I can’t remember an election in my lifetime – and I cast my first vote in February 1974 – which hasn’t been described as a “sectarian headcount”, or the “usual old battle between us and them”. Indeed, that 1974 general election saw three anti-Sunningdale unionist parties campaigning under the United Ulster Unionist Coalition banner, seeking a mandate to topple Brian Faulkner and destroy his executive with the SDLP and Alliance. They were successful in their mission: that said, it took them another 25 years to produce an alternative.
Back then, the gap between the unionist and nationalist vote was of Grand Canyon proportions. At the election to the 1973 Assembly (which resulted in the Sunningdale Agreement), 62 per cent voted for unionist parties, with another 12 per cent voting for the pro-Union Alliance and NI Labour party. The 1974 election saw a similar overwhelming pro-Union majority. Both sides were happy to play the us-and-them card at that point – and for another 35 years – yet both knew that there wasn’t really any threat to the Union in the event of a Border poll.
That’s not the case any more. Before Brexit, unionism was planning the centenary of Northern Ireland, choosing the bunting, buffing the Orange Order arches and ordering the paint. Today it is pondering its very existence. Its majority in the Assembly has gone for the first time since 1921. The dynamics have shifted, and the nature of the unity debate has changed.
Upped the ante
In the aftermath of March’s Assembly election, when Sinn Féin was only 1,168 votes behind the DUP, Gerry Adams has upped the ante about a Border poll. The general election is now a numbers game, pure and simple. Sinn Féin believes it can overtake the DUP as the largest party; and, in overtaking them, put additional pressure on the British to call a Border poll. I think they’re unlikely to nudge past the DUP this time, but if they add another few percent to their overall tally then it helps with their long game strategy about the “inevitability” of unity on the back of Brexit. In other words, they’re back on “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” territory.
They have now been joined on that territory by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Launching his party manifesto last week he said: “I think there is now a route for actually winning a Border poll. I think we need to have one after Brexit, when the dust settles. A Border poll is no longer solely the project of Irish nationalism but of pro-European internationalism. A unity referendum now has a much broader reach, offering us a return to the EU as a sovereign country.”
That’s quite a shift from his position on June 27th, 2016, a few days after the Brexit result: “I do not think that this is the right time for a Border poll, because I believe that we should have a Border poll we can actually win. Our duty today . . . is to deal with the issues that we face right now.”
His opposition to a Border poll was just as firm the autumn of 2014: “The best context for holding and winning a referendum is when it is clear that the Good Friday Agreement is fully bedded down and that all of its protections will continue regardless of the referendum’s outcome. Achieving a majority for Irish unity anytime soon will require the persuasion of some unionists. It will also require the reassurance of many others.”
Closer than ever
On this issue the SDLP and Sinn Féin are now, to all intents and purposes, and for precisely the same reasons, on the same ground. They both believe that Irish unity is closer now than it has ever been. They both believe that now is the time to push and keep on pushing for a Border poll. I suspect that they are both aware that they would not win with the first poll; but in demanding it they are both confirming that they have no interest anymore – long-term or short-term – in Northern Ireland.
On March 12th, 2016, in his first major speech as leader, Eastwood said: “But for Ireland to be reunited, Northern Ireland has to work. This is the essence of our progressive nationalism. As I have said before, we now have a selfish and strategic interest in making Northern Ireland work. Although many have been slow to grasp the significance of that statement, people should understand that this is a major departure for northern nationalism.”
I’m not sure that shifting on to Sinn Féin’s ground – for reasons that strike many, including Sinn Féin, as amounting to electoral opportunism – will be viewed by unionists as “progressive nationalism”.
But what all of this means is that the constitutional question is now nakedly and aggressively front and centre in Northern Ireland. That means that there will be less room for soft/moderate unionism and nationalism. That will change politics here, particularly in terms of the Assembly and Executive. It will put new pressure on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to address the unity issue. It could complicate matters between London and Dublin if there is a return to direct rule. If both Sinn Féin and the SDLP are now prioritising the need for an early Border poll and Irish unity, “sooner rather than later”, it will make it incredibly difficult to reach any consensus on any other issue. It’s now all about identity and numbers. Nothing else matters.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party