Border poll is no solution

Sinn Fein has called for a referendum on the border to be held before 2020. The DUP surprised Sinn Fein by suggesting that it might agree to such a border poll, even as early as next year.  The power to call a poll actually rests with the British government which fears that to do so would further de-stabilise the situation. The Irish government agrees. Despite this the two governments would find it difficult to refuse a poll if the two main parties in the North called for one consistently.
Sinn Fein has launched its campaign to reassure its base that its long term aim of a united Ireland is still on track. It is conscious that raising the issue of a border poll will increase sectarian tension. It also knows that a prolonged controversy on the issue will help to divert attention from the part it plays in the cuts government at Stormont.
Sinn Fein’s approach is based on the mathematics of sectarian division. While it pays lip service to the idea of “persuading” Protestants of the benefits of a united Ireland it makes no bones of its bottom line: Catholics will sooner or later vote them into a united Ireland regardless of their wishes. For several years nationalist commentators have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the 2011 census. In 2011 48% of the population were deemed Protestant, a drop of 5% from the 2001 census. 45% of the population were deemed Catholic, an increase of 1%. The demographic balance is shifting, but more slowly than expected.
Unionists were buoyed by the results of the census and also point to a recent opinion poll for the BBC which show that a clear majority of the population of the North, 67%, are in favour of remaining in the UK and that only 35% of Catholics state clearly that they would vote for a united Ireland in a referendum.
For Sinn Fein, and the SDLP, the issue of a border poll is a simple one of “democracy”. In their view, if Northern Ireland has a Catholic majority then the border can be voted away. This line of argument displays a profound amnesia. For three generations Catholics refused to recognise the “democracy” of Northern Ireland. In their view, they had been coerced into an artificial state and they would not accept this situation. They were perfectly justified in this stance. Why now do nationalist and republican politicians assume that Protestants must accept the “democracy” of losing their majority position in the North which, on the basis of capitalism, raises real fears among working class Protestants that they will become a disadvantaged, discriminated against new minority community?
There has been one previous border poll. In March 1973 591,820 (98.9%) voted for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK and only 6463 (1.1%) voted for a united Ireland. The figures were entirely distorted however by a boycott. Catholics were not about to allow the existence of Northern Ireland to gain validity as the result of an exercise at the ballot box. As a result 425,828 people (41%) did not vote.
If the unionist parties believed that they would lose a poll in the future then a boycott would be the most obvious tactic to employ. And if any vote goes against a united Ireland, as in 1973, many Catholics will look forward to the next poll. In other words, a poll will solve nothing.
The furore over even the possibility of a poll illustrates the impasse working class people in the North face. The system cannot deliver on social and economic issues and it cannot even begin to resolve the tensions and divisions around the national question. The only alternative to conflict, which will otherwise inevitably worsen over time, is that class issues come to the fore. Working class people, Catholic and Protestant, have more in common than divides them. They are united in their trade unions and can potentially be united politically through the development of a mass working class party. Then the question of the border, and the rights of all, can be addressed, through a transition to a socialist Ireland, and a socialist federation of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

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