Dublin needs to wake up and get prepared for a border poll

Moderate nationalists, sick of the DUP’s antics, would now vote for a united Ireland

Hands Across the Divide by northern Irish sculptor Maurice Harron, in Derry. A no-deal Brexit will lead to an instant call for a referendum from Sinn Féin, which the SDLP and Fianna Fáil will find it hard not to support. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Hands Across the Divide by northern Irish sculptor Maurice Harron, in Derry. A no-deal Brexit will lead to an instant call for a referendum from Sinn Féin, which the SDLP and Fianna Fáil will find it hard not to support. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

 

Wake Up Dublin. Wake up to what’s happening in Northern Ireland. A border poll is inevitable, may well be imminent and will have an impact on every citizen of the Irish Republic much sooner than you think.

Northern nationalism has shifted its view on the continued viability of the Northern Irish state. The government gets it, and there are quiet and important conversations going on at that level. But wider society isn’t there yet.

A referendum on Irish unity will take place within the next decade, and soon if we find ourselves with a no deal and a hard border.

Many people from a Unionist background are now beginning to think about what a united Ireland might mean for them

As a result of Brexit and its aftermath, the nationalist middle classes, traditionally the section of society which was prepared to set aside its issues with the past history of Northern Ireland and acquiesce in remaining tied to Britain, has shifted ground, significantly and decisively. The behaviour of the DUP at Westminster sets teeth on edge daily and any desire for a return of devolved government is rendered practically non-existent for that reason.

Indeed, as former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt argued last week, many people from a Unionist background are now beginning to think about what a united Ireland might mean for them. Obviously, unionism is a key stakeholder in the whole process, and dialogue with unionism is key to the success or otherwise of any unification process.

Uncharted waters

A no-deal Brexit will lead to an instant call for a referendum from Sinn Féin, which the SDLP and Fianna Fáil will find it hard not to support, despite both parties’ calls for a referendum only to take place after a period of preparation. If that happens, we’re into uncharted waters. That scenario is still only a few weeks away.

If that is avoided, and a deal is done, then the next census, due in 2021, will show a nationalist majority. At that point, it’s hard to see how a British secretary of state could resist calls for a border poll.

Remember, the Good Friday Agreement states that the secretary of state should call a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

So why does Dublin need to wake up? What does all of this have to do with business, or finance, or education, or healthcare?

Let’s look at the shambles which now passes for politics in Westminster. Look at how Britain is more divided than it has ever been. Look at the collapse in business confidence, the companies announcing that they will be leaving and the impact on the economy. Look at how government is so consumed by all of this that it is struggling to govern at all.

Surely, at this stage, we should be talking to, and learning from, the people who oversaw the reunification of Germany?

The Irish Government is justifiably alarmed that talk of a border poll is becoming louder. That’s because it knows that the necessary preparation is nowhere near where it needs to be. A referendum will have the capacity to be enormously disruptive, both north and south of the Border, so planning, preparing and thinking our way through this is imperative.

Swapping notes

Surely, at this stage, we should be talking to, and learning from, the people who oversaw the reunification of Germany? Surely we should be asking them what they got right, got wrong and would do differently, given the chance?

Surely we should be talking to the Scots, swapping notes on their preparations for independence?

It’s time to have the conversations, start the planning, and move from scepticism to understanding. Things have changed in the North, and that matters in the South.

There are so many questions, and so few answers.

What will the economic impact be? Will there be a return to violence? What will it cost? What are the benefits? How long will it take?

How can two philosophically, organisationally and operationally different healthcare systems be spliced together? How will the legal, financial, regulatory systems be connected? Does the South even want us, given the fact that it is emerging from its own period of financial hardship?

Politicians in the South only need to look across the water to see where failing to prepare can get you.

Barry Turley is a public affairs consultant and former director of communications with the SDLP

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