Jude Collins

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Who fears to speak of a border poll?

Sluggerotoole.com is one of those sites that I visit on a regular basis. You occasionally get daft debates but usually I'm struck by how informed and logical many of the contributors are. However, I usually resist the temptation to engage with its discussions since life is short and besides, this blog gobbles up enough of my time. But my eye was caught yesterday by a commentary on Sinn Féin’s drive to have a border poll. 

The usual grounds for dismissing such a poll is that it’s bound to fail - that is, the Belfast Telegraph and other opinion polls show that the great majority of people in the north want to maintain the union with Britain (aka continued government from London). So why waste time and money on a border poll when everyone knows what the result will be?  

The frequent argument for having a poll - at least by those who believe it will confirm the opinion polls and maintain the union - is that Sinn Féin’s bluff should be called, and that would take the constitutional question off the table. 

Both view are so persuasive I’m in danger of doing the splits. It’s true that, according to opinion polls, a border poll has a snowball’s chance in hell of going for constitutional change. And it’s also true that to hold a border poll and see it defeated would remove the constitutional question from the table, at least for the time being. 

However, my guess is that Sinn Féin are keeping three matters in mind. 

One is that while traditional nationalists may tell the Bel Tel that they're not in  favour of a united Ireland tomorrow,  it could well be another matter when they’re in the polling both and faced with putting their mark against the notion of Irish unity. If you want a parallel of sorts, look at the supposed fruitcakes in UKIP who did strikingly better in the polling booth than the opinion polls suggested. So a border poll would be a historic moment, and given that unity wouldn’t actually have to be tomorrow, we might be surprised how many nationalists would put their X beside Yes for constitutional change. 

The second reason I think Sinn Féin are pushing hard for a border poll is because many of their supporters are looking for more signs of on-the-ground progress in this core matter. So to agitate for a poll, regardless of outcome, is seen as electorally desirable.

The third reason I would guess to be behind Sinn Féin’s thinking is, if a border poll were called, people would be forced to confront core questions which in the normal course of things they don’t consider and in many cases don’t like considering. Questions like “What do we mean when we say we want to maintain the union with Britain? Why? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks, if any?”  And likewise, the question “What do I mean by a united Ireland? Why have one? What would be the benefits? What are the drawbacks, if any?”

It’s these questions that I’m guessing Sinn Féin want aired, and which a border poll would provide the opportunity for airing. Would it be divisive? Only if you get all agitated when someone puts forward an argument you don’t agree with. For so long the constitutional question has been at the core of our differences here in the north, yet nearly all the time our thinking stops with waving flags and shouting slogans. A border poll, Sinn Féin believe, would move things on to a measured debate. And if, after that debate, the electorate chose to maintain the union, then republicans and nationalists would have to consider if their ideal of a united Ireland was outmoded or if they needed to rethink how something which doesn’t yet exist might be presented in a way that would win more support. 

On the other hand, if the border poll were to say Yes to constitutional change, we’d see whether those  committed to union with Britain would respect the outcome of a democratic vote. What’s that? Never, never, never, never? I see. Mmm. Maybe. Or maybe not.


  1. I think the second reason cited is probably the best one.It could be electorally beneficial.Given the performance of Gerry Adams on Prime Time this week, is he necessarily the best person to inspire confidence to the uncommitted in any future border poll?

  2. I'm in agreement with your view that a border poll might give a result that may present a much narrow margin between the opposing options because even those who can live with London in control might want to test their electoral muscle safe in the knowledge/guess that the RoI voters would certainly overturn a YES to UI and it would put Robbo's claims to ridicule, and the narrow, and ensure another chance every seven years leaving unionists always on the windowledge of the union. The status of NI would then have changed from it state before any ref. had happened.[madraj55]

  3. There will be a referendum on the Union here (Scotland) in just over a year's time. At present the polls favour the status quo but there is a substantial body of undecided voters. My wife and I went along to a local meeting of the ScotlandYES Campaign which was thronged and reflected infectious optimism. The Political Establishment, aided by sections of the Press and business have floated lots of scare stories - currency, pensions, defence.... However, people want their 'say' and voted into power a Party, committed to a vote.

  4. In my opinion most nationalists voted for the GFA because they seen it as a realistic chance for peace, however they also voted for change and part of the agreement allows for a border poll, once instigated the poll must be run every 7 years. Could this be the reason unionists opposed the border poll.
    John Murphy
    Co Louth

    1. You're wrong on that John. Under the GFA if a border poll is held there can't be another one for at least seven years. There's no obligation to hold one every seven years.

      This means that the results of the first border poll could be used to prevent another one being held for a generation.

  5. John Murphy[3.07] Yes, that is most likely the reason unionists are opposed to the border poll, which makes a nonsense of their alleged confidence in the safety of the union. They can't help themselves from showing their well founded insecurity, even though they know this is seen by 'themmuns' for what it is. There's a very poor future for political unionism here and to be a fly on the wall at the party they'll hold at the centenary of their statelet, knowing it will never be, as macmillan said, 'glad confident moring again' [madraj55]

  6. Excellent piece, Jude, and one of your best. All three points, minus their nation state aspects, should be given wider discussion and related to a reconsideration of regional government for England. Tories trail third in parts of England where their policies are now biting most cruelly, and voters there might think differently about the potential benefits of regional government than they did in earlier referenda on this question - and vote accordingly.

  7. What is the fear in Northern Ireland of becoming one Irish nation ?

    -Clyde Phillips
    Dallas, Texas

  8. A United Ireland benifits all Protestant, Catholic and dissenter! It's not just a Catholic dream the father of Irish Republicanism was a Protestant a.k.a "Wolfe Tonne". Also I'm an Irish Protestant from/living in Belfast and I support an Equal United Ireland!