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Editor's Viewpoint

Health and wealth will hold sway over our divided beliefs

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If one thing is clear from the Sunday Times/LucidTalk poll on a border referendum it is that the issue hasn't gone away, you know. The poll found that 51% of people here want a poll on Irish unity within the next five years, but that 47% still want to remain in the UK, with 42% in favour of a united Ireland and 11% don't-knows.

Respondents also said they believed there would be a united Ireland within 10 years, by a margin of 48% to 44%.

Clearly, the question of reunification stirs strong passions, as it has done since partition and will continue to do.

This sense of unfinished business was behind Taoiseach Micheal Martin's outreach to northern unionists, except with the timescale for a future poll deliberately left vague, but certainly not within the next decade.

What has changed the terms of engagement has been Brexit.

The 2016 referendum found for Brexit by 52% to 48% and there is every likelihood that a poll on Irish unity could be decided by a similarly tight margin.

While Leave supporters are right when they say they have a mandate for Brexit, mandates can - and do - change. The four-and-a-half-year delay in implementing the popular will can give no one any certainty that, were the referendum to be re-run tomorrow, the outcome would stand.

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The well-documented problems encountered since the end of the transition period on December 30 can only lend weight to that impression.

It was John Adams, Joe Biden's predecessor as President of the United States by 224 years, who first warned against the "tyranny of the majority"; where the majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of the minority's interests.

Simple majoritarianism is, therefore, as much a weakness in a democracy as weighted majorities (why should your vote carry more weight than mine?).

It is, moreover, hopelessly optimistic, if not psychologically impossible, to expect people to change their deeply held beliefs on the basis of fractional mathematics.

On an issue as divisive as reunification, that is as likely to further entrench both sides as it is to bring about closure. And we in Northern Ireland don't need reminding of the perils of rule by a simple majority.

First Minister Arlene Foster said yesterday that a border poll at this time would be "absolutely reckless". She said people in Northern Ireland need to "come together to fight against Covid".

She might have added that the demand for a poll is largely driven by northern nationalists, with little sense of it being a priority to the southern electorate.

These demands are purposefully vague on what a united Ireland would look like. Is the Republic in any sense equipped to assume responsibility for 1.8 million people?

Yes, some issues could undoubtedly benefit from being tackled on a one-island basis: controlling Covid-19, food and agriculture being just the three most obvious.

A unitary economy could arguably be an easier sell for inward investment post-Brexit, as we set our stall out for the world. Truth be told, the brittle pieties of our contested past will matter less than those hardy reliables health and wealth.

A Northern Ireland with a functioning health service and better life outcomes for its citizens will go a long way to resist any movement towards 'a nation once again'. Brexit has shown us all the danger of leaping into the dark. It's implementation over the four-year lifetime of the Northern Ireland Protocol could be the best indicator yet of a demand for constitutional change in Ireland.

The 2021 census, which will go ahead on March 21 in spite of coronavirus, will add the sort of 'head-count' data which sectarian proponents of reunification or the status quo have relied on to prop up their arguments.

But whether a border poll is called for, let alone held, depends more on the biddable middle ground than the extremes. Who wins and who loses will depend on how attractive Northern Ireland, as currently constituted, can be made to the greatest number of people. And it's all to play for.


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