Well. That was interesting. And fun. I’m talking about the debate about/discussion of a (re)united Ireland in Strabane last night. There was what looked to me like a full house to hear the various speakers, including Minister of Education John O’Dowd and a brace of senators from the other side of the border: Senator Jimmy Harte from Donegal and Senator Mark Daly from Kerry. There were two representatives of unionism - Paul Wyatt from NI21 and Terry Wright from ConservativesNI. And last but a long way from least, Joe Byrne from the SDLP. Your humble scribe was in the chair ordering people about. For two solid hours the discussion continued, passionate at times but never tedious. The audience required no prompting to fire sharp, sometimes jagged questions.
So - did it solve anything? No. But that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to raise issues for and against the reunification of Ireland and yes, there was an imbalance between nationalists/republicans and unionists, but guess why? Because the Ulster Unionists and the DUP chose to send no one to present their views. Despite that, a great range of issues were raised. Here’s the five I found most interesting.
- The famous Belfast Telegraph poll which showed that just 3.8% of the northern population care about a united Ireland got a fairly severe mauling. For a start, as Senator Mark Daly pointed out, given that the margin of error in such polls is + or - 3%, that would lead to the conclusion that maybe NOBODY in the north wants a united Ireland. Er, shome mishtake shurely? A woman in the audience cited figures which suggesting a minority of people in the north now view themselves as British. Conclusion: opinion polls like these are in the end a waste of time. To borrow a cliché, there’s only one poll that counts.
- The main reason cited for not holding a border poll seemed to be that it would annoy loyalists and unionists. Think about that for a minute. We won’t hold something that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement in case it would upset a particular group of people: that is, the kind of person who was outraged at ‘our flag’ being ‘ripped down’ and used stones and bottles and other missiles to support their argument. As one of the panel pointed out, all those involved with the Good Friday Agreement committed themselves to pursuing their political goals through peaceful means. So should an implicit threat of violence from a minority within unionism be enough to make the idea of a border poll a non-starter? Because that’s what we’re saying when we say in effect “Oh no, don’t hold a border poll now, that might well inflame/upset loyalists!”
- It’s past time we started looking at exactly what a reunited Ireland would cost. To do that, we need to know not just the size of the block grant of, what is it, £10.5 billion? We also need to know (i) how much of that £10.5 billion actually comes here and doesn’t wander off elsewhere en route; (ii) how much do we pay into the coffers of Westminster. John O’Dowd claims that the Treasury in London is refusing to cough up exact figures regarding both these matters. Until we get answers to these two questions - and they are simply questions of fact, not opinion - then it’s next to pointless talking about how much better or worse off financially we’d be in a reunited Ireland.
- Should we be thinking of a united Northern Ireland before we start talking about a united Ireland? At least one member of the audience thought we should. Certainly the Stormont Executive is riven with splits of various kinds, as was evidenced by some of what Joe Byrne had to say. But maybe those splits are the product of a state that’s finding it harder and harder to explain what it’s for. And which may have an even harder time justifying its stand after the Scottish referendum next year.
- The debate last night was a precursor of the Strabane/Lifford mini-referendum on a united Ireland, to be held inside the next few weeks. My initial reaction to such polls -this one and the one in the Crossmaglen region - was that they’re obviously held in strongly republican areas, so what’s the point? I'm not so sure any more. Even the experience of participating in such a poll puts the notion of a real border poll firmly into the public consciousness. You may agree with it or disagree but it’s hard to avoid thinking about it, for or against.
In summary, we need two things: clear, unambiguous, independently-verified information about the actual size of the block grant and the size of the tax money which goes out of here each year; and more discussion like last night, where we think about our reasons for supporting union with Britain and reasons for not supporting union with Britain. Maybe London will continue to keep a padlock on the required information. Maybe after all our discussion we’ll still be as far apart on the constitutional question. But we owe it to ourselves to get the information and then make a judgement.