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Column: Our grassroots initiative shows high demand for a Border poll

The Good Friday Agreement contains a provision for an official Border poll if “sufficient demand” for one exists – so we decided to ask the residents of two electoral districts to have their say on the issue, writes Emma McArdle.

Emma McArdle

The ‘People’s Referendum’, an unofficial Border poll, held in the electoral districts of Crossmaglen, Co Armagh, and Upper Creggan, Co Louth on 25th May 2013. Community group United Ireland – You Decide asked residents to have their unofficial say on the issue, pointing out that he Good Friday Agreement contains a provision for an official Border poll if “sufficient demand” for one exists.

LAST SATURDAY,over 1,000 people Crossmaglen in County Armagh and the Creggan Upper district electoral area in County Louth came out to vote on the question of Irish unity.

Presiding Officer Michael Halpenny a barrister formerly of SIPTU announced the result shortly after 10pm on Saturday night.  There was a 42 per cent turnout with 93 per cent voting in favour of unity.

Having watched individuals and families arriving with their polling cards in hand throughout the day we knew that our initiative was a victory for grassroots democracy.  The first voter was at the polling at one minute past seven in the morning just as the polling stations opened. The people of our community were, for the first time in history, actually having their say on this issue.

An inclusive debate

United Ireland – You Decide was an initiative of a local community group prompted by the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and our own daily struggles with the reality of living with partition. We set out to have an inclusive debate and were happy that those who are opposed to Unity also participated in the vote. We also wanted to raise awareness of the provision for a Border Poll in the Good Friday Agreement.

Under the Good Friday Agreement the British Secretary of State has the power to make an order to direct the holding of a poll on Irish unity.  This is to be done where there is a ‘demonstrable demand’ for a united Ireland.

This initiative was about letting the people of this border community have their say in a way that is positive, open and democratic.

We had no say about the original decision

When the British Government partitioned Ireland the people of Crossmaglen and Creggan Upper had no say, nor did any of the people of Ireland.   The arbitrary nature of this unnatural partition is highlighted by the fact on that the 1925 Boundary Commission report, proposed including the Crossmaglen district electoral area as well as much of South Armagh, south and west Fermanagh, West Tyrone and parts of Derry in the new Free State.

This report was never implemented because it would have undermined the viability of the northern state.

Instead, northern constituencies were gerrymandered and unionists were given extra votes on the basis of property ownership — all in an effort to suppress the significant nationalist population.

This process saw communities divided and towns and villages such as our own allocated arbitrarily to either side of the border. This is why we argue so strongly that now — more than 90 years later — it is time to listen to the people. It is time we had our say.

The unionist community must be at the centre of the debate

This is an issue that all political parties — north and south — must engage with. South Armagh was the birthplace of Frank Aiken one of the founding members of Fianna Fáil and the area elected Michael Collins as MP in 1921.

Those parties who have walked away from us in the past must re-engage now.  We welcomed the willingness of members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to engage with our group.

We want to ensure that there is also a dialogue with unionists. The unionist community must be at the centre of the debate about the kind of Ireland we want.

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We believe that it is time to look towards an Ireland that is based on equality, where discrimination and sectarianism are things of the past. We believe a new Ireland can and must be built on a foundation of unity between orange and green.

I have lived with partition all my life

We have lived with partition for a long time — for all of my life and for all of my parents lives. But I don’t want partition to be a determining factor in my son’s life.  I don’t want partition to dictate what schools he goes to, what friends he makes or his ability to secure employment when he grows up.

Partition has undermined economic development north and south, but in particular it has stunted economic development in border areas such as our own. A United Ireland with 6.4 million citizens, consumers and tax-payers will be economically stronger and will offer a better basis for recovery and the creation of prosperity.

There can be no doubt but that a united Ireland would be economically stronger and that communities such as ours would at last have the opportunity to prosper.

I believe that the people of Ireland have the right to independence and self-determination. As such we proudly advocated a Yes vote in this referendum but we also want to hear and understand the perspective of those people who voted No on Saturday.

It is time to let the people have their say on the question of Irish Unity. I hope that other areas will follow our example and hold people’s referenda on the question of Irish Unity.

Emma McArdle was raised and spent most of her life living outside of Cullaville in South Armagh.  She currently lives in Sheelagh in North Louth with her husband and baby son.  She is Chairperson of “United Ireland – You Decide” a community group which organised a People’s Referendum on Irish Unity in Crossmaglen and Creggan Upper.

About the author:

Emma McArdle

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