There’s no demand for a Border Poll in NI, but that doesn’t mean the Union is safe

There’s no demand for a Border Poll in NI, but that doesn’t mean the Union is safe

by Owen Polley
article from Wednesday 31, March, 2021

IN NORTHERN IRELAND, the most reliable opinion polls show consistent support for the Union with Great Britain. So why has overheated chatter about the province’s absorption by the Irish republic barely ceased for five years? Since Britain decided to leave the EU, few days have passed without a slew of radio phone-in debates and newspaper columns claiming a ‘border poll’ is just round the corner. 

Primarily, it’s because a small band of dedicated separatists are working hard to portray their campaign for an all-Ireland state as a ‘conversation’. Their efforts are rewarded by pliant media outlets, like BBC Northern Ireland, that are happy to fill hours of current affairs broadcasting with this fabricated debate. The topic is divisive and emotive, so it’s guaranteed to get people picking up their phones or taking to Twitter to provide a reaction. 

Unfortunately, there’s also a small group of unionist commentators and politicians who are naïve or disingenuous enough to give nationalists cover for the idea that their deliberations are inclusive. What kind of people are they engaging with? 

Ireland’s Future is one group that organises a steady stream of events “promoting discussion and debate about a new constitutional vision for our island”. It claims it “welcomes people from all political persuasions” and it’s “not affiliated to any political party”, yet most of its board is either involved with Sinn Fein or close to its campaigns. 

It’s impossible to deny that the discussion about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future intensified after Brexit. The referendum result had barely been declared when pro-EU liberals, the Dublin government, and Irish separatists from Ulster began campaigning to keep the province under Brussels’ economic jurisdiction, even while the UK left the single market and customs union. 

The government eventually capitulated to these demands, detaching Northern Ireland from the British internal market on which its economy depends. Even now, liberals and nationalists refuse to acknowledge the devastating consequences that these arrangements, agreed under the Northern Ireland Protocol, have for businesses here. 

Though they claim otherwise, the truth is that they were never concerned primarily with the province’s economic welfare. Their support for ‘special status’, the ‘backstop’ and eventually the protocol was always more to do with political allegiance then trade, pragmatism or even ‘peace’. 

Irish separatists in Northern Ireland saw it as a way to edge the province toward an “all-Ireland economy”, which had previously been a nationalist myth, and increase Dublin’s influence over the north. Even the most moderate of the Republic’s governments, while they would be horrified if they had to take responsibility for NI’s finances or security any time soon, have assumed they should have a say in its politics. This nationalist supposition has persisted despite the Belfast Agreement explicitly forbidding Dublin’s interference in the province’s internal affairs. 

Northern Ireland’s professed liberal party, Alliance, feels an allegiance to Brussels that seems to trump the day-to-day interests of Ulster’s people and businesses. Rather than lobbying for the protocol to be applied with a light touch, it demanded its ‘rigorous’ implementation and lectured the government about ‘international obligations’ when Lord Frost extended grace periods to keep food moving into NI. Its suggestions for overcoming trade barriers amount to demands that the whole UK realigns with EU rules. 

On Saturday, Alliance’s lone MP, Stephen Farry, spoke at the conference of the European Movement, which has attempted to get ‘rejoiners’ to coalesce around one campaign. In an example of the party’s cloudy internationalism, he told his own party conference, “my vision is a world governed by international rule of law and social justice, with a prominent role for the UN and a focus on personal security.” It’s the type of naive gibberish that would embarrass an A-Level politics student, but Alliance feels qualified to expound on the government’s ‘outdated’ view of sovereignty.   

Northern Ireland’s future in the Union is uncertain, but that’s not principally because of the direct challenge from a ‘border poll’ or endless discussions about a ‘new Ireland’, which the very worst aspects of the ‘old Ireland’ seem determined to shape. The uncertainty comes from the increasing influence of a cohort that feels it is above allegiance to a nation state, and its tendency to be manipulated by dedicated and fanatical Irish separatists, who disguise their timeworn demands with new, ‘progressive’ jargon. 

There is no serious justification for a border poll in Northern Ireland or any widespread desire for constitutional change. Unfortunately though, the Northern Ireland Protocol shows that Northern Ireland can be levered away from the rest of the UK without the need for democratic consent.  

If the government and unionists are not alive to this ongoing danger, the province’s Britishness could be eroded gradually, so that it becomes little more than a formality whether it is part of the UK, the Republic of Ireland or something in between. 

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Owen Polley is a writer and commentator from Northern Ireland, who contributes to many newspapers, websites and magazines. He co-presents the podcast, PoliticalOD @3000Versts  

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