Western People, 12.12.2022
Even before Leo Varadkar returns as Taoiseach this coming weekend, it seems that the political ‘climate change’ is heating up. Sinn Féin received a great boost with the recent softer-than-soft Late Late interview with Mary Lou McDonald, widely and accurately dubbed as ‘a party-political broadcast on behalf of Sinn Féin’. And within the last few weeks an Irish Times Ipsos survey on a border poll (carried out north and south of the border) may have garnered Sinn Féin a bit of collateral publicity, given the focus of their campaign to unite Ireland.
The Late Late interview is part of the present love fest with Sinn Féin, based as it is on the nakedly politically populist ploy of the magic money tree where there’s money for everything – a house for everyone in the audience! – but no word about where the money is going to come from. And the incessant Sinn Féin demand for a border poll gives the impression that a poll is the first step to a united Ireland – if spring is coming can summer be far behind?
However, a referendum anytime soon may not deliver on the Sinn Féin agenda. In the Ipsos survey, North and South, participants were asked how they would vote in a referendum – to retain the status quo or the North to unite with the Republic. The result was, in simple terms, 66% in the Republic would vote for a united Ireland with 16% against; and in Northern Ireland 50% would vote against unity with the Republic with 26% in favour.
Effectively, the voice of the North is a clear NO to a united Ireland, with a majority against unity of almost 2 to 1, with (tellingly) 21% of the 50% who opposed unity with the Republic from a Catholic background. Not much wriggle-room there to put a republican gloss on the percentages. Over-all the conclusion is that, after all the huffing and puffing, nothing has changed: the south want ‘the fourth green field; and the north wants to remain part of the UK.
Compounding the problem for Sinn Féin and their allies is that the survey also casts doubt on both the depth of the commitment south of the border to unity and the failure to accept an obvious need for compromise. According to the poll, almost half of all voters in the Republic are unwilling to make concessions to accommodate unionists in a potential united Ireland – like resisting changes in the flag and in the national anthem. And 45% say they would resist the concession of a unionist veto on new laws.
The last paragraph suggests that, in terms of a united Ireland, at least 50% of those living south of the border are also living on a different planet. If the Good Friday Agreement meant anything it underlined the need for compromise, that on a small island with two significant blocks representing two opposing extreme views – Sinn Féin and the DUP – any progress towards any agreement necessitates give-and-take. Refusing to compromise on an anthem and a flag is indicative either of naivety or arrogance or possibly both.
The reality is that there is a huge chasm between North and South that will have to be negotiated if unity is ever to happen and it is naïve to imagine – as with another version of the magic money tree – that it won’t take years to achieve unity, if indeed it ever can. The road to Irish unity will demand a slow, gradual, painful, delicate and above all extended process through which those who inhabit different parts of the island may build a mutual trust that will allow the exploration of future possibilities to emerge.
There is no magic wand that can be waived that will make the border disappear and pretending it’s going to happen soon is helping to ensure that it probably won’t happen at all. And if those who are most vocal lay down markers that they know unionists will immediately resist, they are, in effect, creating the exact circumstances that will ensure that unity is off not on the agenda.
But, of course, talk of a border poll is not about uniting Ireland, it’s about Sinn Féin claiming ownership of the unity banner, as they tried to claim the tricolour as their own. It’s about keeping the promised land in sight when Michelle O’Neill will take over as First Minister in the North and Mary Lou McDonald will be Taoiseach, and Ireland will be united. Or Armageddon, depending on the perspective.
What the Ipsos survey represents is that, no matter how often or for what purpose the subject of Irish unity is discussed, the unification of Ireland is at present little more than a pipe-dream.
What’s obvious from the Ipsos figures is that the views of voters in the republic won’t matter until such time as there is a huge change in the views of voters in the North. 76% in the Republic may be in favour of a Border poll like so many for so long were in favour of draining the Shannon because, when it comes to it, apparently they believe that unity is not worth even cosmetic changes like a new flag or national anthem. And 55% in the North may be in favour of a Border poll because it will serve as a reminder that the 50% who would vote against it contains a sizeable percentage (now 21%) of Catholics/nationalists.
They know too that, while Sinn Féin goes on crowing about Irish unity to advance their political position in the south, the divide between north and south is not under any democratic threat.
The greatest allay of disunity is Sinn Féin because it will forever keep the divide open.