Belfast Telegraph

Peter Shirlow: We may be getting closer, but we have not come close to the conditions for calling a border poll

But unless the pro-Union community promotes parity of esteem and mutual respect, it will eventually lose its majority - of that there is no doubt, says Peter Shirlow

Posters agitating for a border poll have become a fixture in some areas
Posters agitating for a border poll have become a fixture in some areas

By Peter Shirlow

The writer Amy Morin reminds us that "although circumstances may change in the blink of an eye, people change at a slower pace". Her words seem apt given that we were told that Brexit and demographic shifts would soon end Northern Ireland's place within the UK.

Lord Ashcroft's poll, which predicts the majority want Irish unification, would support that narrative. But I would strongly contend that it sits very awkwardly with other evidence.

For nationalists and republicans the train of unification had, prompted by the whistle of Brexit, left the station and was gathering speed. But was that really the case? Evidence regarding constitutional preferences shows that, as the train has sped along, few seem to have, as of yet, hopped on board.

In our perpetual passion for sectarian head-counting we were told, in demographic terms, that the Catholic population was growing as the Protestant population was falling. This was, of course, true, with the former growing by 8.7% between 2001 and 2011, although much of that includes migrants, who may have the sense to stay out of the proxy war.

In fact the most significant change in the census was the 30.6% growth in those who did not state their religion.

Nearly one in five in Northern Ireland no longer partakes in the sectarian headcount, but we know they are mostly people who were brought up as Protestants, or who probably are majority pro-Union, as are the majority of voters and those who do not vote.

That is why it is important to not only read data properly, but to work out what it actually means.

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This identity-discarding shift relates strongly to another version of leaving the family fold, with the growth in those - as recorded in the Life and Times and Liverpool University election surveys - who do not attach themselves to the labels of unionist or nationalist.

So, what is going on with these identity dumpers and, more importantly, what do these people think about equality, constitutional futures and border polls?

There is an undoubted fact about those who come from Protestant backgrounds, irrespective if they are pro-EU or anti-EU, unionist or not, voters or non-voters, straight or gay, Bible-infused or secular, conservative or liberal, which is this: the vast majority, around 88%, remain, despite the bedlam of Brexit, supportive of staying within the UK. Moreover, nearly one in five Catholics also remains sympathetic to that position.

In fact, among those with a Catholic community background the growth has not been for unification, but for higher rates of indecision.

We may be getting closer, but we have not come close to what the conditions are for the calling a border poll. Such a poll has to be called on evidence and not conjecture. Leo Varadkar, I assume, knows that, as does the Secretary of State.

So why has the train of Irish unification not added extra carriages to accommodate more passengers?

Brexit and the perniciousness of rights erosion, potential border rebuilding and the chaos of all else has, it seems, not driven unequivocal levels of support for Irish unification.

It may be that those who support Irish unification are using a language that is more wishful than explanatory. Potentially, there has been too much emphasis upon telling pro-Union people that they will be respected within a united Ireland with less effort in selling unification to a very significant swathe of Catholics.

However, political unionism cannot hope that indecision for unification among Catholics remains. They, too, need to re-tune to ensure that all who live here enjoy an inclusive cultural, economic and social life. Neither, as Paul Brady reminds us, in his song The Island, can we continue to "carve tomorrow from a tombstone".

I have no desire to poke either in the eye, or to undermine their electoral legitimacy, but we all, every one of us, have to develop evidence-based approaches when discussing the future.

Surely, our political leaders must understand that the need to build a green economy, protect the NHS and deliver decent levels of education has to be more important than the wearisome tirades over yesteryear.

Hopefully they also now realise that the electorate is increasingly diverse and, especially among younger sections, more are fed-up with stale and repetitive conflictual politics.

That complexity was testified to by a young man I met recently, who was considering if he should vote DUP or Green Party. I pointed out that these parties have very different attitudes to the economy, to which he replied: "For my generation, the future of the planet might be a bigger issue than flags, marching up and down and going on about the past."

For those who do not trust the evidence of surveys there are election results to consider. If we look at first-choice preferences in council elections between 2011 and 2019, we see how these shifts in identity and belonging are starting to impact.

The total vote for republican and nationalist parties grew by 2.7% within that period, while unionist parties declined by 0.4%. The vote for Alliance, People Before Profit and the Green Party doubled. Obviously, the latter had a small base from which to grow, but we are entering new territory here and all that we can deduce is that the majority of voters are up for pro-Remain parties.

Anyone who reads that with glee in terms of thinking that this means a united Ireland will not happen must think on. The pro-Union community will, at some point, unless they promote parity of esteem and mutual respect, lose their majority - that is without doubt.

They should engage with constitutional debates and, in so doing, bring forth ideas that concern belonging, tolerance and respect within a pro-Union vocabulary.

Those who are for the Union must challenge their own confidence when it is unreasonable. It is not enough to read this evidence, sit back in the chair and fold your arms.

Parity of esteem and mutual respect must become the axis on which pro-Union and pro-Irish unification values, policy and practice revolve. That is what 80% of the people on this island voted for in 1998. For those who want unification, or those who do not, the strategy is the same - vision of and for a post-conflict society.

Leadership is, in due course, about solving problems through evidence, not stoking the flames and hoping all will turn out fine.

Ultimately, this data tells us one thing today, but it could be hiding a very different outcome tomorrow. To paraphrase President Teddy Roosevelt for all of our political leaders - tread carefully and throw away the big stick.

Professor Peter Shirlow is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

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