One of the perennial problems in discussing the future of Northern Ireland is that the discussion of itself has a seriously polarising effect on the two main communities there. The underlying conflict of aspirations comes to the surface, however peacefully, and the process of normalising relations between those two communities is set back.
On the other hand, it is arguable that the long-term future of the North is the perpetual “elephant in the room” and that a self-censoring dialogue that simply ignores the issue serves no useful purpose and encourages a dishonest, introverted kind of politics.
Those who – like me – consider ourselves to be republicans in the true sense and who work for a united Ireland based on reconciliation and consent, have a right and a duty to think clearly about the current situation.
So let us confront two truths.
Firstly, a border poll on a united Ireland held now would be decisively beaten by a 70:30 margin among northern voters – even in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.This is the constant indication from opinion surveys conducted in the North.
The Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement (Funny, we can’t even agree on its name!) provides that such a poll should only be taken if it appears “likely” to the Secretary of State that a majority, if polled, would opt for the North to leave the UK and become part of a united Ireland. So there is simply no basis for holding such a poll at this point – in law or in common sense.
Why, then, does Gerry Adams demand a poll that he will not be given – and a poll that he will not win? The answer is very simple – making that totally cynical kind of demand is excellent “polarising politics”.
UUP votes that transferred to save SDLP seats are of little interest to the backroom boys in Belfast who really control Sinn Féin. Nor are the views of Alliance voters. Gerry was talking to his own constituency. Moderation on the constitutional question is simply of no interest – even when there are such green shoots on the middle ground. A poll would destroy the middle ground.
We need a border poll now like a hole in the head.
The second truth is this. There is the clearest evidence that the demographic balance in Northern Ireland is changing – and perhaps at an accelerating pace. The Catholic population is young and growing towards 45% or 46% in the next few years. The Protestant population is aging and shrinking towards 42% to 45% in the next few years.
In other words, we are heading towards a Northern Ireland where the Catholics and Protestants will be approximate equals in terms of a simplistic headcount. Already, Catholics form a majority among school students and university students up North. That will translate into an equality of voting strength with time. The old Protestant Unionist hegemony is over.
But this demographic change does not, by any means, indicate that some see-saw switch to the North opting for a united Ireland will happen in the short term.
It does mean that the politics of Unionist ascendancy are coming to an end. The capacity of either community to dominate the other politically, socially or economically is over. Pursuit of such dominance is futile. Polarising opinion in pursuit of such dominance is likewise futile. The use of terrorist violence or of repressive violence on either side in pursuit of constitutional aspirations is more unthinkable and more counter-productive than ever.
The business of Northern politicians is to work together forwards the prosperity of everyone in the North.
Brexit – hard or soft – is not going to deliver a united Ireland in the short term.
But Brexit is a challenge that should unite us all on this island – at least in addressing its consequences and in working towards the common good of everyone on this island. No-one except the real zealots can gain politically from any adverse consequences on this island – North or South.
There are very strong arguments for a special deal for North South economic relations as part of the EU-UK Brexit agreement. And there is precedent.
West Germany negotiated a protocol giving special EEC status for trade with East Germany during the period prior to re-unification. Such trade was given the status of “internal trade” within the EEC and deemed to fall within the common external tariff customs union as it then was – all subject to safeguards.
So we should now be examining special Irish arrangements for North-South, and perhaps East-West, trade and for agriculture, especially if the UK fails to win a comprehensive free trade relationship in its negotiations with the EU.
It is laughable that the North has no functioning democratic institutions at this critical juncture when its economic fate is being decided. To allow the impasse to continue could br tragic.
How likely is it that global industry or business will be attracted to a politically dysfunctional Belfast as a base for European activities or as a location for its executive management teams post Brexit?
Instead of niggling and gouging about “respect” issues, retrospective criminal investigations, and silly demands for a border poll, the North needs all its political energy to be devoted to its own economic future – a future that is looking bleak right now.
Northern Ireland is not going to leave the UK as an immediate response to Brexit. So what exactly is its political response to Brexit to be? Arlene Foster’s DUP supported Brexit as an exercise in “British nationalism” – or should that be “English nationalism”? But now the DUP must pick up the pieces.
Strange as it may seem, the DUP under Paisley as First Minister seemed more interested in the economic problems of the North than it has under the leadership of Arlene Foster. Now that the post Brexit outlook for the North has become no laughing matter, we need a little of the spirit of the departed “chuckle brothers” – in terms of a joint resolve to rescue Northern Ireland from potential ruin.
In Dublin too, there is political inertia, apathy and decay all dressed up as the “new politics”. How right I was here last year to compare Enda’s endless departure with Frodo’s struggle with the Ring on Mount Doom. How can a minority government credibly function in the shadow of a succession struggle and subsequent reshuffle?
We are not being well served – North or South – by our elected leaders. We badly need statesmen now.