Varadkar: No, it’s not the time for a vote on Irish Unity

“Booooooo!”, I hear you say. And indeed, this intervention by the Tánaiste yesterday won’t be very popular amongst those with republican instincts, who lie awake at night dreaming of the day when the Wolfe Tones song about being a nation once again can be sung lustily and loudly throughout the land.

But hasn’t he…… got a point?

Mr Varadkar made his remarks after Pádraig MacLochlainn raised an opinion poll, published by the Sunday Times, that demonstrates a majority of the people of the North, are in favour of a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years.

Mr Varadkar said he saw the opinion poll, which indicates that a majority of people in Northern Ireland (excluding undecideds) are in favour of holding a border poll.

But he added: “It also shows that a majority of people in Northern Ireland, excluding the undecided, would vote to stay in the Union….

…..Unity was a legitimate aspiration aspiration and one that he shared, he said, but the settled position for Ireland was the Good Friday Agreement.

It says that a referendum can take place “when it appears that a majority of the people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland,” Mr Varadkar said.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’re not currently at that point. So what we need to do in the meantime, is to make the Good Friday Agreement work to try and get the Northern Ireland Executive working better and to intensify North-South cooperation.”

Honestly, at this point, if I was in the DUP, I’d push to hold a border poll, on the condition that everybody on all sides agreed that another one would not be held for 25 years, at the earliest. It’s likely (some of you will dispute this, but you’re wrong) that there is no majority in Northern Ireland for unity at this point in time. That might change, of course, over time, but a border poll held today would very likely fail.

The opinion poll at the weekend, you’ll recall, showed 47% of voters wishing to stay in the Union, and 42% wanting to vote for Unity. Excluding undecideds, that’s about a 53-47 majority for the Union. And that’s before a campaign kicked off in earnest.

There are two things to remember about such a campaign: The unity case in any referendum will primarily be an emotional one, which is very powerful. But the case for keeping the border, and the union with Great Britain, is also emotional. And it will have the added advantage of the “devil you know” factor. That campaign will see a lot of talk, believe me, about the advantages of the NHS, as opposed to the Irish healthcare system; the advantages of the GSCEs and A-levels compared to the leaving cert; and the advantages of NATO membership as opposed to an Irish State with poor to non-existing military capabiliies.

The second thing that the Union case has going for it is the uncertainty about what form exactly unity might take, and the uncertainty over what accommodations voters in the Republic might be willing to make to peacefully accommodate the defeated, and doubtless angry, Unionist population. It’s not politic to say it, but fears about a potential return to violence on the island would be high. That, again, might be a powerful motivator for the undecided voter.

For the true Gael, of course, such considerations are secondary: If there’s a chance of a 50%+1 bare majority to end partition and realise Padraig Pearse’s cherished dream, then you take it, and worry about the consequences later.

For those of us who aren’t true Gaels, though, the idea seems a little bit foolish, especially when the result is so uncertain, and the consequences potentially disastrous. Varadkar, it seems, is in the second camp.

Incidentally, it’s worth asking whether southern politicians, who aren’t in Sinn Fein, are especially motivated by the idea of Irish Unity at all. Bear in mind that if it was achieved, the Dáil would add something like 25 more seats, and at least half of those are likely to be Sinn Fein seats, with the other half going to socially conservative unionists. In the 26 counties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should be able to coalesce for a good while to come, if they really want to keep Sinn Fein out of office. In a United Ireland, they’d almost certainly have to do some sort of deal with Unionist politicians, many of whom might have positions on things like abortion, gay marriage, and trans rights that the Dublin establishment would find terribly inconvenient. Who needs that kind of headache, when you can just say aspirational things about unity, and quietly work to postpone it, at least until your own career is at an end?

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