Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Newton Emerson: SF, DUP refuse to concede their atavistic nationalism a huge strategic error

A 'win' in a border poll is not likely in the next few years, so why demand one?

Monday marked one year since Stormont was restored by the New Decade, New Approach deal. There has been much comment this week in Northern Ireland on the successes and shortcomings of its implementation so far.

However, the reason the deal was struck is slipping minds north and south, judging by a burst of commentary on a Border poll.

During Stormont’s three-year collapse, Sinn Féin portrayed the crisis as a choice between restoring devolution or pushing on quickly for a poll.

These options do not have to be mutually exclusive but that is how republicans presented them to the electorate.


The message initially appeared successful, driven by nationalist frustration with Brexit and DUP arrogance in general. Sinn Féin had its best-ever results in the Assembly election of 2017. The SDLP joined it in calling for a Border poll as soon as Brexit negotiations were concluded.

But then the wider electorate stirred and sent the message that it wanted Stormont back. This trend continued despite DUP antics getting worse.

In August 2018, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald had a brief wobble, saying a Border poll should be set aside until the “dangers” of a hard Brexit were mitigated.

She reversed her position less than 24 hours later, saying an immediate poll would be “an absolute imperative”. Shadowy forces were suspected.

Public mood

By 2019 the public mood was finding its focus. Alliance's vote surged in council and European elections. The SDLP stopped calling for a Border poll, with leader Colum Eastwood saying there was "a special place in hell" for those demanding one imminently.

In the December 2019 Westminster election, only Sinn Féin and People Before Profit stood on a pro-poll platform, with Sinn Féin’s manifesto dismissing “spurious arguments that this is not the time for such a democratic exercise”.

The democratic verdict was a combined vote share for both parties of 24 per cent.

Sinn Féin’s support fell by a quarter or 6.6 percentage points, with a Brexit pact explaining at most one point.

Once Sinn Féin heeded the public and returned to Stormont, it sidelined Ireland's Future with impressive speed

This is the mandate for prioritising a Border poll above compromise and delivery within Northern Ireland. It can hardly have increased since, as so much of it was premised on a no-deal Brexit and the absence of devolution.

Throughout Stormont’s collapse, Sinn Féin outsourced much of its messaging to the Ireland’s Future campaign, perhaps best known in the Republic for its "civic nationalist" letters to taoisigh.

The party endorsed and heavily promoted Ireland’s Future, which at its height advocated giving up on power-sharing and Northern Ireland altogether, proclaiming unionist intransigence to be insurmountable. That message was heard repeatedly at a major conference the campaign organised in Belfast in January 2019, also attended by representatives of the SDLP and the Irish government.

Once Sinn Féin heeded the public and returned to Stormont, it sidelined Ireland’s Future with impressive speed. But now the campaign is back, demanding a Border poll in May 2023, the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

Senator Frances Black, a prominent Ireland's Future member, wrote last weekend that such a poll is in line with the agreement and denying it would "deny democracy".

Yet there is no "anniversary" stipulation in the agreement, which itself has an overwhelming mandate. When former DUP leader Peter Robinson suggested "generational" Border polls three years ago, Sinn Féin accused him of tearing up the agreement.

Atavistic nationalism

It is only a little facetious to compare Ireland’s Future to the DUP’s attitude on Brexit: both refuse to concede their atavistic nationalism was a huge strategic error, rejected at the ballot box.

In fairness to Ireland’s Future it is not alone in suggesting Northern dysfunction requires Irish unification. It is increasingly common to read negative comparisons with the Republic as if this makes the case for a unified state by default.

The lesson from 2019 is that the public holds an opposite, venerable idea: no united Ireland without a united Northern Ireland.

There is no need for nationalists to see this as a contradiction: the SDLP has campaigned under the slogan “make Northern Ireland work”.

Republicans tend to view this as naive, condescending, a unionist trap or even a unionist veto.

They do not seem to appreciate how naive and condescending it can look to everyone else to claim Irish unity will heal a divided society, instead of just reversing its political polarity.

It can also appear reckless and cynical within the short time scales being discussed. There is no prospect of nationalism winning a Border poll in the next few years, let alone of a win being “likely”, as the Belfast Agreement requires. So why demand one?

Ireland’s Future says it is anti-democratic to describe a poll as “divisive” but that is a valid objection if the only purpose of the call is to keep the pot boiling just to keep an agenda in the frame.