The timing for making an argument for a Border Poll or as its now being called a Unity Referendum has become a bone of contention. The negativity about the timing of holding one is creating negativity at the very time we need to examine the issue positively.
When Mary Lou McDonald called for Theresa May to hold a poll/referendum in the context of a no-deal Brexit she was castigated. Not by Unionists who have a vested interest in the constitutional status quo but by the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In fact, An Taoiseach was pretty rude about it in Leinster House when he accused her of cynicism, self interest and the whole idea being “disruptive and destructive”.
It is worth examining the journey this debate has taken. In 1973 the only border poll since our country was partitioned was ordered by then Secretary of State William Whitelaw. This was viewed at the time as a cynical exercise, without any political intention of addressing the issues at the heart of conflict and nationalism boycotted it.
In the 1998 Agreement the potential of holding a Border Poll was included. This made clear the agreement of the parties that any change to the constitutional future of the North would be by internal consent and a localised majority voting in a referendum. Peacefully. It ended the years of violent conflict. It gave a peaceful pathway for the sizable body of the population who did not recognise the artificial majority created by partition, and believed that Irish self determination offered a solution to in-built sectarianism. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement was a momentous change for republicanism, never to be underestimated.
Since then demographics have rapidly changed and the simple arithmetic of nationalism vs unionism has made the debate on who will make up the majority population and its implications for the constitutional future of our citizens very real.
However, Brexit has fundamentally changed the landscape. With a Hard Brexit more of a possibility than any of us would have dreamed, the implied economic, social and cultural catastrophe may be weeks away. Once we have put away our decorations and commit to a month of immediate dieting and exercise, it will be head long into whatever Brexit looks like.
In the context of that we need to talk now about what is best for the population. The citizens of the North voted to say that they believed their future was in the EU. In West Belfast the turn out was pathetic for that referendum. That says our constituency was most likely content with current EU arrangements, and my anecdotal evidence confirms that to be the case. Brexit not only ignores the democratic wishes of our population it puts it at significant risk.
In light of that, a Border poll must be called if a hard Brexit is the outcome. My preference was for a long conversation that made the moves to self determination very organic. But making arrangements now for a border poll in two years time makes absolute sense from every point of view. As we have seen since the Article 50 declaration, two years is good time to formulate an incisive and important debate where everyone has their say.
And there are also lessons to be learned from the post-Brexit referendum. While the exact model of a united Ireland is not going to be possible before the referendum, the transition post a Yes vote can be planned for – what will be determined and how and who will be involved in a structured national rebuilding plan can definitely be sorted in advance so we hit the ground running.
And if the population were to vote yes, then there could be a run into the establishment of new constitutional arrangements so that everyone can be safe and secure in the knowledge that they will not be left behind. We can arrange for how we make sure our British citizens are never treated the way Irish citizens have been treated. We can have a significant discussion on how structures can be embracing to ensure totalities of relationships. In the meantime, our economy will be safeguarded. There is no reason why the EU would not extend the benefits of membership during this transition phase, as they have promised that we will benefit from membership in the event of a unity vote.
If An Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil were serious about wanting a united Ireland in their lifetime they would see that this is the moment when it must be planned for. When it must be made real in people’s minds not just their aspirations. Their negativity about the proposal only compounds the fears of unionism. They must change their language so that northern nationalism and their aspiration for a peaceful establishment of self-determination is no longer dismissed as problematic but rather embraced as positive and something to be positively achieved. Particularly in the context of a hard Brexit where fear and insecurity will be the order of the day.
This is a positive conversation which leads us away from the toxicity of the past three years. It is a conversation based on universal rights and respect. It is a conversation based in economic security. It is a conversation that must include the establishment of an all island national health service. Ireland could be brought closer to the vision of the Proclamation than any of us could have imagined. And An Taoiseach and Mícheál Martin will be the ones accused of self-serving cynicism and not wanting the realisation of such a vision if they continue their negativity.