A simple majority not enough for Irish unity

Posted By: August 29, 2016

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, August 29, 2016

There are certain issues that have been around so long and debated to such an extent that they seem to have died a quiet death. But then there is a change of mood and they become a topic of discussion again.

Irish unity is a prime example. After all the blather, hyperbole and propaganda which permeated that debate, surely the steam had finally gone out of it?

Sinn Féin regularly declares its wish to see a united Ireland, but that’s only to be expected. The SDLP is also strongly in favour, but it would not be high on the daily shopping-list for most political parties in the south.

One of the problems was the IRA campaign. A politician who made a big issue of the need for a 32-county republic ran the risk of being labelled as a “Provo fellow-traveller”.

That is changing and one of the reasons classical Irish republicanism has become respectable again is the centenary programme of events to mark the 1916 Rising. When so much time and energy are expended on an official state commemoration of people like Pearse and Connolly, how can you dismiss one of their prime aims and aspirations as “subversive”?

Another factor is the gradual, inexorable growth of Sinn Féin as a political party, which has gone from four Dáil seats in 2007 to 23 TDs today. Other parties are taking note that, since the rise of the peace process, adopting a high-profile stance on the “national question” might be appropriate at this time.

Fine Gael minister for social protection and potential future taoiseach Leo Varadkar raised the prospect of Irish unity in a speech at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin to mark the anniversaries of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, who died within 10 days of each other in August 1922.

In a veiled reference to Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll after a majority voted against Brexit in the North, the minister said: “It was easy for some to jump on the Brexit result, and use it to make a land-grab for Northern Ireland. And it was counterproductive.”

Arguing for a more measured approach, he cited the example of Griffith, an intellectual driving-force behind the independence movement, who came in for criticism at the time of the 1921 Treaty for meeting southern unionists and was asked if he proposed treating them as a privileged class in the new state.

Griffith was applauded for his reply, in a Dáil speech: “I met them because they are my countrymen; and because, if we are to have an Irish nation, we want to start with fair play for all sections and with understandings between all sections. I would meet tomorrow on that basis the Ulster Unionists, to seek to get them to join in the Irish nation.”

Varadkar said at Glasnevin that, like the Taoiseach, he believes unity will come about eventually. Enda Kenny recently suggested that the Brexit referendum result might trigger a border poll at some future stage as a means of keeping the north in the European Union.

In his speech, Varadkar rejected what he called “the crude majoritarianism in a border poll”, insisting that unity should only be achieved “through respect and consent, by accepting the identity of the minority tradition and honouring their values by finding a special place for them to thrive”.

One imagines republicans would dismiss that perspective as a typical “Free State” recipe for inactivity and Sinn Féin would presumably point out that the Good Friday Agreement, hardly a document that endorses crude majoritarianism, includes a provision for border polls in both parts of the island.

But few could disagree that, if such a poll took place in the north any time soon, it would be resoundingly defeated.

Virtually all unionists and a high proportion of what might be called the Catholic nationalist community would vote against it. The unity option might not even get a majority in the south either, especially if it was suggested that the £10 billion-plus block grant from London would have to be replaced from the Dublin exchequer, requiring greatly increased taxation.

Anyone who is serious about ultimate unity and has given the matter some thought must be aware that a vast amount of groundwork needs to be done. Before a referendum can even be considered, there must be a wide-ranging, in-depth debate that gets down to brass tacks. Deep-rooted fears and anxieties about the consequences of unity among unionists need to be allayed and that will be a hugely difficult task.

If, after all that, only a narrow majority was achieved, that would be a recipe for instability and possible violence. The

pro-unity side would need to win big.