Incessant speculation about the prospect of a united Ireland is not simply a distraction from the real issues facing the country but a dangerous cul de sac that is provoking an escalation of tension in the North, hampering efforts to find a solution to the protocol impasse and undermining the chances of powersharing being restored.
The only conclusion from the recent polling on both sides of the Border for The Irish Times and ARINS is that a united Ireland is as much of a mirage today as it was when the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed 100 years ago.
The two outstanding features of the poll are that a clear majority of people in the North do not want a united Ireland, while a substantial majority south of the Border have a frivolous and unrealistic aspiration for something to which they have given no serious thought.
The united Ireland to which a majority in the Republic aspires, according to the poll evidence, is a unitary state with its capital in Dublin, the retention of the Tricolour and Amhrán na bhFiann as symbols of the State, and no concession whatsoever to the British identity of the unionist population.
The chatter about a united Ireland could be regarded as harmless academic speculation were it not for the fact that it is having a direct impact on the current political stalemate in the North and fuelling unionist fears that the protocol is a Trojan Horse.
On any rational assessment the protocol is of enormous benefit to the people of Northern Ireland regardless of whether they are unionist or nationalist. The intervention of Edwin Poots when he was minister for agriculture at Stormont seeking to protect the benefits Northern farmers derive from it illustrates the point.
However, the united Ireland agenda is driving unionists to act against their own best interests. Former taoiseach John Bruton put it in a nutshell in a recent submission to the Oireachtas Good Friday committee. “It heightens the tension around the Northern Ireland protocol, which Ulster unionists wrongly see as a stepping stone to a united Ireland. Calling for a united Ireland is seen as patriotic and popular here in the Republic even though repeating such calls may actually be a barrier to practical reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland.”
While the poll demonstrates that the chances of a united Ireland coming to pass in the decades ahead are remote, to put it mildly, the endless speculation about the prospect, fuelled by Sinn Féin’s demand for a Border poll, has put the issue at the centre of political debate.
Ireland may have changed fundamentally in so many ways over the past century since independence but it seems that addiction to the political fantasy of unity is as strong as it ever was. Of course that fantasy is itself a political weapon that has been used for political advantage by various forces in the Republic at opportune moments over the past 100 years.
Fianna Fáil was founded in 1926, following the disappointing outcome of the Boundary Commission, and committed itself to the “first national aim” of achieving a united Ireland. Éamon de Valera fought election campaign after campaign on the issue to great effect over the following decades, and it helped to make him the dominant political figure in the history of independent Ireland. It served to distract the electorate from his disastrous economic policies but it also reinforced the divisions between North and South.
As John Bowman has pointed out in his masterly study De Valera and the Ulster Question, the Fianna Fáil leader toned down his rhetoric while in government but raised the volume when in opposition to score points off his political opponents. When he lost office in 1948 he embarked on a world tour denouncing the evils of partition. The campaign had little or no impact on a world shattered by the most appalling war in history but it forced John A Costello’s Fine Gael-led government to match his rhetoric.
The outbreak of the Troubles led to a more realistic assessment of the national aspiration but in the 1980s Charles Haughey took a leaf out of Dev’s political play book with the claim that Northern Ireland was “a failed political entity” and his foreign minister, Brian Lenihan, boasted that unity would be realised within 20 years. That is now 40 years ago and it is as far off as ever.
Sinn Féin is following a tried and trusted route in pursuing the unrealistic demand for a Border poll. It is not difficult to imagine that if the party does achieve power it will follow the de Valera template of whipping up nationalist sentiment for a united Ireland to cover any shortcomings in managing the economy.
The party’s record in office at Stormont indicates that it is poorly equipped to run a modern state but the relentless conflict in which it and the DUP engage provides a convenient distraction for voters from both traditions. That looks like a harbinger of things to come if the party achieves its ambition of being in power on both sides of the Border.