Critical engagement with a border poll?

Critical engagement with a border poll? - by Stephen McCourt

Over the last twenty-four months there has been much talk of Irish unity via a border poll in political circles both North and South of the island of Ireland, in no small part due to the seismic political changes that have taken place.

The republican position, for the most part, has been to ignore or overlook this enlarging debate, however as this position continues to gain momentum I feel it is important for republicans to begin discussing the subject seriously considering all the opportunities and obstacles, some of which I will lay out here.

My own belief is that is a border poll is not a desirable path to Irish unity. Self-determination is a fundamental right, enshrined in common articles 1 of the UN Charter, the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. The British government should, without demand, make a statement declaring a timetable for withdrawal post-haste so the Irish people can determine their own political, economic and social future within the framework of remedial external self-determination. However, that eventuality is unlikely.

The Irish government, along with the Northern political parties consented to the British government having a role in the North post-98 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – an internationally binding treaty submitted to the UN – so it is unlikely that Britain will relinquish that role without a majority on the island expressing their will for a border poll or a different path altogether. Keeping that in mind, coupled with the fractured and weak status of organisational Irish republicanism, the only path to Irish unity being propagated via the mainstream media is the border poll article contained within the Good Friday Agreement. It is simply my opinion, that regardless of republican feeling toward it, this poll will happen within the next five to ten years as a result of Brexit, demographic change and unionist intransigence on rights based issues.

Setting aside abstract notions of legitimacy or just ways to deliver a solution to the Irish question, republicans must grapple with that prospect. We have, thus far, failed to lay out a viable path toward Irish unity that grips conversation in the same way a border poll has since Britain’s decision to secede from the EU. It is therefore easy to see why the majority of Irish people view such a poll as an entirely legitimate concept.

The result of the triggering, or slightly pre-triggering of a border poll, will be a campaign for Irish unity made up of the various contemporary proponents of it. It would be morbidly ironic if a significant section of society was mobilised in a campaign for Irish unity and there was no republican involvement, even more ironic would be if Irish unity were to emerge from a border poll and republican contribution was absent. It leaves republicans with a dilemma that may need to be overcome sooner rather than later. Republicans can either contribute to a campaign for Irish unity, albeit within the parameters of the Good Friday Agreement, or remove themselves from that equation by defining another viable path. Participation and absence equally have pros and cons.

There are two noteworthy areas where Irish republicans can develop a critical engagement with a border poll. Primarily, should a united Ireland emerge from said poll, then a united, sovereign republic should proceed as the only acceptable outcome. That case should not be altered by some within the political establishment, North and South, who would allow the Northern state to continue indefinitely. Republicans are the only group of ideologues who will put forward this position with vigour and frame it as an immutable outcome.

Additionally, a border poll would put Irish unity firmly at the top of the political agenda, offering republicans the opportunity to propagate the type of society they wish to create.

Irish unity, regardless of how it comes about, is viewed by republicans as a vehicle for creating a better society and republicans could use the platform to project their vision in the public domain and ensure it takes a place in mainstream political discourse.

However, there are several issues that must be noted and discussed further by republicans within the wider border poll debate. An Irish republic, as traditionally envisaged, may not emerge from a successful campaign. A quasi statelet may continue, either temporarily or permanently, as Dublin attempts to placate disenfranchised unionists. Also, if republicans accept a border poll and campaign for a yes vote, then equally they are bound by a no vote and effectively wed themselves to a negative outcome. In this situation, republicans accept a clause within the Good Friday Agreement, which may legitimise Britain’s occupation of the Six Counties.

Furthermore, a poll may have the potential to unite Ireland, but it does not have the potential to unite its people. It may further polarise nationalists and unionists. It is also won't end the scourge of sectarianism.

Moreover, any united Ireland that may emerge from a border poll is likely to find itself within the structures of the European Union, which is inherently problematic for republicans as the EU further impedes upon the sovereignty of the Irish people – arguably on the same level as the British government.

In addition, social justice or even socialism is off the table – the vote won’t encompass the economic structure of a united Ireland and rather republicans will have to agitate for a constitutional convention after a successful vote and attempt to construct a desirable society through that instrument while accepting it is a longer-term aspiration.

To conclude, a border poll is inherently problematic for republican activists containing obvious bear traps and several variances that need to be worked out if republicans are to engage with a future campaign.

For what it’s worth, I believe republicans, on a collective basis, need to tackle this issue head on and deduce a coherent position that will not relegate us to the margins of political life permanently. This may include recognising that stripped back, a border poll offers some potential to end partition. It could be argued that this opportunity is too good to ignore, particularly considering the traditional gatekeepers of a united Ireland are weak and disorganised, this could provide the impetus to rectify that and harness a political energy that we did not create.

If there is scope to move the independence project forward then it must be considered, equally the pitfalls must be explored further. However, if nothing else, the talk of a border poll highlights the impending need for republicans to get organised. Let us think on that.

Written by Stephen McCourt, an Independent human rights & political activist, and carried in Issue One of An Spréach magazine, July - Sept 2018.