Emma deSouza: Ireland must prepare for the prospect of a border poll

Ireland's Future underlined how certainties about identity in the North are changing rapidly especially since Brexit. The question remains whether people in the Republic are ready for change
Emma deSouza: Ireland must prepare for the prospect of a border poll

The 3 Arena in Dublin was filled to capacity on Saturday for the conference organised by Ireland's Future which is 'campaigning for a referendum on a shared, united, and new Ireland'. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

This weekend, thousands of people from across the island of Ireland filled the 3 Arena in Dublin for the largest conference on constitutional change in its history thus far.

There will be those who seek to talk down the significance of the Ireland's Future event, but with 10 political party members participating — five of whom are party leaders — this is a moment of living history, and a definitive signal of intent politically.

There was a common thread through much of the day; that change is happening at pace, and that Brexit has detrimentally impacted everything. The weekend’s event follows historic census results in the North that showed for the first time since Northern Ireland’s creation, Catholics outnumber Protestants. 

However, religion and religious upbringing cannot be used as barometers to measure support for constitutional change. 

Each of us is made up of a complex amalgamation of values and positions — religion, identity, and political ideologies coalesce with our lived experiences and form a rich and complex tapestry of beliefs.

Actor James Nesbitt told the Ireland's Future conference: 'I suppose to many from my background talk of a United Ireland is difficult, but the conversation is out there.' See link to full article below. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Actor James Nesbitt told the Ireland's Future conference: 'I suppose to many from my background talk of a United Ireland is difficult, but the conversation is out there.' See link to full article below. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

As actor Jimmy Nesbitt, who gave the closing keynote address on Saturday declared, “I would describe myself as an Irishman, from the North of Ireland, who in no way refutes or shies away from my Protestant culture. But it does not define me." 

His contribution will no doubt reverberate across the island, and in particular among those within in his tradition. Part of his contribution’s effectiveness can be attributed to his candidness and the apparent ease with which he tapped into the complexity and nuance of the changes that are happening in Ireland.

So, while the census results on religion possess a meaning of their own, the actual motivations fuelling changes in sociopolitical attitudes would be better viewed through the lens of identity.

A majority in the North no longer consider themselves British, paving the way not just for a more plural society there but potentially for a new Ireland. The long-awaited census results revealed that only 32% of people in Northern Ireland identify themselves as “British only”, an 8% decline from the previous census held in 2011, while “Irish only” increased from 25% to 29%. 

"Northern Irish" identity saw minimal change, coming in at 19% from 2011’s 21%. 

Brexit and unionism

The sharp decline in British identity is not an outlier: It correlates with a broader downward trend in unionist ideology. Unionism lost its majority at both Stormont and at Westminster in 2017 and 2019 respectively, and further, lost the first minister position following May’s Assembly election.

It is no coincidence that these losses took place following the 2016 Brexit referendum; the wanton disregard for the North’s desire to remain in the European Union, paired with the political pageantry performed by the DUP and Conservative Party since, have functioned as catalysts for regional changes in identity.

Brexit has fundamentally altered the conversation around constitutional change — after all, reunification represents not only a way out from under an increasingly hostile and regressive British government, but also means re-joining the EU — given the fact that 56% in the North voted to remain, this alone would attract more than just traditional nationalists. 

Unionism now has to rely upon those who do not consider themselves British to maintain the Union, and it has little hope of making a positive case while opposing Irish language rights, abortion rights, a Northern Ireland bill of rights, and other human rights and equality measures.

Opinion polling shows that two thirds of people in the North think that Brexit makes a United Ireland more likely, and in a special Business Post/Red C poll last year, a clear majority of southern respondents stated that they would vote in favour of constitutional change. 

The problem is, when that support is tested against changes to the Irish state, support wanes, raising the question: is the Republic prepared to stretch itself to reunite the island and its people?

Is the Republic ready?

While several polls have indicated that there is a strong majority theoretically in favour of constitutional change in the Republic of Ireland, these same polls have found little to no appetite for actual changes. 

Only 27% in the Red C poll were willing to change the Irish Tricolor, with 35% open to replacing the national anthem, and only 41% were willing to take on higher taxes to reunite the island. 

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald addressing the Ireland's Future conference on Saturday which was attended by several senior politicians including five party leaders. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald addressing the Ireland's Future conference on Saturday which was attended by several senior politicians including five party leaders. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Stark divisions over the political, cultural, and economic compromises that constitutional change would necessitate are apparent and will only continue to fester the longer the people of this island are left without concrete detail as to what would come along with reunification. 

As with the Good Friday  Agreement, reconciliation hinges upon compromise. Constitutional change cannot simply be a case of the Republic subsuming the North; it’s an opportunity to completely redesign the kind of society that we all want to live in.

An aversion to changing the current iteration of the Irish State isn’t an anxiety harboured only by those in the Republic — Northern nationalists will have to challenge their own expectations and aspirations. 

That Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Senator Vincent P Martin, received a tepid response at Saturday’s Ireland’s Future conference for suggesting the possibility of Stormont perpetuating in a united Ireland is evidence of a reluctance to enter this conversation without preconceived expectations of what a new Ireland will look like. 

A comparable aversion could also be felt regarding the potential reimagining of the title of the Irish state following Jimmy Nesbitt’s ‘New Union of Ireland’ musing — is the name of the state really worth forgoing a peaceful reunification of this island? What matters more than any title or superficiality is the imminent need to open our hearts and minds to embrace the tapestry of difference which has formed around us, and to work together in generosity and compromise to find a new path for all the people of this island.

An onus rests on the Irish government to adequately prepare for the prospect of a border poll. It could be five, 10, or 15 years in the making, but common sense tells us it is wise to prepare for all eventualities — we do not need our own version of Brexit. 

TV and radio presenter Matt Cooper walking onstage with actor Colm Meaney during the Ireland's Future conference which was attended by several senior politicians including five party leaders. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
TV and radio presenter Matt Cooper walking onstage with actor Colm Meaney during the Ireland's Future conference which was attended by several senior politicians including five party leaders. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Work could — and should — be done now in areas including healthcare, infrastructure, and justice along with steps towards determining how two increasingly divergent education systems could be merged. These are complex areas of debate, deserving of a considerable allocation of time and expertise. In terms of preparing the population, there is an urgent need for more spaces dedicated to all-island dialogue.

Also held this week was the first evidence session of the Seanad’s public consultation committee on the constitutional future of Ireland. 

The committee has received more than 100 submissions from a diversity of backgrounds, and featured contributions from a broad range of citizens, of which I was grateful to have been a part. 

What struck me from the debate, was that irrespective of the background or tradition that speakers came from, there was a pressing appetite for increased dialogue and planning, with a growing acceptance that a vote on constitutional change is, at this point, inevitable.

Chairwoman Amanda Ferguson, Neale Richmond TD, Jim O'Callaghan TD, Colum Eastwood MP, Ivana Bacik TD, and Declan Kearney MLA during the Ireland's Future conference at the 3Arena on Saturday. Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Chairwoman Amanda Ferguson, Neale Richmond TD, Jim O'Callaghan TD, Colum Eastwood MP, Ivana Bacik TD, and Declan Kearney MLA during the Ireland's Future conference at the 3Arena on Saturday. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Interpretations aside, one thing is abundantly clear; the tide is turning. As Northern Ireland continues to develop a rich and diverse demographical makeup, it will increasingly seek to unburden itself from the weight of perpetually dragging politics of the past along with us into the present.

Constitutional change is one way to collectively rearrange our political landscape for the better, and we do our future a disservice in not exploring the subject with all the thoughtful care and scrutiny it requires.

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