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.