Now is not the time for an Irish Border referendum
Let us all pause and think before we jump into our own constitutional maelstrom
Anti-Brexit demonstrators outside the gates of Downing Street in central London this week. People who argued more-or-less politely now scream about treason and betrayal. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
The spectacle at Westminster this week has been compelling: by turns horrifying, occasionally hilarious and – to most Irish people, switched on to Brexit and conscious of its potential consequences – simply head-wrecking.
This is not, to put it mildly, the best way to run the political leadership of a modern country, still less one that is in the grip of a profound crisis over historic decisions about its future. At times, the chaos in the House of Commons and the confusion in the government made your averagely idiotic university debating society look like Nasa. Do they have no idea the rest of the world is watching?
In truth, the self-immolation of British politics has been under way for some time. What is becoming more and more apparent this week is how vicious it has become. And that is before the general election.
Both sides – but especially the Brexiteers, who now demand a form of Brexit that nobody envisaged during the referendum – has become radicalised by the process. Three years ago the obvious solution to the referendum was for the UK to leave but stay close to the UK in the single market and customs union – a fair reflection of a country that, just about, wanted to leave the bloc. Now neither side will settle for that. It’s all or nothing. It is not just that the two sides are further away from each other than ever; it’s that the space in between has been filled with poison.
People who argued more-or-less politely now scream about treason and betrayal. Both sides routinely accuse each other of being anti-democratic. The inflation and escalation of inflammatory political rhetoric will presumably heighten during the forthcoming election campaign – a campaign set to be fought principally on the single issue of Brexit. Mere political polarisation is giving way to something deeper and nastier. Magazines in dentists’ waiting rooms ask: “Would you date a Brexiteer?” The country has been rent asunder, and it shows all the signs of getting worse.
Polls show that many of those who want to leave the EU now wish the referendum had never happened
Politicians here have been just as glued to the House of Commons in the past week as all the other political nerds.
But mind-boggling and all as this has been to watch, those currently responsible for the stewardship and direction of Irish politics should not just observe – they should absorb and learn, too. And the chief lesson is a pretty obvious one.
The holding of the referendum has been a disaster for the UK. Polls show that many of those who want to leave the EU now wish the referendum had never happened. Of course they do. Despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of people before 2016 thought that the UK’s membership of the EU was an important political issue, it is now the number one issue in British public life. More than that, it has transfixed British politics for the past 3½ years – normal politics has ceased and will not resume until it is resolved.
All of this is more evident to Irish people than any other EU country – bound up as we are with our nearest neighbours by ties of commerce, culture, friendship and blood. While there has been a growing tendency towards Brit-bashing in social and other media – including by some people in academia who should know better – I think the reaction of most Irish people is regret that the UK has got itself into this.
I am sceptical about Sinn Féin’s motives for pushing the united Ireland agenda right now
So everyone should pause and think before we jump into our own constitutional maelstrom that a united Ireland referendum would be.
Because if the same process of polarisation, radicalisation and steadily more bitter division happened here – and there is every reason to think it might – such a referendum would change our country and society very much for the worse.
I am sceptical about Sinn Féin’s motives for pushing the united Ireland agenda right now. As noted hereabouts before, it seems to me that if you were really interested in convincing unionists their future lies with the South, you wouldn’t have made Gerry Adams your spokesman on a united Ireland. Then again, if you wanted to fire up your own base, for your own political purposes, at a time of political weakness for your party, that’s exactly what you would do. Readers can draw their own conclusions.
But Sinn Féin is right that Brexit raises the question of the constitutional position of the North in a way that hadn’t previously been envisaged. That requires it to be dealt with in a thoughtful and sensitive and unhurried way. It requires the opposite of drum-beating about the inevitability of unity and demands for a referendum.
Frankly, I cannot imagine a worse idea for Ireland than to charge headlong into a unity referendum. For a start, as Donald Tusk might say, there is not even a sketch of a plan on how it should be structured, managed, implemented or financed. As Hugo Mac Neill noted on these pages on Friday, if you have a problem with Ireland’s Call at the rugby matches, wait until we get on to the real issues.
There may – may – come a time for that conversation. It is certainly not now, at this febrile time, at this anxious moment. The roots and history and intensity of the division on our island go far, far deeper than those between Leavers and Remainers in the UK. And look what has happened there. A unity referendum in the near future has the potential not just to rip Northern Ireland apart, but to tear the Republic asunder as well. With the example of the divided kingdom of Brexitania close at hand, to risk the same strife in Ireland would be insane. Some day, maybe. But not now, not now.