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Newton Emerson: Nationalist timeframe for unity does not stack up

Chances of united Ireland in next decade are close to zero

Ireland is living in the "dying days of partition" and the there will be a Border poll within 10 years, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told an audience in New York last week.

This is a mainstream view in nationalism and beyond. Even Fine Gael’s youth wing is writing a position paper on a united Ireland “in the coming years”, completing a consensus from West Brit to West Belfast.

Yet the time frame for this expectation simply does not stack up.

Although we are probably living in partition's final half century – the transition period agreed for Hong Kong – the chance of a united Ireland in the next decade is close to zero.


There is no voting majority for unity in Northern Ireland, in elections or opinion polls. The only poll to show nationalism exceeding unionism, at 46 per cent versus 45 per cent, was a private survey in 2019, which asked about a vote “in 10 years”. Its results have never been replicated.

Nationalists have begun telling themselves fairy stories about how demography will be imminently overcome

In reality, the nationalist vote is around the 40 per cent level it has been at since the Belfast Agreement. Brexit has not sufficiently moved the dial. Nationalist hopes are returning to next year’s census results, expected to show the Catholic population exceeding the Protestant population for the first time.

While that will be a landmark moment, it will still take another generation to feed through to the ballot box. Even then, it will not mean a nationalist majority, as Catholics, Protestants and ‘others’ will all be minorities. Demographers point out religion does not translate to politics and voting patterns are increasingly sophisticated. This can also be put in less sophisticated terms: two-thirds of ‘others’ are from a Protestant background.

Fairy stories

After a century telling unionists to pay attention to demographics, nationalists have begun telling themselves fairy stories about how demography will be imminently overcome. Sinn Féin is on course to take the first minister’s post in next year’s Assembly election. That apparently heralds a united Ireland, despite making no difference to overall voting blocs. Sinn Féin is on course to lead the next Irish government. That also heralds unity, apparently, although its only relevant effect in Northern Ireland would be to push some ‘others’ back to their pro-union roots.

Irish and Scottish nationalism both believe soft unionists will give up on their British nationality due to a dreadful Tory government. This falls somewhat short of parity of esteem. How many people stopped being Irish when Fianna Fáil wrecked the economy?

Sinn Féin knows all this, of course. Its demand for a poll within a decade ignores the Belfast Agreement requirement of nationalist victory appearing “likely”.

Last year, McDonald said as taoiseach she would campaign for Brussels and Washington to put pressure on London to call a poll. The quest for gallant allies in Europe gives the lie to any notion the party is serious about its stated timeline. But the drumbeat of demands bounces rival parties on to Sinn Féin's pitch, creates a galvanising grievance against London for not holding a poll and can serve as a distraction from other policy failures while in office.

Both sides in the non-dialogue appear equally delusional to each other and the numbers support the unionist position

The truly decisive outcome of this decade will be whether voters in the Republic see through a Sinn Féin government’s unity posturing, or whether their frustration is directed towards unionists. If the latter, this could soon become frustration with the Belfast Agreement’s consent principle.

In New York, McDonald repeatedly alluded to Northern Ireland as a last outpost of empire, following President Michael D Higgins’s populist lead. The delegitimisation of Britishness as racism and supremacism bodes ill for Ireland patiently waiting on unionists for another 50 years.

Unionists are already being chided for not joining ‘the debate’ on unification. Some of their political leaders have handled this disrespectfully but it must be realised both sides in the non-dialogue appear equally delusional to each other and the numbers support the unionist position.

Generational settlements

In 2018, former DUP leader Peter Robinson proposed "generational settlements" between Border polls, an offer that might be roughly summarised as: "Leave us alone for 20 years. Then we'll have a vote, which you'll lose. Then leave us alone for another 20 years and we'll have another vote, which you might win."

It remains as close as a leading unionist has come to properly engaging with the subject.

Robinson had the honourable aim of finding stability between polls, so ‘the debate’ does not monopolise political bandwidth for the rest of our lives.

However, unionists have no more right to tell nationalist not to talk about a Border poll than nationalists have to tell unionists to talk about it. The period between polls would in practice be determined by results: a 51 per cent unionist win could hardly delay the next vote for 20 years.

But for now the time frame is still marked in generations, not a decade. The most urgent question about a united Ireland is what happens when there isn’t one.