Northern Ireland is once again gripped by border mania. The recent poll in relation to the constitutional preferences of people in Northern Ireland provided the predictable outcome of around 50% wanting to remain with the union with Britain, and 42% wanting a United Ireland.
It’s been suggested that Sinn Fein polling extremely well in the North and the South has complicated the situation, in that it would suggest an overwhelming majority across the entire Island would support Irish Unity. That’s not how it works though. The political reality is that Ireland is divided and Northern Ireland is a different entity to the Republic of Ireland.
So, why is that simple point, and the majority of people here supporting to remain within the United Kingdom not enough for our Politicians? Northern Ireland is in the midst of a pandemic, a housing crisis and a Universal credit crisis. That’s before we even mention ongoing sectarianism, and unpunished racist attacks. So why the focus on the border?
Oxygen of Sectarianism
The sad reality is that it doesn’t benefit our politicians to reconcile or compromise with each other. If your identifying feature as a political party is that you are either Unionist or Nationalist then your overarching focus is going to be on the Nationalist/Unionist agenda. If voters focus on other issues then their votes are up for grabs – to any party that can match voter’s views.
Ultimately that is the reason behind the perma-crisis Northern Ireland finds itself in year after year. The leaders of Unionism and Nationalism create an ever present fear of some impending catastrophic constitutional change, when really right now, that is nowhere near on the cards.
Unionism appears as extremely insecure about the Union despite the fact that, at the minute, they have a clear majority in favour of maintaining it. To keep getting their vote out though they need to portray the Union as under threat. This way Unionists will continue to vote for the main unionist parties, even if they disagree with the party’s other policies, like the DUP’s opposition to marriage equality.
Sinn Fein on the other hand bluff along on a potential United Ireland, as if they’re holding four aces and Ireland will be United by Tuesday. Their real cards are a 2, a 7, a Jack and a tesco voucher. Right now, a United Ireland isn’t happening. They need to con their supporters, and those within their movement who gave up ‘the struggle’ for freedom, or there will be plenty of smaller Republican parties willing to take those votes or ‘activists’ off their hands.
This sectarian Them v. Us, Ireland v. Britain, Catholics v. Protestants suits their agenda. It is a manufactured crisis concocted in cahoots between Sinn Fein and the DUP (and played along with others). It is the political equivalent of price fixing. We’ll be your bogeyman, if you’ll be ours.
Northern Ireland politics was angry and polarised, before it became fashionable. The relief and joy that should have met the signing of the Good Friday Agreement did not have a chance to take hold. The agreement was under attack as soon as the deal was complete. Those main Unionist/Nationalist leaders quickly realised sectarian division was good for voting patterns.
Taking a step back from the recent, pointless border poll arguments, it is clear that the Good Friday Agreement has always, and still does, clearly set out the situation regarding a United Ireland.
The Secretary of State can call a referendum on a United Ireland if it appears a clear majority would support Irish Unity.
It is democracy at its simplest. When/if most people in N. Ireland want a United Ireland, then the mechanisms will be put in place to allow it to happen. However, instead of accepting this and focusing on resolving the issues that people face every day of their lives, our local politicians approach life like the Border question is the only question.
Going forward the simplest thing to do is to confidentally accept the principle of consent. Yet this is the least likely thing to happen.
Some might say Nationalists will simply sit contentedly and wait until they outbreed unionism. Their growing demographic will turn the issue into an inevitable sectarian head count. This though would be a rejection of democracy, dressed up as a rejection of sectarianism. I am yet to hear any nationalist say “Me and my partner are going to have a couple more kids, you know, 2 more votes for a United Ireland”.
The mature route now would be for Nationalist/Unionist parties to work effectively to create the best conditions possible for all people in N. Ireland. The ironic thing is that their best chance of winning a future border poll is to work as hard as possible for their (current) political enemies.
Unionism needs to show it is willing to share power, create better lives for everybody in N. Ireland and – let’s be honest – drag some of it’s policies into the 21st Century. If they can do this they can take some of the heat out of the emotion behind the misty-eyed view of a United Ireland. This could be enough to convince moderate or wavering Nationalists to vote for Unionism, if they feel the quality of life within the U.K would be better than within a United Ireland. Giving support to the previously agreed, but not yet implemented, Irish Language Act would be an important first step for a more welcoming form of Unionism.
Sinn Fein’s position is currently the losing one, so they have harder work to complete. In this they have not helped themselves by continuing a narrative of Catholics v. Protestants. It has not slipped everybody’s mind about the Sinn Fein electoral leaflets in North Belfast from a few years back that showed a bar chart of Catholics V Protestants in that electoral area. The blatant sectarianism was astonishing. By the time they had changed the leaflet to Nationalists v. Unionists, they had blamed Royal Mail for the error, before ultimately finding an internal scapegoat after the Royal Mail claim was ridiculed. This shouldn’t really need to be said but memorials and glorification of IRA men – who murdered and bombed protestant civilians (and others) – have to come to an end.
If you would be upset by people celebrating the Paratroopers who murdered innocent people on Bloody Sunday, then you cant think celebrating and commemorating the organisation that carried out the Kingsmill Massacre is acceptable.
Sinn Fein’s problem is that in some ways they are still trying to ride two horses at the same time. They need to come across as concerned and statesmanlike which polls better in the Republic of Ireland, but also revolutionary and on the cusp of ending partition to voters in the North.
The Good Friday Agreement was agreed by the majority of people in N. Ireland. It was on the basis of an agreed coalition of previously political enemies. Though certainly ingraining a Unionist v Nationalist into the very fabric of the political system was arguably flawed, this is what democracy gave us.
This is therefore what we must work with. The people of Northern Ireland didn’t vote for the agreement thinking it would lead to 20+ years of arguing over the border. The agreement was meant to put the border issue to bed, and it does.
We are a (almost) post conflict society and understandably there will be tension, disagreement and some anger. We all need to realise though, it is ok to disagree. If somebody believes in maintaining the Union with Britain it doesn’t mean they are old style unionist ogres waiting to put catholics in their place.
Just the same as people who want a United Ireland are not protestant-hating Republicans who cant wait to get their own back on Unionists in a United Ireland.
It really is a simple matter of accepting the democratic wishes of the people here. It’s so difficult because Unionism and Nationalism are obsessed by the border. Other issues are just decoration used to give the appearance of proper politics.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s request that DUP, UUP and TUV should take part in electoral pacts show their differences don’t matter. All that matters is the Union with Britain. Personally I can’t see the UUP taking part in this, but stranger things have happened. Parties should beware though – Entering a pact with parties that are anti-marriage equality, and are otherwise backward in their social and political views, then you are validating and condoning that position by joining them. Beware the backlash.
As political parties and as a people we must tear away this obsession with the border. Let’s start by tearing down peace walls, encouraging integrated education, and forget the border for now. Truly, really 100% there are more important things in life.