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Five questions that must be answered before an Irish border poll

Fianna Fáil’s newly elected TD for Wexford, Malcolm Byrne, is making some waves today on the subject of Irish unity. Hugh O’Connell in the Independent has the full story:

“A Fianna Fáil TD has suggested that a united Ireland could rejoin the Commonwealth, make July 12 a public holiday and reserve 30pc of Cabinet positions for unionists.

Wexford TD Malcolm Byrne said he was supportive of his Fianna Fáil colleague Stephen Donnelly’s call for preparations for an Irish unity referendum to be ramped up in the wake of the UK general election.

Mr Byrne said that there needed to be an “agreed” Ireland which would involve difficult decisions so that people from a unionist background felt part of a new country.

“That may mean a new national anthem or Ireland considering membership of the Commonwealth. Do we need to look at making July 12 a public holiday on the whole island and having a greater understanding of that period in both Irish and European history?” Mr Byrne said.

“The late Albert Reynolds once suggested that we could reserve 30pc of cabinet places for those from a unionist tradition – that could prove to be a very visionary statement.”

He said nationalists and republicans will need to make institutions “inclusive” for a unionist minority.”

To be fair to Deputy Byrne, such proposals would be genuinely difficult for many nationalists to accept, and as such, should be treated as a genuine effort to reach out to unionists in order to persuade them that a United Ireland would be a place where their culture, and traditions, were respected. Will it work? That’s doubtful.

Consider the reverse proposal. Imagine if Arlene Foster suggested that the Republic of Ireland re-joined the United Kingdom, and in return, Saint Patricks Day would be a UK-wide national holiday, 30% of seats at the British cabinet would go to Irish people, and the UK would re-join the European Union. Would you, a nationalist voter, be persuaded?

One of the difficulties of discussing Irish Unity is that there seems to be very little understanding of what the Unionist concerns about a border poll might be. So, here are five questions that really need to be answered convincingly before such a poll happens:

  • What happens if Northern Ireland votes to remain in the United Kingdom?

This is an obvious question for Unionists, but also one for Nationalists. In Scotland, the Independence referendum of 2014 was billed as a “once in a generation” vote. The Good Friday agreement provides that there must be, at minimum, seven years between border polls. What happens if there is a 52/48 majority for the Union? Do we say, “oh well, we will try again in 7 years”, and risk creating a semi-permanent sense of insecurity in Northern Ireland, or do we agree in advance that a border poll will be binding on the losing side for a much longer period of time. If you were to say to Unionists that such a poll settled the issue for 30 years, for example, they might be much more inclined to support it. But would nationalism be willing to give such a commitment, or would we insist on the “one more heave” approach, with all the risks for peace that this entails?

  • What colour will the post boxes in Antrim be in a United Ireland?

This might seem a stupid question, but it’s a very basic one, that requires some thought. One of the keys to making change acceptable in any situation is to make the changes as small as possible. So, in the weeks and months after Irish unity, what practical impact will that decision have on the people of Northern Ireland? We will – this is a racing certainty – see triumphalism from those who have desired such unity for close to a century. How will this be managed against the anger of those who have just been defeated? Are we going to send in teams to turn red “Royal Mail” postboxes into green “An Post” ones? Will the Union flags come down from public buildings, to be replaced by tricolours and EU flags? On this island, the power of symbolism should not be understated. Often, it is the very smallest things that are the most powerful indicators of belonging – what are our plans to manage the symbolic transition?

  • What becomes of Irish neutrality?

We’re forever talking about the Commonwealth in the context of Irish Unity, but what about NATO? We’re talking about inviting people who are exceedingly proud of their contributions in two world wars into the Irish Republic. They might reasonably ask that their ties to the UK be reflected in some form of military alliance. What does a United Ireland do, for example, if a future Argentine government repeats the actions of General Galtieri in 1982/3? If the Falklands is invaded again, does a United Ireland remain neutral in that conflict, or do we, reflecting the deep affinity for Britain held by a large proportion of our population, many of whom will wish to come to her aid, support our nearest neighbour? Nobody’s talking about it, but neutrality will be a critical issue in any such discussion.

  • What about policing?

This is a very simple question, which doesn’t require much elaboration: Are we going to send people in Garda uniforms onto the Shankill road to police 12th night bonfires? If not, what is the new police force going to look like, what is it going to be called, and what measures are we prepared to take to ensure sensitivity in policing?

  • What about education?

Again, a very simple question: Is the teaching of Irish going to remain a compulsory subject for the leaving certificate? Or will that be amended to “Irish or Ulster Scots”? The Northern Ireland assembly has failed to sit for three years, at least in part because of an Irish language act that is much milder and less intrusive than the protections for the Irish language in the Republic. There are plenty of moderate nationalist voters in Northern Ireland who might not be keen on having their children forced to learn a language that they are not likely, on a day to day basis, to use. What concessions are we prepared to make on that issue?

There are, of course, more questions. But a border poll held in the absence of clear answers to these five questions, at least, is a recipe for an awful lot of trouble.

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