All parties should push for Irish Unity
Rather than just criticise Sinn Féin’s approach to unification, other parties should present their own proposals
Since the Brexit vote in June 2016, the future of the United Kingdom has been called into question. With Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU and England and Wales voting to leave, many Scottish and Northern Irish people have questioned the continuance of the union, some for the first time. Support for both Scottish independence and Irish unity have increased substantially.
Another development is the demographic trends in the North. Set up as a Protestant State for a Protestant People, Northern Ireland provided Unionists with an ostensibly permanent majority by which they could be secure in the United Kingdom. With the collapse of the Unionist majority, the original raison d’être for the North’s existence is withering away. Of course, a Catholic majority does not imply a pro-unity majority, but it does invalidate the sectarian headcount of 1920 that created partition. Northern Ireland needs renewed democratic endorsement if it is to have legitimacy for the 21st century.
These two conditions would seem to make the case for a border poll on Irish unity a lot stronger. Being dragged out of the EU against the majority’s wish and a changed demographic context demands a democratic vote on the North’s future. And given the Republic’s constitutional aspiration for unity, all parties could be putting forward their proposals and preparations. Yet, for some reason, the issue is only being pursued by one party: Sinn Féin.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs. After a century of partition, there is now an opportunity to make real progress towards creating a new and agreed Ireland. But Irish unity has, for all intents and purposes, turned into a Sinn Féin-only issue as others ignore or even reject the notion entirely.
It’s important to point out that this was not always the case in recent times. One of Enda Kenny’s last acts as Taoiseach was to guarantee that in the event of a united Ireland, Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU. Along with this, he and Micheál Martin both argued that Brexit makes a border poll more likely.
Since then Sinn Féin has risen in popularity. In order to distance themselves from SF, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have rejected the idea of a border poll. Rejecting a border poll in the short/medium term in order to make further preparations and to reach out to Unionists is, of course, perfectly reasonable. Rejecting it without making any preparations whatsoever is not.
Further than this, the new FF/FG government has not only rejected a border poll, but Taoiseach Micheál Martin has outright rejected the traditional concept of a united Ireland in the first place. Emphasising the need to “share the island” rather than unite it, he has spoken highly of Seamus Mallon’s parallel community consent proposal instead of the Good Friday Agreement’s basic referendum.
For someone who apparently loves the GFA so dearly, the Taoiseach doesn’t seem to hold to one of its core provisions. There is a reason why the Agreement’s border poll is by simple majority — because parallel consent would make unity impossible. Of course, a slim majority in favour of unity would not be the most desirable outcome. But the logic of the GFA is that if Nationalists can accept a majority wish to stay in the UK, Unionists should accept a majority wish to join a united Ireland. Parallel consent would, in effect, make the voice of one community (Unionists) more important than others.
By abdicating the unity issue, the government parties and others leave an obvious vacuum for SF to occupy and gain in popularity. What the Taoiseach fails to realise is that ditching one of his party’s (few) traditional principles could be another nail in FF’s coffin. Whether Martin likes it or not, there is a majority in the Republic and a growing number in the North in favour of unity. That desire will only grow in the next few years and the party that champions it will be rewarded.
But aside from this, as their opponents like to point out, SF does not own the unity issue. All parties should make concrete proposals not only for a poll but for what a united Ireland would look like — what should happen to the health service, would there be a federal constitution, would we change the flag? The simple fact is that SF has no concrete ideas about any of these issues. Once others start making proposals, the national conservation can move forward.
Colum Eastwood has been doing a good job of starting these conversations in exactly the right tone. He is right to reject his late party colleague’s parallel consent idea. The SDLP’s ‘New Ireland Commission’ could be a forerunner for a renewed New Ireland Forum, which is desperately needed. A forum that includes Unionists would outline proposals for the shape of a unified Irish state. Of course, you would not expect a Unionist to vote for unity after that process, but at least the engagement would allow them to accept a vote in favour of it, having assurances that their cultural position was not in danger.
But the SDLP leader is also right when he says that if SF were leading a unity campaign Nationalists would lose. This is as close to a fact as you can get in politics. Winning Irish unity will require not only winning every traditional Nationalist vote but also a substantial number of those beyond this background. Unless there’s huge change, SF will never be able to do this.
So, there is now an onus on all parties to take ownership of the unity issue because if it’s left to one party, the inevitable referendum that will be called in the next decade will be lost. If that happens it will set the cause of Irish unity back a generation. We cannot allow that to happen. The opportunity that this moment gives us to push forward to a new future should not be squandered. The country can no longer afford to be partitioned.
The ideal of a united Ireland is as old as the republican ideal itself. Like republicanism, Irish unity as an aspiration is not the property or sole responsibility of one party or faction — it belongs to all the Irish people, and is therefore the responsibility of all Irish political parties to pursue.