Karen Bradley and a reunited Ireland

They say that if voting changed anything, it would have banned years ago. There’s a a tiny nugget of truth in the claim, but mostly it’s bullgrit. If  voting changed nothing,  would the power to have a border referendum rest between the ears of  British Secretary of State Karen Bradley?

To say that she holds the power to call or not call a border poll shows how much the British want to keep control of the matter. The Secretary of State for our sick six counties has “a duty” to call a poll, but only when it appears to her that a majority of people would vote in favour of a united Ireland.

That last sentence is radioactive with implications. It’s not just the fact that  the slightly muddled Ms Bradley controls the timing of any border poll: she is under no requirement to tell us what criteria she’ll use to decide if the time is ripe. Will it be when opinion polls here all point to a desire for a reunited Ireland? Will it be when Ms Bradley has had a chat with the leaders of nationalism and republicanism and they tell her to get cracking? Will she wake up one morning, rub her eyes and decide that a border of any kind in Ireland is an eyesore and it’s high time it was removed? Could be any or all of these. No one knows.

But we do know that if she calls a border poll, for whatever reason, she must be convinced that those in favour of reunification will triumph.

Now there’s a biggie. If she calls such a  poll and nationalists/republicans do NOT win it, her judgement will be cursed by both nationalists/republicans and unionists as  flawed, and she’ll almost certainly get the boot.  But regardless of  which side wins,  the British Secretary of State’s announcement that a border poll will be another way of saying “I know it’s been eight hundred years, but we’re finally packing our bags and preparing to head home.”

How would knowing that fact make nationalist/republicans feel in the run-up to the poll?  It would give them a massive boost. What better incentive to visit the voting booth, when the British  have effectively concede that the day has come?  

And unionists? Well, we know that Arlene Foster will be packing her bags and moving elsewhere – or at least that’s what she’s on record as saying she’ll do. But – and I’ll bet you’re ahead of me here – there may very well be a small or even sizeable core of unionists/loyalists  who might opt for the reaction of their forefathers a century ago: violence and/or the threat of violence.

How should nationalists/republicans deal with this possibility?  Seamus Mallon has declared they  should back off. Any attempt to vote  a new Ireland into existence should be postponed until such time as there is a considerable body – maybe even a majority – of unionists who are prepared to give the nod to Irish unity.

Good man Seamus. With one tearing motion, you’ve shredded not just the border clause in the Good Friday Agreement but also the notion that  a democratic decision should be respected.

We know that our sick six counties were delivered by gunmen-midwives: Ulster will fight, unionists were assured, and Ulster willbe right. The rest of the UK might have wanted home rule for Ireland, but the hundreds of thousands of unionists who signed the Ulster Covenant swore they’d resist their own government to stop that happening. And a few years later  to reinforce the message, Lloyd George threatened immediate and terrible war if the Irish delegation didn’t sign the Treaty. In both cases physical force trumped democracy.

So unionism has form on this. Will the fear of a unionist backlash be sufficient to deter Karen Bradley or her successor from ever calling a poll? I hope not. Call me naïve, but I believe the great majority of unionists respect democracy. After all, that was the declared basis on which they resisted the IRA’s war during the 1970s, 1980s 1990s. Their argument was always that the democratic wishes of the people should face down the gunmen. Let’s hope that’s still their position.

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