The GFA and not upsetting unionism

This blog first appeared as a column in the Andersonstown News

The  southern media often seem to use a fuzzy lens when looking at the north-eastern part of Ireland. They find this place hard to comprehend and so does much of the southern population. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. Had Britain maintained jurisdiction over six counties in, say, Munster, rather than six counties in Ulster, we probably wouldn’t be too good at understanding life as they lived it.

But what’s done is done, and the south’s understanding or lack of understanding these days clusters  around one core problem : partition.  Given that partition has been with us for nearly one hundred years now, can we say that it has outlived its usefulness, if it ever was useful?  We can if we implement a key feature of the Good Friday Agreement: a border poll.

The Good Friday Agreement requires that a border poll must be called  “if at any time it appears likely to him [the British Secretary of State] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

This is such an appallingly subjective clause, it’s hard to see how it got into the Good Friday Agreement in the first place. But since a border poll clearly rests on the thinking of the British SoS, let’s try to read what thoughts may be tumbling about in the SoS’s  head.

The southern media and most nationalists and republicans in the north believe that the 2021 census returns will be a key factor in helping the SoS make up his/her mind . The expectation is that the census will record, for the first time, a momentous fact: the number of Catholics living in the north outweighs  the number of Protestants living here. 

However, the fact that someone is Catholic or from a Catholic background does not necessarily mean that they favour a united Ireland, or if they’re Protestant that they favour maintaining the Union.  For this reason, the Alliance Party and the views of its members may be crucial in any poll. The fall-out from Brexit will also be a key factor – the EU has already made clear that a reunited Ireland would automatically become a member of the EU.

But the British SoS will be slow to trigger a border poll for two reasons: one, because he/ she is the BRITISH Secretary of State, and thus favours the status quo, not Irish unity.  When and if s/he calls a poll, it will be, as the quotation above shows, because s/he believes that the border poll results will be likely to favour Irish reunification. Rest assured of this: the British SoS will be slow to fire the border poll starting pistol, knowing that to do so will be to demonstrate their belief that  a majority here favour Irish reunication.

It’s at this point that things could get messy. At the back of every mind in Ireland, there is a nagging question: how will unionists respond if the vote favours reunification? Or more bluntly: will there be a violent loyalist backlash?

The late Seamus Mallon believed that a backlash would happen; hence he urged caution about calling a border poll. The present Dublin government think along similar lines. They’ve set up a unit within the department of the Taoiseach, to examine how “a shared island” might be best achieved. However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has made it clear there will be no holding of a border poll during this government’s term of office – the next four years roughly.

Unfortunately, the Dublin government and few in the southern media seem to realise what a loyalist backlash means. Simply put, a loyalist backlash tears up the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement makes clear that constitutional change will be effected when a majority in the north want it. Holding back from calling a poll because a section of unionism mightn’t like it runs completely contrary to the GFA. And to any respect for democracy.

Many southern voices urge caution about calling a border poll, since the results might be unacceptable to a violent minority within a minority. Maybe these men and women of caution should turn the coin and consider the other side: would a permanent loyalist veto which shreds the GFA be acceptable to a nationalist majority?

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