What would a referendum on Irish unity look like?

“You see Ukip taking off, disapproval of the EU going down,” said [former Ukip MP Douglas] Carswell. ‘It’s a direct correlation…’ The party’s image was hurting the chances of Brexit. He could also see that Downing Street would do all they could to promote [Nigel] Farage and Ukip as the face of the ‘Out’ campaign.

From Tim Shipman’s book, All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class (2016)

DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed last week that Sinn Féin has no interest in restoring devolution. Some commentators have agreed, noting that for Sinn Féin, the focus is now on securing a referendum on Irish unity as soon as possible. The SDLP made the same calls shortly after the Brexit vote, and last week the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement produced a report entitled Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity. A trend – if not yet a movement – is beginning to form.

Recommendation six in the Uniting Ireland report notes that “lessons from other referendums need to be learned to ensure that the Irish Government fulfils its constitutional obligations.” However, it is the practical lessons from the Brexit campaign that could be of interest should a referendum be called over the border situation in Ireland.

This is the era of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit. I hardly need to repeat Michael Gove’s thoughts on experts, although I will note Nelson McCausland’s “whatever sort of border there is, the fact is we are going to be out of Europe and I welcome that”.

Politics has become more gut than head – particularly for the big questions. More than the message itself, a messenger can win or lose campaigns. And in Northern Ireland we have two distinct messages and distinctly polarised messengers in Sinn Féin and the DUP.

This polarisation has been shown most acutely in the currently failing talks process. Should any border poll be held in the near future – although non-party groups would be formed to argue each side – it is the DUP and Sinn Féin whose voices would be the most prominent.

So how would that impact on the wider debate?

There will inevitably be those whose minds are already made up – just as in the Brexit vote – and if we assume that all those who voted for Sinn Féin, SDLP and independent nationalists/republicans would vote for a united Ireland, they would still have to persuade people from “the other side” – or those who don’t already vote – to tip the balance in their favour.

For the unionists, they would have the supposed benefit of arguing for the status quo, and the tried and tested “vote for us or you’ll get Gerry Adams” would be an effective starting point.

It’s that bogeyman, rogue, renegade and even crocodile which Sinn Féin has been portrayed as which may make all the difference in any border poll. Just as the Remain side in the Brexit referendum tried – yet failed – to promote Nigel Farage et al as the face of the Out campaign, the unionist side would inevitably promote Sinn Féin as the face of a united Ireland.

For all the work Sinn Féin have done in recent years, reaching out to unionists and wider society – things like Martin McGuiness shaking the hands with the Queen, the wider promotion of LGBT rights or the uniform denouncement action of dissident republicans – for many people in Northern Ireland, their past and their continued support of that past could be a turn-off.

For every reasoned argument promoting a united Ireland, or stating how remaining in the UK might make the people of Northern Ireland worse off, unionists need only remind voters of the IRA’s campaign of terror; play a tape of Michelle O’Neill speaking at the remembrance of the IRA men killed at Loughgall; remind voters of Gerry Kelly’s escape from jail, or question the past of Gerry Adams.

Those will be the voices of the republicans’ campaign, and as much as it would be ad hominem, or a strawman as much as a bogeyman, it is an effective tactic.

Vote Leave – as the designated Out group of the Brexit vote – were able to marginalise Farage and Ukip from the mainstream campaign through good strategy, sacrifice, hard work and sometimes just good luck. This helped them win.

I doubt Sinn Féin would allow themselves to be marginalised from a border poll in such a way. They would inevitably make up the bulk of any official united Ireland collective. But might that – ultimately – be the downfall of their campaign?  Will their own electoral success, and their refusal to distance themselves from the actions of the IRA, be the downfall of the project they hold dearest of all?

In an era where making political predictions is about as wise as setting a new renewable heating scheme, I would still wager that a border poll in Northern Ireland would be reduced to the same bitter, personal attacks that have been a feature of our political discourse in for so long. Facts and reasoned arguments on the merits or otherwise of both sides of the debate would be lost in the screaming outrage and righteous indignation.

In the end, I think that would only help the status quo. But then again, I bet on Remain, Clinton and Gove. What do I know?

About Roger Greer

Roger graduated from University of Dundee in 2012 with an English and Scots Law degree and worked in politics in Northern Ireland until the 2016 Assembly Election. Now a Senior Researcher for a company in England, he leads the work on Irish and Northern Irish public policy.