EARLIER this year, David Trimble put forward the idea of a border poll in order to get himself out of a tricky situation. He wants to have a referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections in the North scheduled for May next year.
The elections will be crucial for the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
In order to get crucial legislation through in the Assembly cross community consent is required. Therefore, in theory, to keep the Agreement going there must be a unionist majority in favour of the agreement.
At the moment, that majority has all but disappeared. In order for David Trimble to get elected, some Alliance members re-designated themselves as Unionists to vote for him.
This was, of course, a perversion of the Agreement but, because we all want it to succeed, we all turned a blind eye to it. The DUP were outraged and are still pursuing the matter through the courts.
It now appears that the majority of Unionists in the North are opposed to the Agreement. If they vote with their hearts, then the DUP will not only control the effective functioning of the Assembly, but will occupy the First Minister’s chair as well. What happens then is anyone’s guess.
Now there is a large, passive, mostly middle class group of Unionists that are disengaged from the process and politics in general. They came out to vote for the Belfast Agreement but they stay away from general and assembly elections.
And this is why David Trimble wants a border poll. He believes that such a poll will motivate these Unionists out to vote and if the referendum is held on the same day as the Assembly elections they will also vote for the Ulster Unionist Party as well.
Good luck to him, you might say, if the strategy saves the Agreement.
When Trimble first proposed the idea back in March, few people took him seriously. But he has pursued the idea since then at the same time as the crisis in the North has deepened. Now it seems that Tony Blair is actively considering the plan as a means of shoring up Unionist confidence.
The Government doesn’t like it as it feels that a border poll can only lead to polarisation and that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
It is up to the British whether to call a poll or not. The legislation says that once called there can’t be another one for seven years. They might be tempted to call a referendum in order to let the Agreement bed down as the Unionist community loses its majority due to demographic changes.
So let’s be realistic, a plebiscite might well be in the offing. The problem for us southerners is this: what are the northerners going to be voting on?
Despite all the aspirations about a United Ireland there are actually no proposals on the table. The latest official document with such proposals is the report of the New Ireland Forum which was published in the mid-eighties.
The Forum report put forward three possible solutions from the Nationalist population on the island (although Sinn Fein weren’t involved): 1. Unitary State; 2. Federation or Confederation; 3. Joint Authority.
Now a unitary state is out as that would make no attempt to meet any Unionist concerns regarding their identity or special place on the island.
So we’re basically talking about some form of federation where both the Dail and the Assembly would continue as at present with an overall government with responsibility of external affairs.
That’s going to take compromises on all sides. It might require a change in the identity of the Irish state to recognise the British population on the island.
Specifically, it will require a referendum in the south as well as the north. More broadly, it will require us to think deeply about the very nature of our state and its identity.
So far, no one on this side of the border is doing or saying anything about this. Maybe we’re just hoping it will go away.
Well it won’t. At some point soon, even if it’s not next summer, there is going to be a border poll. We need to reconvene the New Ireland Forum to firm up what exactly we are talking about when we talk about a United Ireland. Chief among those proposals will be the need to impress on the Unionist population that there is no doomsday scenario looming as far as their position and tradition on this island is concerned.
As for us, just how many days a year would we agree to the Union Jack flying over the GPO?