Belfast Telegraph

Eoghan Harris: The campaign for a border poll could more honestly be called a campaign for a murder poll, it is bound to end in bloodshed

A rushed referendum on a united Ireland would risk repeating David Cameron's Brexit disaster, only with fatal consequences, writes Eoghan Harris

A border sign post
A border sign post
Seamus Mallon
Micheal Martin
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

By Eoghan Harris

Once upon a time, back in 1998, the Irish people listened to its better angels and generously supported the Good Friday Agreement. In spirit, the Agreement said we would stop tormenting Northern Protestants about a united Ireland until they showed they wanted unity.

That decent deal gave us nearly 20 years of peace - until Sinn Fein started to stir the sectarian pot again by collapsing the Assembly.

But, until Brexit, there was small support in the Republic for Sinn Fein's beating on tribal drums. Brexit was Sinn Fein's big break. Irish politicians began to bash the Brits a lot and the unionists a lot more.

Most of the Irish media, particularly the Irish Times and RTE, joined in a green dance that predictably raised our tribal temperature to the highest I'd seen since 1970.

If you are what you read - as the Irish Times slogan says - the greening of our media gave permission to our college class to move closer to Sinn Fein and eventually entertain its evil push for a border poll.

When I say evil, I don't mean members of Sinn Fein are consciously evil people. But I do believe that pushing for a border poll at this time is a cynically evil policy, because it could easily end in civil strife.

Last May Seamus Mallon issued a sombre warning about the danger of a simply numerical border poll: "I have come increasingly to the view that the Belfast Agreement metric of a bare 50%-plus-one majority for unity in a border poll will not give us the kind of agreed and peaceful Ireland we seek."

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Just before Christmas, Micheal Martin repeated Mallon's reality check by robustly ruling out a border poll in the near future - and pointing an accurate accusing finger at Sinn Fein.

"Sinn Fein has started this: it's aggressive; it's perceived as threatening one community, the unionist community, the loyalist community; and in my view there is danger in how all of this has developed."

The Irish Times, myopic as always about Martin, did not report his remarks. But it made up for it by giving Leo Varadkar a good show last Friday when, on the surface at least, he seemed to be on the same page as Micheal Martin.

Certainly, his rejection of a border poll at this time was reassuring, but his reasoning missed Mallon and Martin's main point.

Among the Taoiseach's reasons for rejecting a border poll was that there was no majority for it in Northern Ireland, where "it was still around 40% and that is far short of the 50%-plus-one you would need to win a border poll. And that's why I think a border poll is not a good idea".

Incredibly, the Taoiseach seems to think the numerical 50%-plus-one majority is the issue, instead of pointing out it would be a catastrophe for the Republic.

We could not cope with a sullen minority of nearly one million created by a 50%-plus-one majority. We couldn't even cope with a result of 90%-plus-one, which would leave nearly 100,000 of the hardest loyalists determined to do or die.

What would we do next morning after a 50%-plus-one result, especially if we got an equally narrow result in the Republic from a Brexit-style referendum backed by a gormless green media?

Forget the €10bn we'd have to find. Forget the gloating of the Sinn Fein gauleiters. Forget even loyalist force.

How could we cope with a mass Protestant civil resistance?

That is why I believe the campaign for a border poll could more honestly be called a campaign for a murder poll as it is bound to end in bloodshed.

A rushed border poll risks repeating David Cameron's Brexit disaster. As Eamon Ryan, leader of the Greens, shrewdly noted in rejecting it: "Why repeat the mistakes of Brexit?"

Happily for peace on this island, Sinn Fein is faced with a democratic front comprising Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens, with only Labour limping along behind its poll policy.

But Sinn Fein is limping badly, too, after its drubbing in the local and presidential elections in the Republic and the recent elections in Northern Ireland.

Last Monday, on Morning Ireland, Sinn Fein's Matt Carthy MEP made repeated attempts to drive a wedge between Martin and a mythical faction in the Fianna Fail party.

As Carthy fulminated in frustration I wondered if his interviewer, Audrey Carville, had checked out Carthy's career.

If so, she would have found even more reasons for Carthy targeting Martin in the form of a sharp Philip Ryan story in the Irish Independent.

Five years ago Ryan revealed that Thomas McMahon, convicted of the Mountbatten murders, was campaigning with Carthy - and he quoted extensively from Micheal Martin's excoriation of the murder of children in that atrocity.

Carville did not ask Carthy about that. Earlier she had severely grilled Dara Calleary TD, deputy leader of Fianna Fail, about the party's republican credentials. He coped well.

Dr Anthony Coughlan, associate professor emeritus in social policy at TCD and author of the blueprint for the civil rights campaign, has copied me a critical letter he sent to Carville and RTE.

Coughlan says he was struck by what he felt was the "aggressive character" of the questioning of Dara Calleary. He wonders why RTE appears to have "accepted without challenge Mr Carthy's self-designation as a champion of Irish reunification".

Dr Coughlan continues: "It was a pity, I thought, that you did not challenge such a claim, when, as you well know, Sinn Fein from 1970 to 1997 supported and identified wholeheartedly with the Provisional IRA campaign which divided the two Northern Ireland communities as never before." No denying that.

He adds that a border poll is "clearly provocative to northern unionists" and adds: "If such were to be held in the next few years, it would almost certainly encourage significant loyalist violence, aggravate north-south divisions as nothing else would and be a mere coat-trailing exercise."

He points out a border poll requires a unionist desire for unity which he believes is not likely in the foreseeable future, "not least because of the events between 1970 and 1997, which Sinn Fein and the IRA were largely responsible for". Ouch!

Dr Coughlan, polite to a point bordering on irony, concludes: "If I may say so, RTE should not facilitate Sinn Fein spokespeople presenting themselves as champions of Irish unity when their party's actions and policy over the quarter-century referred to, has done so much to put off the practical achievement of that." The plain truth.

Meantime, Micheal Martin's policy of following the Mallon line is not lost on decent unionists.

Last week a leader in the News Letter noted Martin's views on a border poll and concluded: "Mr Martin is never going to have the same world view as a unionist, yet he is the sort of politician unionists must cultivate to show they are open to excellent relations with Dublin despite their frustrations with the current government."

  • Eoghan Harris is a Dublin-based political commentator

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