Border poll deniers – like the Taoiseach – are no friends to the democratic process

Posted By: October 24, 2020

Matina Devlin. Irish Independent. Dublin. Saturday, October 24, 2020

‘Border poll deniers” were cited by a prominent political figure yesterday, who suggested a referendum on Irish unity was inevitable and preparations should be made to argue one’s case. Was it Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil – ”the Republican Party”? Not a chance of that in 2020’s topsy-turvy world.

No, it was Peter Robinson, former DUP leader and first minister at Stormont.

As for the Taoiseach, he’s busy insisting there’ll be no Border poll on his watch. Careful now. Down with this sort of thing.

He won’t even commit to preparations for a referendum during his administration’s five-year term, or authorize a citizens’ assembly to discuss it—Unionism might be vexed is the ostensible basis for his decision. Although upheaval to the political status quo can’t be ruled out as a reason.

Anyway, Mr. Martin isn’t too bothered about reunification, despite the overwhelming body of evidence that partition has been economically and culturally damaging for both North and south. Instead, he prefers the idea of sharing the island.

Now sharing the island is excellent. Except don’t we do that already?

And let’s call it by its correct title, this landmass, let’s say Ireland. The Taoiseach seems reluctant to do so—as though the name alone is controversial.

His grand plan is a Shared Island rather than a United Ireland. In effect, he’s willing to settle for co-living. Nothing more imaginative than that.
Despite transformative circumstances, Mr. Martin advances the viewpoint that nationalism cannot expect to achieve consensual reunification. Make do with some co-operation—that’s his message. His Dublin Castle speech attempted to dampen down any hopes about an end to partition.

Is the Fianna Fáil membership really content with one of its core policies being sliced away? This is an expression of partitionism from a Taoiseach such as any hardline unionist would gape at— and welcome.

It’s difficult to see how Mr. Martin’s party can support his erosion of what Fianna Fáil stands for. Not least because he has given away another tranche of votes to Sinn Féin, and handed it political ownership of the consensual reunification project. Unity by consent doesn’t belong to any one party, it is a cross-party aim. But Mr Martin has just eliminated his version of Fianna Fáil from the conversation.

As for Northern Ireland, its inhabitants are being bounced out of the European Union without their consent. Fortunately, the Good Friday Agreement offers a route back via a Border poll. Unfortunately, Mr Martin has set his face against one.

Curiously, he cites that landmark treaty regularly, and approvingly—you’d almost think he goes to sleep with it tucked beneath his pillow—yet rejects an important element of it.

He has no right to rule out such a plebiscite. It is the people’s right. It should happen when the people want it and not when Mr Martin decides he is ready for one.

Furthermore, why did he make a unilateral statement on such a pivotal matter rather than with his two coalition partners beside him? To my mind, the Fine Gael and Green Party leaders should have been flanking him if they agreed with this anti-Border poll policy he is pursuing.

Nobody is asking for one next week. But some certainty about setting a date and laying the groundwork for a referendum is not unreasonable.

However, Mr Martin insists a Border poll would be divisive. That’s a flag of convenience waved about to distract from calls for a ballot. It’s not the vote that makes something divisive. A referendum simply trains a light on existing divisions and quantifies them.

Recent plebiscites on abortion reform and marriage equality were divisive. We got over it. When we vote on an issue, different views are debated trenchantly, the people decide—and a line is drawn under any disagreement.

So, a Shared Island Unit has been established in the Office of the Taoiseach, scooping up various ‘North-South’ initiatives, such as projects for increased connectivity. This is a logical move, as is the enhanced co-operation that’s envisaged. The big reveal at Mr. Martin’s televised address was a series of dialogues will take place, starting next month.

To be clear, all outreach towards unionism is welcome. I believe we should be as generous as possible to unionism in any new version of Ireland, with guarantees about respect for British identity.

But are these tentative steps really the matrix on which common ground is to be built? We need to be more ambitious. The tide of history is running in one direction and now is no time for dithering in the shallows.
The Coalition must accept that the relationship between the two parts of this island has altered fundamentally since the Brexit referendum, and further change is inevitable when the transition period ends on December 31. As for the pandemic, it underscores how urgently we need a common public health policy.

Mr. Robinson’s words in the News Letter about the inevitability of a Border poll were pragmatic.
Unionism is perfectly capable of taking on the role of public persuader for maintaining the legal relationship with Britain, it doesn’t need the Taoiseach’s protection from nationalism’s arguments.

Mr. Robinson said: “I know there are Border poll deniers who think such a referendum will never be called or believe that to talk about and prepare for a plebiscite creates momentum that will speed its arrival. I do not subscribe to such complacent and dangerous thinking.”

He speaks about winning a Border poll by advocating for the value of United Kingdom membership and describes it as “a long-term task that needs to begin in the short-term”. He also lobbies for a body to do the research and argument preparation spadework to bolster the pro-union case. In other words, funded by the British government.

As for the Irish government, no referendum planning appears to be on the agenda in the lifetime of the current Dáil. That’s simply not feasible. It is a paper dyke destined to be swamped by the flow of events.
Yesterday’s editorial in the News Letter notes: “The Shared Island unit is part of a bid to undercut Sinn Féin. That might be logical, and even admirable. All the same, unionists should have nothing to do with it.”

In fact, Mr. Martin is unionism’s best friend in Irish government circles. He is giving unionism the veto it has always insisted is its due. But vetoes aren’t democratic. They block progress.
Besides, if the Taoiseach can’t gain unionist acceptance of the concept he is outlining, what chance has he of its support for or even involvement in any outcomes?

Since the Anglo-Irish Treaty vote in 1922, the Irish people have never been polled on partition. A ballot in 1973 took place in the North only.

Nearly 50 years on, an Ireland-wide vote is surely long overdue. “Border poll deniers” are no friends to the democratic process.