WELL, HERE WE go again. You would think after almost a century of failure, Irish republicans would be tired of anti-partition campaigns by now. Since 1921, we have seen leaders from Eamon de Valera to Charles Haughey take their case out to the world against this British-imposed division of our land and last weekend Gerry Adams decided to add his name to list of Irish politicians that have made campaigns to end partition by calling for a border poll to be held within the next few years.
We have sectarian violence in Belfast, a recession and a decade of contentious commemorations ahead of us – what better remedy to calm things down than that age old debate about Irish reunification? For anybody who is a follower of Irish history it is like Groundhog Day, with the same mistakes are being made.
The natural question being posed by many is: Why start this whole debate now? In Northern Ireland we have devolved institutions that are just six years old; the government ran its full four-year term in 2011 for the first time since 1965. By Northern standards this was a huge achievement considering the Trimble/Mallon executive lasted only two years and its Sunningdale predecessor just five months in 1947. It was a real achievement (which both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness rightly took a lot of credit for) – finally we had some semblance of stability.
The executive has coming up some real political challenges to deal with and this is not going to get any easier as we approach 2016. Before anybody considers reuniting the people of North and South, a more pressing priority should be to foster better relations between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, which as we have seen in recent weeks are not exactly in great shape.
This brings me to a wider problem in Irish republicanism, and that is the failure to properly understand Northern Unionism. For many republicans, unionists are at best misguided and at worst reactionaries determined to cling on to a state which Haughey called a ‘failed political entity’. This superiority complex that has developed over the years with the belief that republicanism is more devoted to its beliefs due to events like the Easter Rising – ignoring the similar sacrifices of many Unionists during the First World War.
Why does any of this matter to a border poll in the next few years? It matters because how on earth can you expect to win over Unionism when you ignore events that are important in their history? If those who are advocating for a border poll at the moment do not have proposals to bring to the Unionist community on compulsory Irish in schools, rejoining the Commonwealth and constitutional reform then this push for reunification is, like all its predecessors, doomed to failure. How does Sinn Féin plan to reconcile the inevitable demands for reform that they will need to win majority support in Northern Ireland with those currently living in the Irish Republic, many of whom might not want to implement any of the changes that I have mentioned above?
On the plus side for Sinn Féin, latest polls in the Irish Republic show a solid majority in favour of reunifying the island. But there the good news ends. Recent polls in Northern Ireland show support for joining the south at a record low of 32 per cent. And to make matters for their cause, just 48 per cent of Catholics would vote Yes in a referendum. The recent census figures, showing an increase in the number of Catholics within Northern Ireland, buoyed republicans – yet the figures quoted above show that while religious demographics may be shifting this is not translating into increased support for Irish unity.
‘If we had told you a decade ago we would be in government with the DUP you would have laughed.’ I can hear the chorus of platitudes coming at me already but there is a real difference between entering into a coalition with a former foe and asking somebody to undergo what would be a really big lifestyle change. There is a strong sense of delusion around the entire issue of Irish unity and it would be easy to limit this problem to Sinn Féin alone but in reality this problem goes across political parties. For people who are so passionate about an issue, I have never actually seen anybody tell me how a united Ireland would work in practice.
At this juncture, with Ireland getting back on its feet economically and wounds that have still not healed in Northern Ireland, this is the wrong debate at the wrong time. What both states of Ireland need is for politicians to leave their grand visions and start addressing some real concerns, because people need that more than a debate about a red line on a map.
If Irish reunification is ever to be achieved then republicans need to get away from gimmicks that pander to the home crowd, and start addressing the realities of Ireland as they are – not as they would like them to be.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.