Alison O'Connor: If you want to unite with the North, you can at least visit there

When it comes to a united Ireland we hit a new level of immaturity in our debate
Alison O'Connor: If you want to unite with the North, you can at least visit there

The Titanic Visitor Centre in Belfast. Half of southerners have not visited the North.

We used to be just like this about abortion. We’re still at it now when it comes to talking about neutrality. However, it’s with a united Ireland we really do hit it out of the park with the level of immaturity in our debate.

We have an interesting picture being painted recently through opinion polls with accompanying academic research. It is not one bit pretty to look at.

A joint project between Arins and The Irish Times is joining a lot of dots and highlighting some real contradictions. We’re happy to virtue signal our republican credentials, but fall far short when it comes to any more than that.

We learned from a previous instalment of this research at the end of last year that 66% of people in the south would vote in favour of unity, yet the most recent instalment reveals that half of us are not even bothered to visit, to view life as it exists across the border.

Half of southerners, according to Ipsos polling, conducted simultaneously in the south and the North, have taken no day trip at all to the North and only 29% have taken a day trip to the North either several times or lots of times in the last five years.

Only 21% have stayed in the North multiple times. Comparing the two sides, three-fifths of southerners have not overnighted compared with one third of northerners. A whopping two thirds of southerners have no friends in the North.

Anecdotally, I know far more people who have never crossed the border than have done so. In fact, the farther away you travel from it the more likely this is to be the case.

Significantly, in fact, just under 68% of respondents in Munster have no cross-border connections, compared to 27% in nearby Connacht/Ulster. 

How can you describe this other than a very poor effort in terms of engagement with what so many continue to insist on considering as ‘those Nordies’.

Yet no conflict is seen in this and the continued yearning, expressed to opinion pollsters, for the “fourth green field”.

Skewed logic

What sort of skewed logic is this? We want repossession but in truth have no idea what it is we are yearning to get back; never travelled there, never met the people, no idea what might be of concern to them.

This research collaboration between the Royal Irish Academy and the University of Notre Dame in the US is dedicated to analysing and researching Ireland, north and south.

Even more illogical is those earlier survey findings, from December, was where almost half of all voters said that changes to our national anthem and flag would make them less likely to vote for a united Ireland in a possible referendum.

It was yet another indicator of the reluctance we have to put ourselves out in any way, and for all our nostalgia-fuelled desire to bring everyone back together we also would not want to foot the bill for tax hikes.

We see which side appears to have given far more thought to a united Ireland and its consequences in the findings that show that a border poll would be easily defeated in Northern Ireland but would pass comfortably in the south. 

Even at the most basic of levels it is easy to understand why.

Interesting, though, those polls also found there is strong backing north and south for the actual holding of referendums on unity.

Sinn Féin wastes no time in telling us that unity is its top political priority. The expectation is high that party will be in government after the next general election, with a concurrent expectation that, by then, the party will be in power also in the North.

It is a plain fact that unionism is not in a good place right now. 

The small-minded among us can choose to revel in that, but hopefully a significant number who wish for unity will move beyond the superficial and consider how it can be brought about successfully.

United society

A united society that prospers will not happen without a lot of thought, conversation, political leadership, and willingness to endure a little suffering, be that financially or in agreeing to something like a new national anthem.

I mean, how gracious would a triumphant Sinn Féin be to the unionist community in such a scenario? How easy would that party make it for unionists to be willing to seal the deal, with the mountain of work to be done to agree the nuts and bolts of unity in advance, as well as the ongoing work that would be needed to ensure everything settled down and bedded in?

Again, to no great surprise, we learned from these polls that Sinn Féin would be the strongest party in this united Ireland. This is based on questions to ascertain how voters looked on political parties over the border from them. The other parties would be left trailing in the Sinn Féin wake, at the disadvantage of attempting to broaden their profile and appeal after the event.

Think about unionists, from the most vocal hardcore group, to the silent carefully watching one. They can see from recent years how the DUP strand of unionism has been in an utterly abusive relationship with the British government, and power-sharing in a continuous state of nothingness.

So what would be the attraction of a united Ireland to them?

Even if there wasn’t 100,000 welcomes on the mat, would there be a slightly warm one?

Would there be concessions, pragmatism, a willingness to see things from the ‘other’ side?

In the south, voters are more likely to favour a referendum vote in the next five years, while in the North a majority of voters want a border poll in the next 10 years. Again the ‘can’t happen soon enough’ vibe from our own brethren, but accompanying that an absence of willingness to swallow the many reality pills that exist.

There was considerable commonality when it came to identifying the most important issues to arise over the next decade with both sides naming housing, healthcare and the economy at the top of the list.

However, on that thorny constitutional question, only 12% in the south said preparing for a referendum on a united Ireland should be one of the top four priorities, with a further 15% identifying achieving a united Ireland as a priority.

This compared with 11% in the North prioritising referendum preparation, and 9% for achieving a united Ireland, but 27% stating keeping Northern Ireland in the UK should be a priority.

This is not an easy issue to catch hold of in its entirety. There are so many separate moving parts, myriad different agendas, multiple political parties, ordinary voters, and an absolute bucketload of bitter historical baggage.

However, surely the least we can do, especially if you are one of the majority of more than four to one who would vote in favour of unity in a referendum, is to take off those narrowly focused republican goggles and give the matter a little mature reflection.

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