lack of appreciation by my fellow citizens of the views and expectations of unionists and others ... A United Ireland cannot work if we look at the joining as being them joining us. It must be both joining a new all Ireland island, respecting diverse opinions…”.

Explain the level of optimism in the Republic, where people expect a poll within five years and those in the North with their lived experience, who believe it will need 10.

We’ve learned to our joy how a campaign of itself can humanise, energise and imbue an electorate with hope, empathy and good faith. We’ve also observed from Brexit how dark money, shady ideologies, bad faith, shamelessness and precision targeting can set a country at war with itself.

Those pushing for an early referendum should tread carefully, if only because speed favours the status quo. It’s true that two-thirds of Scottish voters had made up their minds as long as 18 months before the 2014 referendum but there was a twist: a stunning third of yes voters didn’t make a decision until the final weeks of the campaign.

A second lesson from that referendum was how it was lost. History, stories and flashmob céilithe brought a giddy positivity to the Yes side but in the end, people’s attitude to risk was the greatest determinant in how they voted. The Yes side couldn’t present a clear plan for the currency.

I’d enjoy a flashmob Siege of Ennis though.