Michael McDowell: North needs conciliation, not a referendum

Demographic change will not be enough to clinch a united Ireland

There is an old, perhaps somewhat cynical definition of the referendum – “a process by which you get an answer you didn’t expect to a question you didn’t ask”. The kernel of truth here is that any referendum will be decided on the issue as understood by the voter – not necessarily as it was intended to be understood by those devising the question. Voter understanding is central.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement between the UK and Ireland, a solemn constitutional settlement with the status of international law, provides that the status of Northern Ireland – in terms of union or unity – now depends solely on the wishes of a simple majority of its citizens expressed in a referendum.

An Irish Independent poll published last week confirmed one central truth about current wishes of people in the North – of those expressing a view on a united Ireland, those against outnumbered those in favour by roughly 60:40. That is in line with all other recent polls on that issue.

There is a prior obligation on anyone calling for an early Border poll to propose the model of Irish unity to be considered

The question that those polled were answering was, of course, only the question as they understood it. Was it a question understood as one of principle? Can anyone give a reliable answer without a clear understanding of what a united Ireland actually means? Without such understanding, asking people whether they favour a united Ireland is really a matter of eliciting a response at the level of principle.


Nature of unity

This in turn raises the question as to what form of Irish unity is, or would be, on offer to Northern voters. Would it be the unitary Irish republic with a socialist constitution favoured by Sinn Féin? Or would it be a confederation of the two parts of Ireland pooling sovereignty as members of the European Union? There is a mighty difference.

Some have spoken about guaranteeing elected unionist ministers a role in the government of a unitary Irish state. Does that make sense? Would it attract support from any significant portion of unionists in a Border poll?

Anyone can devise models for Irish unity. But voters in Northern Ireland will decide only on their understanding, as it affects their wishes and self-interests, of a united Ireland.

There is a prior obligation on anyone calling for an early Border poll to propose the model of Irish unity to be considered. Calling for a poll without setting out clearly the actual matter to be decided is utterly pointless. Worse still, it is damaging to the prospects of communal reconciliation in the North.

We are being collectively hoodwinked by Sinn Féin on two fronts. Firstly, they know that at present a majority of Northern voters would not vote for a united Ireland. Secondly, they are completely indifferent as to the negative consequences of demanding a Border poll with no chance of success in present circumstances.

As long as the constitutional question is the main determinant of electoral success, both Sinn Féin and the DUP use it to dominate the electoral landscape.

Every published opinion poll still shows a significant number of northern Catholic voters prefer the union to unity

They both share hostility to the political centre – to those who prioritise reconciliation in the short run over long-run issues of constitutional status. Each grandstands on constitutional issues while chafing at the bit of shared executive participation in the North.

The DUP faces losing popular support because of the failures of its Westminster contingent on the Brexit issue. Its votes may leak to moderate unionists or the Alliance Party on one flank, and to loyalist candidates or the TUV, on the other. That may lose it the right of selecting the North’s first minister.

Numerical balance

Protestant and Catholic populations in Northern Ireland are coming into rough numerical balance. The latest census results may show Catholics outnumbering Protestants in four of the six counties and in Belfast city. So Craig’s idea of a Protestant state for a Protestant people is as dead north of the Border as the spectre of Rome rule in the Republic. One way or another, Northern Ireland is becoming a shared space.

But that doesn’t mean that the raison d’etre of partition in the mind of unionists disappears. And every published opinion poll still shows a significant number of northern Catholic voters prefer the union to unity. Demographic change will not suffice to clinch a united Ireland.

Yes, 50 per cent plus one is sufficient poll support to bring about Irish unity. There is no unionist veto to unity – just as there is no nationalist veto on the continuance of the union.

But those who inflame and polarise northern politics in pursuit of unity should remember that southern voters may not have much appetite to swallow an angry and recalcitrant unionist population in some imagined unitary socialist state.

Sadly, polarised politics rather than reconciliation is the current coinage. The North badly needs a decade of political quietude and conciliation.