In Defence Of A Border Poll

Ciarán Cunningham sees merit in a border poll in the North. 

‘In defence of a Border Poll’. Guerrilla politics and the campaign for a Unity referendum

In January 1970, at the United Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Seamus Costello, IRA Guerrilla leader and future founder leader of the IRSP declared:
“I favour guerrilla tactics in parliament, the same as I do in many other respects… And I see no reason why with a few TDs or a few MPs of the right calibre, pursuing the right policies, why they cannot destroy the confidence of the people in these institutions and bring them tumbling down in ruin.”
Whatever the context of that year’s gathering, Seamus’ principled rejection of abstentionism that night, could not have simply referred to participation in the elected chambers, North, South or other?

Costello was of course making a logistical (and ideological) declaration of faith in the ability of principled republicans to appropriate and utilise mechanisms of the state to ultimately bring down the state itself; a formidable doctrine of Guerrilla politics.

He was not the first to espouse such a proposal; in 1918, Sinn Féin and the IRA participated fully in the post WW1 Armistice British Westminster elections, utilising the enemy’s procedures, protocols and resources to ultimately take power and put into action the Democratic Program of the 1st Dail; the most revolutionary political program practiced in Irish history. No doubt, many initially opposed that tactic also, on a point of understandable principle.

In 2016, Seamus Costello’s party, the IRSP, embracing the very same doctrine and considering undeniably radical demographic shifts occurring in the occupied six counties, made a judgment call, that there was more to be gained than lost in openly campaigning for a ‘Border Poll’ or referendum on Irish Unity; on a 32 County basis if possible but via the mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement if need be; the latter being the more realistic of options in the immediate term.

Recognising the growing trajectory of the ‘Catholic Nationalist Republican’ population of ‘the North’; the IRSP - having learned from previous delegation visits to Scotland, Catalunya and Britany - reasoned that the formation of a ‘broad front’ style, street based movement (as existed in those nations) may with a push, help shove a vote for Irish unity over the line in the Six Counties, if not in this decade, then certainly within the coming decades.

Statistics add credence to the prospect. Within the Occupied Six Counties, the broadly ‘Protestant Unionist Loyalist’ population are no longer the perpetual majority which that statelet’s founders relied on them always being.

We don’t need drawn out statistical lists to tell us how in ‘the North’ Catholic children are no longer the minority community that we, and our parents, once were. And while the IRSP are not naïve enough to suggest that a future ‘Catholic majority’ will automatically translate into a vote for Irish Unity, experiences in Scotland and Catalunya, strongly suggest that innovative modes of political organising can, (indeed have) transformed once stagnant nationalist voter bases into proactive mass movements for national independence via a referendum.

If such a process, that is the creation of a broad front style, nationally aware, street-based mass movement could inject enthusiasm into the currently passive yet nationally minded voter base of ‘the North’, and in turn help to mobilise a significant ‘Yes’ vote amongst a growing nationalist demographic in the future, then surely (the IRSP reasoned) the option is at least worth exploring?

I have spent the past year travelling around Ireland and parts of Europe making this very point on behalf of ‘Yes for Unity’, the Republican Socialist campaign for a referendum on Irish Unity; sometimes in venues which were pleasantly receptive, sometimes in rooms where the reception was bordering on contempt, every event well worth it, nonetheless.

I encountered various strands of opposition to our proposals during this time, all of which I disagree with, but none of which I resent being made.

In fact, I wasn’t always sold on the concept of a border poll myself. Always conscious of the deeply held principles that cause many well-meaning Republicans to baulk at the thought of allowing a British secretary of State to umpire an election on unity within an unfairly partitioned section of Ireland; not so many years ago I rigidly held to the same line which led the nationalist population of the North to reject and boycott the ‘border poll’ of 1973.

As is often the case however, emerging political reality can trump the importance of previously vital principle.

In 1973, it was totally inconceivable that a Border Poll could have proved successful for Nationalists; today that is not necessarily the case, in future decades it simply need not be the case.

In March 2017, for the first time since the creation of the Occupied Six County state, party political Unionism lost its majority position in Stormont; a turn of events which prompted me – like many others – to visit reliable statistical research avenues to gain a wider picture of what may be going on behind the scenes.

I found that all reliable bodies tasked with gathering statistics in the North, i.e. the statistics & research agency, labour force surveys, school enrolment bulletins and equality commission monitoring reports, were making findings which strongly suggested that our generation of what is the broadly ‘Catholic, Nationalist, Republican’ population, will be the last that lives as a minority within this artificial state. Our children will not be in a minority position.

This could mean a lot of things to a lot of people, not all of them conducive to Republican support for a Border Poll of course. But it could also, with the right perspective and the right type of campaigning from Republicans and Socialists, give future voters keen to dismantle partition, a chance (to paraphrase Costello) to “bring the institution crumbling down in ruins”.

Bearing in mind examples in Scotland and Catalunya, where a shift in modes of nationalist organising, away from both clandestine militant activity & traditional party political electoralism, towards an all embracing ‘broad front’ style street based approach to campaigning on an independence referendum, has seen pro-active support for independence in those nations rocket to the extent where aspirations to independence have become much more than just aspirations.

In Scotland, a MORI poll in 1999 recorded that only 27% of the Scottish voting population were pro-actively in favour of Scottish independence, by 2016 that figure had mushroomed to 46%. In Catalunya, in 2005, Spanish government statistics recorded that a mere 12% of the Catalan population were pro-actively supportive of independence, by 2015 that figure had risen to 45%. By the time the Spanish military were smashing up polling stations in Barcelona, 43% of the Catalan population had tried to vote, of those 90% had declared for freedom.

What triggered the rise in pro-active sentiment in both of these nations? Undeniably, factors included the shift towards popular, broad front and street-based initiatives. Season after season of mass rallies, mock referendums, public debates and (vitally) the intervention of the Left, had taken the issue of independence out of the hands of the stuffy few usual suspects and brought it down to a street level. This in turn injected an enthusiasm into the independence project not hitherto present, making what was previously impossible, now seriously achievable.

It is not a pipe dream to suggest that the same process of popular progressive mobilisation could occur in the occupied six counties, in favour of a Border Poll, taking advantage of shifting demographics, newly found nationalist confidence and our people’s proven ability to mobilise when needed.

There are of course several principled counter arguments to such a proposal, but with further consideration they largely lose their merit, not least because the growing prospect of a border poll occurring sometime in the future appears certain to overtake all aspirations of those steadfast political movements and individuals who simply want Irish Unity to happen some other way. Demographics and popular opinion may prove bigger than all of our plans.

Principled objections to the ‘Yes for Unity’ position usually take the form of the following questions.

Question 1. What would we do in the event of a No result?

This question was easily answered by the IRSP’s original ‘Britain out of Ireland/ Ireland out of the EU’ position paper which first proposed the Border Poll position. And it is an answer shared by the ‘Yes for Unity’ campaign. The opening caveat of the IRSP position paper simply states:

In the event of any failure to end partition via so called ‘constitutional’ means, Republican Socialists would be under no more compulsion to recognise the Unionist Veto than we are today.
Seamus Costello’s declaration that he favoured “Guerrilla tactics in parliament” just as he did “in many other respects”, opened up for his party the prospect of taking or leaving the mechanisms of the state as and when it suited them, confident that they need not compromise their overall goals while doing so.

In layman’s terms then, if the Border Poll project breaks down, we get another bus. We owe this state no courtesy.

Question 2. Isn’t a border poll just a sectarian headcount?

This is also easily answered, as such opportunistic critiques were also forwarded throughout decades of brutal political and people’s struggle against the Orange state, most often by the lifestylist left and other anti-republican tendencies, who, (from a position of political cowardice) were more offended by positive aspirations to end partition than Loyalist aspirations to maintain it. We owe nothing to such people today.

Question 3. The Republic has already been declared (in 1916), why vote?

In regard to those who hold to the ‘already declared republic’ position; we have a great deal more sympathy for this line of questioning than the others and understand the passionate beliefs of those who find notions of voting today on independence and sovereignty unpalatable, we find it unpalatable ourselves.

However, repeated research suggests that demographics and public feeling are shifting with a momentum that may soon over shadow any such concerns in terms of real time political relevance.

When a border poll scenario arises (which it most likely will) it will be bigger than the program of any one political party or any revolutionary tendency. And, if a significant section of the Irish working class within the occupied six counties decides to march in that chosen direction, then it would be nothing short of arrogance for Republicans to stand aloof and tell them that they are wrong. To do so would risk us appearing like the Jacobite faithful of old, passionately waiting for warships that existed only in our minds.

Surely the Democratically elected 1st Dail would not have wished for their adherents to stand, many decades after their passing, and evoke their monarchical title rights? And all because the electoral process was being presided over by the enemy (as was their own) all the while passing up on tangible opportunities to seriously weaken British rule in Ireland, if not end it?

Of course not! And, it is at this point where supporters of a Border Poll may start asking equally difficult questions of their critics.

Question 1. What should republicans be doing while a Border Poll is occurring? In all likelihood, a border poll is going to occur within the next few generations if not earlier; Brexit, demographics and public opinion make it a virtual certainty. Do republican opponents of the process suggest we simply stand aloof and wag our fingers at hundreds of thousands of progressive people in ‘the North’ determined to break out of the sectarian state in an opportunistic fashion? What would be revolutionary about that?

Question 2. What if we win? Serious question. If a border poll was successful and the Republican Left had been seen to stand aloof from the process which had secured Irish Unity, why would we then think we could credibly argue for a stake in new Irish society? Had Catalunya succeeded (and it may yet) then the left there would have been recognised as an integral part of what emerged, and precisely because they were part of the people’s momentum that had delivered independence. The Neo-Liberal right are already planning for their image of a post Border Poll United Ireland; for the left to abstain is absurd.

Question 3. Why should participation in a ‘Border Poll’ be viewed differently to any other Civil Rights campaign? Our parents and grandparents took to the streets to demand Civil Rights within the occupied six counties, to demand housing, jobs, the right to vote, and an end to Internment; Republicanism in its entirety backed them and rightly so. Today, Republicans in the six counties regularly utilise the courts system to secure further civil rights in terms of Judicial Review, appeal rights etc. Were those Civil Rights marchers “running with a begging bowl to the Brits” ? as Border Poll advocates have been colourfully referred to in some quarters in recent times? Why is the ultimate Civil Rights demand (an end to partition) any less honourable than the demands of past generations in ‘the North’?

Question 4. Why presume that advocating for Border Poll rules out other forms of struggle? Amazingly, some of the most vociferous opponents of the IRSP ‘Border Poll’ position, claim to admire the legacy of Seamus Costello. But Seamus himself made it very clear, on very many occasions, that his party should consider each and every tactic available, depending on their desirability at the time. Speaking of abstentionism from parliament he said to an American journalist “There are circumstances and conditions under which it might be desirable to abstain, and if we felt that it was tactically desirable at any particular point in time, in either the North or South, to abstain, then we would do so. That would depend, however, on the circumstances”. In the same interview he also said, “We see both parliamentary institutions in Ireland as institutions that have to be abolished if we are to make progress towards a Socialist Republic”.

Again, Seamus was making it Chrystal clear that Republican Socialists could and should utilise institutions of the state alongside all and any other forms of struggle in order to bring down the very same state, as per the suitability of the tactic at that time. The doctrine of Guerrilla Politics.

For the IRSP & ‘Yes for Unity’ that is exactly what they are doing. It suited in 1973 to abstain from a referendum on Irish Unity, but the factors which made ’73 unfavourable have without doubt shifted and may shift further if given the right push. In the meantime, the same people campaigning within ‘Yes for Unity’ remain active in and open to, every other form of political, socio-economic and agrarian struggle going as avenues to be explored on the long road to the Worker’s Republic. And if this road fails, those other political avenues will still be there, Guerrilla politics.

Much more can be said on the topic and no doubt will. Capitalism and the right are already attempting to monopolise momentums towards Irish reunification and ‘Yes for Unity’ are the only Socialist campaigning group in the field. For our part we intend to lobby those open to the concept of a referendum but to urge them to do so for the right reasons. The Left cannot afford to abstain from this fight to do so not only hands the field back to the British state (literally) but to the right wing, economically.

But let us never forget, that even following a successful Border Poll, national independence without Socialism will not be independence at all, this requires a further push to get Ireland out of the European Union as a necessary step towards creating a Socialist Republic, the IRSP are the only party in Ireland saying this and ‘Yes for Unity’ is confident in that analysis.

Time will tell, either way, considering all of the above, we have nothing to lose.

Ciarán Cunningham is a West Belfast republican


  1. The problem with a border poll is not whether it can be won — clearly that is now a possibility, though it is far from guaranteed. The problem is that the scope of political change a ‘Yes’ vote would enact has already been ring-fenced by the British state and its quisling garrison in Ireland, the Free State.

    Like the constitutional structure already in place, the border poll process and its intended outworking stands to usurp the sovereignty of the Irish Republic into the future, should the contrived vanguard that is the Unionist Veto fail to hold. The ‘agreed new Ireland’ it intends toward has been crafted as a forward bulwark between British position and the Irish Republic and is further down the road than many realise.

    In no way is that to detract from or undermine what is a genuine initiative by well-meant Republicans, who I respect. It’s to examine the realpolitik, as we are bound to, of what is being internalised the further they move towards outright support for the border poll construct. The IRSP and its emerging campaign still has much to consider before arriving on ‘terra firma’.

  2. Pip,

    this is a very useful contribution to political debate. Its strong point is that it is grounded in the situation as it is rather than what you would like it to be.
    Republicans can either engage the concept or engage their navels. My view is that republicans, if they are serious about dismantling the structures of partition, need to work at creating the political pressure to first bring a poll about and then to have it go their way. I sometimes refer to the French depiction of political inertia and ineffectualness: the relationship between republicanism and political change post GFA is like that of a cow standing in a field watching a train go by. The cow sees what is in front of it but has no bearing on anything the train might do.

    The misgivings expressed by Sean in the above comment and others can be taken on board but the thing still has to be tried. Outside of it what has republicanism to offer? It is marginalised, strategically sterile and seriously short sighted.

    What the border poll will not do is completely end British interference even though it will reduce it - the GFA has already guaranteed them that.

  3. Henry Joy says

    An infant, in the first instance, only develops ‘selfhood’ when he/she bumps up against what he or she is not. Otherwise how would infants’ brains ever learn to differentiate between where they end and where the world begins? Recognising and experiencing limitation is sine qua non to any successful developmental or maturation process. Alas, such processes only occur with pain and bruises.

    Whereas a majority of well-adjusted adults will intuitively get most of that, the ideologue regardless of persuasion just won’t get it at all.

    Should a reasonable and suitable time come for a border poll, Republicans can expect substantial constraints and limits applied to their aspirations. The majority will follow the Sinn Féin lead as per usual. The more theocratic the bent of those belonging to the Republican tradition the more difficult it will be for those comparative few to forego their idolised ‘Republic’. They in all likelihood will absent themselves from participation. However, in doing so in a tightly contested scenario they would risk drawing extensive opprobrium from the broader CRN community, particularly so were they to mount a counter-campaign of any significant impact. With what would surely be perceived as a ‘dog in the manger’ stance, wouldn’t they find themselves individually and collectively in somewhat of bind?

    For voters overall, the fruits of any proposed poll will have to appear succulent & appealing and will have to be presented accordingly. A positive vote for an ‘Agreed Ireland’ will be for the largest part dependent on a well-considered outcome having been carefully set forth. It will of necessity have to be a proposal that legitimately aspires to meeting with significant approval in divergent communities throughout both the Northern and the Southern States. It will have to address and satisfy the concerns of a substantial cohort of PUL’s. It’ll be a complex challenge and it won’t be easy to present a package acceptable to everyone’s taste. Therefore, expect it served up with large dollops of creative ambiguity.

    All in all, that seems to amount to a very tall order … therefore, I’m of an opinion that if a preordained and broadly acceptable proposal can’t be formulated then no poll, regardless of Brexit, is likely to be announced anytime soon.

  4. Excellent piece by pip. Any principled republican could not fault this campaign. Its well researched and well thought out. The timing is right and the climate is right. There are republicans out there that can't see past military action and scorn groups who offer anything else but military action but these republicans need to search deep into their souls and ask themselves some serious questions as to what it is they really want. As seamus costello himself never ruled out any means to achieve the overall goal. All options were open depending on the conditions of that time.
    This is not something any republican should dismiss. Every republican should involve themselves.

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