There seems to have been a lot of political frenzy recently when a LucidTalk poll concluded that two-thirds of voters in Northern Ireland believe there should be a vote over its place in the United Kingdom, but only 37 per cent want it to take place within the next five years.
One interpretation of these findings is that about one-third of voters want a border poll by 2026, but there is - according to the LucidTalk findings - a seven-point lead for Northern Ireland remaining in the Union should any vote take place (49 per cent said they wanted to remain in the UK; 42 per cent backed Irish Unity).
But the real issue which those in favour of Irish Unity will have to address is - who pays for unification? Will the British Government pay 1919 German-style ‘reparations’ for being on the island for over eight centuries; will the Dublin government in Leinster House (the Dail) foot the bill for a 32-county Ireland; will the European Union empty the eurozone to foot the bill (given that Northern Ireland voted ‘remain’ in the 2016 EU membership referendum), or will it be a combination of all three?
Whatever the faults of the Westminster Government, the British social benefits system is one of the most lucrative in Western Europe. Why else would the Irish community in Britain be one of the largest ethnic groups in the entire UK?
Will Leinster House guarantee the same standard of living which many in Sinn Fein Westminster constituencies of North and West Belfast now enjoy? Does Sinn Fein seriously think the Dail will pass economic legislation in the event of an Irish Unity vote in Northern Ireland to ensure that all the DLA and PIPS benefits continue unabated?
In spite of Northern Ireland’s NHS having the worst waiting lists in the UK, the care, professionalism and dedication of Northern Ireland’s NHS staff is currently free of charge at the point of entry. The same cannot be said of health care in the Republic where patients have to pay fees to see doctors and dentists, and even calling out the fire service costs money. It begs the question, is the Republic heading towards an American health system whereby the first thing doctors will check is not your pulse, but your insurance policy?
When the famous Celtic Tiger economy collapsed a number of years ago, it was British pounds via the EU which got the Republic’s economy afloat again.
Supposing within the next five years, the effects of Brexit and the pandemic have equally detrimental consequences for the Southern Irish economy, will the EU have the ready cash for another bailout package?
With the UK now firmly out of the EU, could the Republic now find itself mainly as a ‘giver’ of money to the EU rather than the bountiful years as a ‘receiver’ of European funding?
The LucidTalk poll was also dire reading for Unionism, with Sinn Fein at 25 per cent currently odds-on to become the largest party in the Assembly at the next scheduled election in May 2022. Sinn Fein’s current Executive partner, the Democratic Unionist Party, has slumped to 13 per cent support - ironically trailing behind rivals the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party on 16 per cent and even the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party on 14 per cent.
The big problem for Unionism is not how to sell the Union to soft nationalists and middle of the road voters, but how to sell the benefits of the Union to Unionist voters themselves! Unionism’s biggest opponent is pro-Union voter apathy.
Put bluntly, Unionism has become a minority political ideology in Northern Ireland if the last three elections are taken into consideration. How would the Orange/Green map of Northern Ireland change if the Unionist parties could compromise on agreed candidates and mobilised their support base to actually come to the polling booths and vote?
British politics needs an Australian-style of mandatory voting. How would that six-county map be altered if all 18 Westminster constituencies registered turnouts in excess, for example, of 97 per cent rather than around 60 per cent? Indeed, pre-Covid, one council by-election in a strongly Unionist area registered a turnout of only around 25 per cent.
On selling the Union to Northern Ireland voters, Unionists need to push the economic benefit system of the UK.
Unionism’s real challenge over the next five years - if we took the LucidTalk poll as an indicator of a poll on Irish Unity - are the long-term financial effects of Brexit and especially the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Scenario one - what happens if Unionism cannot get the Protocol scrapped or even diluted and the Northern Ireland economy collapses?
Scenario two - what happens to Unionism’s warnings about the dangers to the constitution posed by the Protocol, if in economic terms, that Protocol actually works and the Northern Ireland economy mushrooms?
Scenario three - what happens if Brexit wrecks the Southern Irish economy and it becomes another banana republic with yet another Celtic Tiger collapse? Could we see another Anglo-Irish Treaty which involves an even closer working and political relationship between Southern Ireland and the UK?
Scenario four - the Celtic Tiger economy rides out the storm of both the pandemic and Brexit to become one of the most financially lucrative members of the EU.
Besides, is there not a strong degree of unification at the moment with the North South Ministerial Council and the vast range of cross-border bodies? Maybe it’s not a case of Irish Unity via the back door, but British Rule across the island via the back door of these bodies?
Sinn Fein may be rejoicing over its 25 per cent showing in the LucidTalk poll, but it should remember that at the last Dail election - in spite of Sinn Fein’s impressive tally of TDs - the two main republican parties in the South (Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) formed an historic coalition to keep Sinn Fein out of power.
Fianna Fail and Fine Gael may aspire to Irish Unity, but does either party really want that 25 per cent of Sinn Fein voters influencing all-island elections?
Besides, what’s the point of having a Sinn Fein party if Irish Unity has been achieved? Look what happened to the Referendum Party when then British PM David Cameron announced an EU referendum; and where are Ukip and the Brexit Party now that the UK has left the EU?
Maybe the proverb which nationalists and republicans should observe is - be careful what you wish for!
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.