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Which united Ireland does the border poll lobby want to achieve?

As Brexit gives rise to a campaign for a referendum on Irish unity, author John Wilson Foster argues that nationalists have no clear plan ahead

A border poll? About what, exactly? Voices are urging a border poll so we may all vote on which nation Northern Ireland should belong to - the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Talk of Irish unity is said by the Financial Times to have entered the mainstream of debate.

Brexit is the given reason for the united Ireland call. But everybody knows that what is being played is what we might now call the Gibraltar Gambit. And an opportunistic one it is, since there was no Part B on the EU referendum ballot-paper asking voters if they wished to see an independent Scotland or unified Ireland depending on how the result of Part A went.

But let us for the sake of argument accept Brexit as a justification for a border poll. Indeed, let unionists be big enough to admit publicly that the unification of Ireland is for many Ulster Catholics, and a few Protestants, devoutly to be wished. (Though that may not be the same as wanting it come to pass today or even tomorrow.)

The wish will express itself every so often on any given pretext and it is entirely legitimate.

Game ball. But just as Remainers clamoured for Leavers to spell out exactly what a post-Brexit UK would look like, here is my own one-man clamour for Unifiers to do the same thing for a post-Brexit unified Ireland.

Voices cried that a Leave vote was a deplorable leap in the dark. Yet compared to a vote to unify the island, the Leave vote by comparison is, in terms of physical hazard and financial well-being of all of the Irish, like a decision to leave the church barbecue early.

Besides - which model united Ireland would be in the pollsters' minds? I have read neither jot nor tittle from the border poll lobby about what people would be asked to vote for. Incredibly, it's as if a united Ireland is simply a given requiring zero definition.

So might the pollsters have in mind the united independent Ireland imagined by the proclaimers of the Easter Rising? Padraic Pearse envisaged a Gaelic-speaking population re-living the customs and ideals of a pre-modern and surprisingly militaristic Ireland. That idea has, of course, gone for a Burton.

Pearse was on more realistic ground with his devout Catholicism in which piety and sacrifice for Mother Ireland were paramount. That alone would tell you that he was oblivious to the Ulster-Scots and Ulster-English - except as role-models for armed resistance (to Home Rule).

The Republic of Ireland he proclaimed outside the General Post Office was, in terms of the cultural geography in his mind, pretty much what we have today: a partitioned-off majority chunk of the island content enough with its own un-Northern brand of society.

Or perhaps Sinn Fein envisages the Easter rebel James Connolly's unified Ireland, a socialist island of workers' cooperatives and trade unions? Well, once upon a time that was the case. The last serious Sinn Fein economic manifesto I remember, a substantial publication of 1973, did indeed promote a left-wing united Ireland, though the bombs going off at the time were rather a distraction.

But just as the Official gave way to the Provisional IRA, so the left wing in Sinn Fein withered and the feathers of the right-wing fledged. And now, opposition to the Rich Man's Club, as I recall the EEC, now EU, being called, has reversed itself into a pro-EU posture, a peculiar basis for Connolly's vision of the island.

Which, like Pearse's, has in any case also gone for a Burton.

Or is it WB Yeats's Ireland of peasants, poets and aristocrats, bound together by a shared belief in folklore and the spirit world? Absolutely to be excluded were the industrialists and their workers, the merchant middle class, and the Charlie Haugheys of the future.

Like Pearse and most southern nationalists, Yeats had no time for the materialistic Ulster-Scots, but at least as a Sligoman the poet detested them on the sound basis of personal acquaintance.

Yeats soon saw what a free Ireland looked like. De Valera's Ireland, which was the official daydream until the early-1960s, was an isolationist oasis of thatched cottages, comely maidens and pious, no-trouble small farmers.

The reality was actually very different, and very depressing. Witness the writer Patrick Kavanagh's depiction of it. (The only thing preventing grey Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland being as depressing was the British connection.)

Is this the united Ireland imagined for a post-Brexit island? Obviously not, for looming over the landscape of De Valera's Ireland was a dominating, all-seeing Catholic church.

Senator Yeats protested when Catholic laws began to be enacted in the country the great poet had helped bring about, but to no avail. The more sordid details of that domination are still being exhumed. If one institution was happy with partition, which ensured an undisturbed fiefdom, it was the Catholic church. But Catholic Ireland as we knew it has gone for a Burton, too. (Along with Protestant Ulster, with its tied-up swings.)

The glimmerings of a genuinely unifiable Ireland glowed in that brief corridor of time between the ice-breaking Sean Lemass and amiable Jack Lynch and the outbreak of the Years of Disgrace in 1969. I remember those glimmerings fondly.

Here is not the place to wonder if the limited but genuine discrimination against Northern Irish Catholics did not become a Brexit-like pretext for the armed push for unification. Either way, for 30-odd years the united Ireland of any hue went for a Burton, big-time.

Meanwhile, the Celtic Tiger, which could, after all, have modelled a Republic that unionists might have given a second glance, rich and equitable, instead roared briefly and expired chiefly through greed and corruption as well as global capitalist events outside its control and often corrupt, too.

The Celtic Tiger joined the other united Ireland showcases in history's recycle bin.

And now, when we peer south, what do we see that we might get a chance to vote to join?

A brave enough place that many of us know and even love. But a society struggling to keep afloat in the wake of a departing church, tossed by the bow-waves of immigration and multiculturalism, in a frail and now nervous economic condition on the heels of Brexit and Trump's American economic patriotism.

It is hardly in a position to throw down a welcome mat to northerners without deep embarrassment. I honestly believe it would answer the Republic better economically to join the UK in exiting the EU, thereby knitting both parts of the island together in the only way possible for the foreseeable future.

Whether that happens or not, we should bin the generations-old, sleepwalking assumption that the tide of history on this island is inexorably flowing from north to south.

But irrespective of the economic realities, many of the votes in a border poll would be atavistic, meaning that the ancestors would be voting, on both sides.

I have a hunch that some, maybe many, northern nationalists don't seek a multi-faith, multi-cultural whole Ireland but merely wish to rejoin their southern compatriots. Simply unfinished business. A united Ireland in their eyes requires no definition; it is yesterday's Ireland minus the Brits. However, this by itself is unlikely to win a border poll.

While SDLP nationalists are probably willing to carry unionists as extra baggage to get to the other side, republicans would prefer not to. And there's the rub.

The biggest nationalist party is the least qualified, equipped and inclined party to claim sincerely that together unionists and nationalists could make a new nation different from all the other failed models, blueprints and prototypes: a new synthesis.

Yet only a new synthesis, one which unionists should always be willing at least to entertain, painstakingly forged and earned over the coming years, and even then without guarantee of success, has a hope of ever commanding majority consent in Northern Ireland.

Who could intelligently believe that a border poll now - democracy by reflex alone - is the way to go?

John Wilson Foster's latest book is Titanic: Culture and Calamity (2016)

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