“Be careful what you wish for”. That was Arlene Foster’s response to the Sinn Féin push for a border poll. Mind you, that was some time ago – when Brexit was just a small dark spot on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s fist. Now, it might be more a case of “Be careful what you tell people to be careful about, Arlene”.
That’s because Brexit has changed the way a lot of people think – and it hasn’t even happened yet. So things are, as they say, fluid.
But let’s look at the possible Brexit outcomes and hazard a guess about what effect each might have on a border poll.
- By some remarkable political gymnastics, the British House of Commons manages to agree on a (new) package of withdrawal terms and the E27 accepts those terms and those terms, despite the declared opposition of the DUP, include the backstop – continuing invisible border in Ireland – what effect might that have on the desire for a border poll? My guess is that it’d diminish the volume of voices raised for a border poll. There are a considerable number of people – and they’re not all unionists – who would be happy to have things stay as they are. That might not necessarily be because they are devout British subjects. It might well be the law of inertia, which says that people tend to resist change. That’s why people stick with their present bank, even when it’s not treating them very well.
- The Remain campaign get a second referendum and win it. How would that affect border poll aspirations? I’d guess that this too would have a damping effect on border poll aspirations. We’d remain within the EU, we’d have the European Court to appeal to if the Brits started treating us too badly. British jurisdiction would remain in place but we’ve had eight hundred years of that and we’ve managed.
- The British House of Commons can’t come up with an agreed withdrawal package, it is seen as impossible for a range of reasons to hold a second referendum, and Britain crashes out of the EU – oops, exits the EU and starts using World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. That would, I’d guess, be economically disastrous. It’d be like cutting off all electricity indefinitely. People might learn to manage, but it’d be an appallingly painful experience and even when it became tolerable it’d still be godawful. And how might that affect desire for a border poll? I’d say it would ramp it up considerably. People who’d never had any aspiration to Irish unity would suddenly begin looking at it as a very possible option. A hard Brexit would, of course, damage the south’s economy, but my guess is the south would not fare as badly as the UK in the post-crash-out world. They’d still be members of the EU, with all the advantages that allows. People in the north, including erstwhile unionists, would look at the benefits enjoyed by the south and denied us here, and the pressure for a border poll would become very, very strong. And chances are it’d be carried in favour of Irish unity. (Remember, the British Secretary of State can only call a border poll when he or she thinks that it is likely to be won by Irish unity people.)
So should we nationalists and republicans pray for a hard Brexit? Mmm – maybe. It’d be an enormous fillip for a new Ireland – but don’t assume the other outcomes wouldn’t have a favourable side to them also. They would, but maybe not so fast. The more Ireland in its entirety – north and south – has the same economic system, the more people will begin to see political unity as the logical outcome.Add to that the growth in the Catholic/Nationalist/republican population, and even the first option above – an agreed package of withdrawal terms – would make the case for Irish unity.
So there you have it. Hard or soft Brexit, or no Brexit at all: all three options have within them the seeds of a border poll and Irish unity.
These are not good days for tight-lipped unionism.