Irish people aren’t stupid: when it comes to the big issues, they vote with their heads rather than their hearts. In an opinion poll carried out for RTE Prime Time and BBC Northern Ireland’s Nolan Live earlier this month only 11% of people in Northern Ireland and 31% in the Republic said they would like to see a united Ireland in their lifetime if it meant they had to pay more taxes.
This represented a dramatic reduction from the 30% of people in the North (57% of Catholics) and 66% in the Republic who said they would like to see unity in their lifetime before there was any mention of higher taxes. As the Labour politician Pat Rabbitte, on the panel in the RTE studio, commented: “Some of us are dreamers…When asked if I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime, in my heart I would say I would like it. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty of paying for it, that’s a different issue.”
Irish people’s hard-headedness was further illustrated in their answers to the question about constitutional change ‘in the short to medium term.’ In the North 66% wanted UK solutions to their constitutional issues: 42% wanted continued devolution, while 24% wanted a return to direct rule from Westminster. 52% of people from a Catholic background wanted UK solutions (3% of people from a Protestant background wanted Irish unity). In the South more people (36%) wanted UK solutions than a united Ireland (35%).
The ‘don’t knows’ were also a significant element: 27% of Northerners and 20% of Southerners didn’t know whether they wanted unity in their lifetime; 18% of Northerners and 17% of Southerners didn’t know what their preferred constitutional status was for Northern Ireland in the short-medium term.
None of this prevented the Sinn Fein representative on the RTE panel, the normally impressive Pearse Doherty, using make-believe figures to claim that the subvention from the UK Treasury to Northern Ireland was not £10 billion per year – as universally accepted – but only £3 billion, and therefore unity wouldn’t lead to tax increases. The DUP finance minister, Arlene Foster, was more convincing (indeed she was by far the most convincing politician on either the Dublin or Belfast panel) in arguing that the poll results were ‘very positive’ for unionism.
Overall the joint RTE-BBC programme – ‘Ireland’s Call’ – was a poor one. The RTE producer made the extraordinary decision that the opening voice – that of a woman in the Dublin audience – would be to express the old, xenophobic, now widely discredited republican view that Britain should “get out of Ireland and hand Ireland back to the Irish…if you don’t want to be Irish, go back to Britain.” There followed a cacophany of inarticulate and partisan voices, from politicians and people alike. For a nation of self-proclamed good talkers, we had remarkably little coherent to say about this huge foundational issue.
There were a few good points.In his bullying way, the BBC’s Stephen Nolan managed to force an answer out of Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan, about whether the Irish government could could afford a united Ireland at this time – “No, not really”, mumbled the Minister.
The professor of Irish history at UCD, Diarmaid Ferriter, on the Dublin panel, pointed to a central flaw in the 1916 Proclamation, which declared that the new Irish Republic would be “oblivious to the differences that have been fostered by an alien government.” Ferriter went on: “The imposition of partition was a great tragedy. Even those on the British side responsible for Anglo-Irish relations at that time were willing to admit that in private. But what was the alternative? You could have been looking at a civil war as the unionists would have resisted coercion. If there’s a history lesson in that, it’s that you can’t be oblivious to differences.”
I was asked to speak from the audience. I based my remarks on the wise words of the often unjustly derided Brian Cowen in 2010: that improving North-South friendship and cooperation should be given a greater priority than campaigning for unity. He said then that the genius of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements was that they allowed the people of Ireland to go on “a common journey together where we have not decided on the destination.” He said both traditions in Ireland are legitimate – “one loyal to Britain, the other looking to Irish unity as a legitimate objective, but one that will only be pursued peacefully by common consent” and not “forced or imposed on people on either side of the island.”
That kind of nuanced and sensitive thinking from the leader of nationalist Ireland represented a huge change from the ‘Brits out’ (and leave the key to the money-box on the mantelpiece) unthinking of old-fashioned republicans. It had been there under the surface for 40 years, just waiting to be said openly. Diarmaid Ferriter quotes the British ambassador in Dublin in 1972 reporting a conversation with the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch. He had asked Lynch how important the issue of reunification was to the Republic’s electorate. “His answer amounted to saying that they could not care less. As far as he was concerned, he wanted peace and justice in the North, and close cooperation and friendship with us.”¹
The eminent political scientist, the late John Whyte, identified 25 Northern Ireland opinion polls between 1973 and 1989 about the North’s constitutional status, and there were broad consistencies. A united Ireland had miniscule support from Protestants, far from complete support from Catholics, and the solution that attracted most support from both communities was power-sharing.
So what’s new in 2015? Two old words: Sinn Fein. Ironically Sinn Fein have played down their united Ireland rhetoric (and their past connections with IRA violence) south of the border because they recognise that the route to power in the Republic requires them to win over an electorate that wants nothing to do with violence and does not see unity as a priority. They have put themselves forward instead as the most effective anti-austerity party and seen their vote soar as a result. When will this contradiction come back to haunt them? We are in for some interesting times ahead.
P.S. There wasn’t a lot that was fresh in the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement reached between the governments and the Northern parties (mainly the DUP and Sinn Fein) on 17 November: a re-established international paramilitary monitoring body and a multi-agency initiative to tackle cross-border crime are the two most significant elements. After the Stormont House Agreement last December, one Irish official commented “with a bit of luck it will last a couple of years.” In the event it lasted three months. One hopes that this latest deal will allow the parties to stagger through until NI Assembly elections next May. We should be grateful for small mercies.
- The Irish Times, 7 November 2015