It’s amazing what you read in the papers. In a column last week headed ‘Should we be preparing for an Irish Border Poll?’, Prof Pete Shirlow, late of this parish and now director of the Liverpool Institute of Irish Studies, answers his own question with a resounding No.
His argument, when boiled down, is the you-can’t-eat-a-flag argument which John Hume’s da fed his son. Not that Shirlow uses that catchy term: he prefers to deal in facts.
“The facts on the ground suggest a third option, a kind of middle way, one that reflects the reality of lives lived on the island rather than any abstract ideals or history interdependence.”
He cites The University of Liverpool Northern Ireland General Election survey, carried out in January 2020, which found that “a mere 5 per cent stated constitutional issues [mattered], compared with more than 80 per cent who chose education, health, jobs and the economy.”
He goes on to speak of the people in NEI “who were dragged through a barbaric conflict and who listen daily to commentators and politicians arguing about constitutional and legacy issues, but never about jobs and investment.”
Pete old bean, a word in your shell-like: it’s possible to chew gum and walk at the same time. Radio Liverpool may not carry it, but here in North(east)ern Ireland (NEI), we are continually listening to politicians and commentators talking about the many trading and commercial problems that Brexit has presented us with. At the same time, the oncoming rumble of a border poll is frequently discussed and the impetus that Brexit has given to it.
Towards the end of his article, Shirlow makes a bold statement: “For those who are pro-union, greater North-South connection can render the Border so invisible that the desire for unification will abate”.
I suppose that’s possible. You increase everyday unity in terms of trade and commerce, the desire for political re-unification seems an unnecessary extra. But I still remember the words of my old History teacher, when we were studying nineteenth-century European History: “It’s when tyrants begin to loosen their grip and allow for a greater degree of freedom – that’s when their days are numbered.”
If Prof Pete were to look north of Liverpool to Scotland, he might find a contemporary version of that warning. In 1979, the Scottish National Party was a fairly right-wing, not-particularly-popular political party. Then a regional parliament was conceded, the SNP rose in popularity and the Scottish people got a taste of what it was like to rule themselves. The result is today, the Scots are not seeing political independence from the UK as unnecessary. Quite the reverse: there is a strong expectation that 2022 will see a Scottish independence referendum, and, according to repeated Scottish polls, it is a referendum that will be won by those favouring independence.
If the Scots can walk and chew gum at the same time, can the Irish not do likewise? Face it, Pete: an awwwwwful lot more than 5% of Irish people want to fly their 32-county flag. Not eat it.