On his personal blog, Gerry Adams has asserted that there should not be a border poll in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland until there is a cogent plan for what a united Ireland would actually mean in practice. In his view, we all learned a lesson from Brexit: “A referendum without a plan is stupid.” Maybe there should be a border poll in the near future, but Adams doesn’t make a terribly convincing case in his blog post.
Certainly, the debacle in the aftermath of the Brexit vote has shown Adams to be correct that there should be a clearly defined plan in place in the event of a vote for Irish unity. He also said that it is the “duty” of the government of the Republic of Ireland to plan for that poll and the potential result of a vote in favor of Irish unity. To support his optimistic claim that Ireland is on the verge of voting for unity and an exit from the UK, Adams cited data fro the 2011 Northern Ireland census. Specifically, he notes that only 48% of respondents in Northern Ireland self-identified as British; a professor who examined the results noted that there is a “measurable trend” towards a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland. Adams seems quite optimistic that those two ideas combined translate into a majority in favor of Irish unity.
I’m not so sure. A look at the summary report from the 2011 census (found here) shows that only 25.26% of the population self-identified as “Irish only” and 20.94% of the population identified as “Northern Irish only.” That’s about 68% of the population that does not self-identify as Irish. There are other statistics with smaller numbers for people who self-identify as more than one of these three groups. But I think the statistic for “Irish only” is important: only ¼ of the population of Northern Ireland believes itself to be exclusively Irish. An additional 2.74% of people include “Irish” in their self-identity, along with another category.
From these statistics, it’s impossible to determine how people will vote in a border poll. Adams is certainly too optimistic in his blog post. That doesn’t mean a border poll shouldn’t happen though–certainly it should happen in the next few years; indeed, wouldn’t it make sense to hold a poll on a periodic basis, with other elections?
But what of the notion that Éire is duty-bound to plan for unity? What does such a plan entail?
Safe guards for Unionists are essential, but I foresee the fear of persecution being greatly exaggerated. Adams notes, too, that dialogue must exist to make Unionists feel as though they will be safe and their rights will be protected in a united Ireland. Éire is an increasingly diverse country, and I see no reason why northern Unionists/Protestants would be persecuted–indeed, if anyone has anything to fear, it’s non-Irish immigrants to the island, based on deep-seeded prejudices that are not unique to Ireland. Éire is a liberal democracy that is not dominated by the Catholic hierarchy, and I have every reason to believe that Unionists will be welcomed.
The exchequer also requires great planning. Currently, the North receives a millions of pounds per year from the UK purse, and it could lose that money upon Irish unity. In theory, it would lose that money. Might there be a plan to slowly ween the North off of British money? Also: what of the civil servants in the North who will probably lose their jobs when a single government takes over?
Adams doesn’t seem to have considered money in his call on the government of the Republic of Ireland to prepare for Irish unity with a detailed plan. He’s right that a plan is necessary, but I think perhaps many people in Éire would object to putting money toward that when there is a housing crisis; rural populations lack access to the Internet; and a massive percentage of people want the government to take meaningful action to help stem the tide of climate change. Plus, by most accounts the British NHS is far superior to healthcare available in the South, and I don’t imagine northerners want to give that up–so surely the South will have to pour a lot of money into improving health services. That’s a lot of work already, and all of that costs money. Will the people of the Republic want to allocate valuable resources toward planning for Irish unity? Maybe, but I definitely don’t think I’d bet my house on it. (And on this subject, the statistics Adams gives for the percentage of people in the South who favor Irish unity is somewhat absurd in its interpretation, even if the raw numbers are accurate.)
So now to address the optimism Adams expressed about the triumph of Irish unity in the event of a border poll. If we can return to the comparison with Brexit for a moment: we are left with the question, “If there had been a plan for Brexit-ing and post-Brexit UK, would the people still have voted to leave the European Union?” Maybe the plan would have resulted in a greater number of people supporting Brexit, as they could have been reassured of their economic security in advance of the vote. But, on the other hand, maybe tangible details would have scared people in the UK and eliminated much of the vote for Brexit that was essentially “protest” vote. We have no way to know, but I think this possibility is possible for an Irish-unity vote, too. Plans for unity may be comforting and reassuring, or they might scare people. So again, I think people who foresee Irish unity on the immediate horizon (that is, within a couple of years) are overly optimistic–particularly if Brexit never pans out at all (October is the next deadline).
On this note: will Sinn Féin support membership in the EU in the event of Irish unity? Sinn Féin is historically opposed to the European Union, because, as per the party name that translates to “ourselves,” they want the island of Ireland for the people of Ireland, and therefore oppose intervention from Brussels. I think Sinn Féin needs to do a bit of soul-searching itself as they push for a border poll and plans for unity–and let the Irish people know exactly what their vision is, as the most vocal advocates for reunited the island.