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Unionism will likely face a border poll at a point in the next 10 years. The decision to call for such a poll will not be the start of a process but effectively the culmination of a process which has been developing for some years. Under the guise of “Irelands Future” or “New Ireland” republicans and nationalists have been preparing the groundwork for the referendum campaign for some time and with significant unrestricted financial support.
It is currently the case that neither republicans or unionists have a clear majority to guarantee success in a near future poll, but several factors must be considered, demographic changes favour republicanism and they are not in a rush, they do not want to expedite a poll they may lose instead preferring to wait until victory is assured. Neither will the UK Government or Irish Government wish to create a Brexit II scenario where a result creates uncertainty about what follows. Hence a significant investment in preparation for transition will be undertaken by both Governments.
Within the calculation of when to hold a border poll is the future voting intention of the fifteen percent. Roughly that figure represents those less inclined to be influenced by constitutional considerations and more by the idea of something better than what society currently delivers for them and their families. Their aspirations are not wrong, nor flawed, indeed that aspiration should be at the heart of every political movement. This cohort do have concerns that some political parties, primarily unionist, will support a lower standard of living, a lower quality of life in return for constitutional certainty.
The importance of this is illustrated by the nature of the campaign already being conducted. Republicans have the technical, financial and human resources to focus on the fifteen percent. The “Vote Leave” campaign of 2016 showed what could be achieved with data management and focussed message targeting, 6 years later the technology available and the understanding of how to target specific groups has moved on immeasurably.
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For that fifteen percent those seeking their support will understand their hopes, dreams and aspirations, not just for themselves but for their children. In general, where they live, where they work and socialise, where their children go to school, what programmes they watch, what social media they use, what news they watch, who in public life they follow and listen to are all part of the profiling that has been developed to underpin the “New Ireland” mantra.
On the 1st October 2022 Irelands Future will hold, what is billed as, Irelands biggest ever United Ireland conference. It’s not for Republicans, though they will be there and active, the target audience is the fifteen percent. Guest speakers will include Rev Karen Sethuraman, James Nesbitt, Matt Cooper, Colm Meaney, while Amanda Ferguson will chair a discussion. Names and personalities designed to assure the fifteen percent that change will be positive, they will sell a vision of a land of milk and honey, peace and prosperity, a land where all are welcome. They will be supported by former unionists such as Ben Collins promoting the transition that will lead to a border poll and based on the current trajectory its inevitable outcome.
Unionist response will inevitably be negative, denouncing any vision, any aspiration and driving the fifteen percent further into the orbit of those selling ambition.
An attempt to counter the New Ireland narrative has been launched by Dame Arlene Foster called Together UK. It falters at the first step by adopting the name of a Mental Health charity which has been in existence for 140 years. It continues to stumble by failing to understand the challenges it faces, selling the benefits of the UK today will convince no-one who is interested in seeking something better. Having Dame Arlene front the campaign may well appeal to some committed unionists but will do nothing to appeal to the fifteen percent. While republicanism seeks to attract support for their vision by promoting those who are followed by and will influence the centre, unionism promotes a hard-right former politician, now commentator for a right-wing media outlet who doesn’t do detail.
The reality is that whereas unionists will in the future prepare and fight a campaign based on numbers others are currently fighting a campaign based on ideas. Currently unionists will wait until a border
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poll is inevitable, they will form a committee, there will be flags, posters (Ulster says No), parades and rallies and not a single idea of how to convince the fifteen percent that there is a better future in the Union. Unionism has not begun to understand the nature of the challenge it faces, never mind turn to face it.
That doesn’t mean that unionism has lost but it does mean that a radical rethinking of how we sustain the union is vital. Those who are yet undecided will be influenced by a series of push/pull factors some within the control of unionism, some not. Each factor needs to be considered not on its impact in the short-term nor to the individual benefit of political parties but on the long-term impact on the ultimate future of the union. Some examples are listed, not an exhaustive list and there will be events over the next few years that are as yet unforeseen but will have impact.
The current Conservative Government gives every indication of being an administration which can push people away from the union, their ideology across a broad range of societal issues will cause many in the centre to question their attachment to a union with such a political direction. Replacing them with a more centrist government will eventually address this and should act as a pull factor, however whether that is enough to change the minds of those in their late teens/early twenties who will be already be considering an alternative way to meet their aspirations is an unknown.
The expected elevation of Sinn Fein to Government in the Republic may be either a push factor, they show an inability to govern and lower living standards and expectations, or alternatively a pull factor as they make things work to the extent that people are attracted to the society they begin to create.
Northern Ireland’s current political reality is a push factor, those who aspire to a better quality of life see the current impasse as a sign that things will not improve. Whatever the short-term political advantage for some unionist parties the medium to long term result will be the erosion of support for the status quo and an aspiration for something better. Herein lies an uncomfortable reality for unionism. It has been easy to cast all of the blame for the Protocol and its outworking at the feet of the EU and the Irish Government, the alternative is difficult to contemplate. The Protocol was an
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agreed position between the EU and the UK, a UK Government whose civil servants consider medium to long term implications of such agreements, specifically what steps would facilitate the transition post a border poll result leading to the end of the Union. It would be naïve to expect that only foreign civil servants plan ahead for a range of outcomes.
Those who seek a libertarian, fundamentalist Protestant Ulster facilitate the push against the Union while they are seen to lead Unionism. If theirs is the only vision of the Union on offer then it will be rejected by an increasing number of voters. While a unionism focussed on more centre ground politics would attract a wider support from the fifteen percent and hopefully soft nationalists if the loudest voice is wrapped in a flag and seen to be reducing the quality of life of our citizens then any hope of moving forward within the United Kingdom is limited.
Only a unionism capable of recognising the battle we are already in and reacting appropriately by creating a vision of a new union encompassing change which secures not just Northern Irelands place in the Union but Scotland and Wales as well can succeed. That means building new partnerships with unionist centrists across the UK setting a new vision which excites and motivates the electorate. It also means an acceptance that some in unionism are a threat to the Union as they present a view of society that a majority do not share. While some of these individuals will see themselves leading the campaign for the union, in reality the higher their profile the lower the chance of success. The desire to seek an alternative leaves many in the fifteen percent open to the “New Ireland” mantra.
Too few unionists recognise the threat or the actions needed to counter it, too many listen to the loudest voices and want to follow the band. Changing that mindset will require a level of political activism unionism has not been capable of for many generations. To win we must convince ourselves of a better union before we can hope to convince others.
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