Not long ago I was lucky enough to be among ten political party leaders and thousands of people gathered in Dublin’s 3 Arena to discuss preparation for Irish unity and a border poll. It was a huge, exciting and seminal event, probably the largest gathering of United Irelanders since Ireland was partitioned.
But for all of the excitement and momentum behind the Irish unity campaign, it’s remarkable to think we still don’t know the criteria required to trigger a border poll. Will it be based on evidence from opinion polls? Census data? Election results? We don’t know because the British government deliberately won’t to tell us.
Irish political party leaders Mary Lou McDonald, Colum Eastwood, Leo Varadkar and Naomi Long have all asked for clarification but to no avail. Boris wouldn’t tell us and now Liz won’t tell us. The continued refusal of the British government to clarify the conditions required to trigger a reunification referendum are anti-democratic and insulting not just to Irish people – they demean UK democracy.
In Scotland a clear majority of elected MSPs have made clear their wish for Scottish Independence. Yet since becoming PM Liz Truss has embarked upon a strategy of ridicule towards Nicola Sturgeon and ignoring Scots interests more generally. Since the Brexit referendum when people voted to leave the EU, Truss has championed British sovereignty and independence at every turn. Fair enough by the way. But why then does her government refuse to listen to millions of people in Scotland and the North of Ireland who wish to engage London in discussion about their self-determination?
Less than a month ago in front of the world media she delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly on the importance of self-determination and sovereignty. However she was referring to Ukraine this time. Without a hint of embarrassment she extolls the sovereignty and freedom of Brexit Britain and Ukraine but ignores the popular sovereignty expressed by the Scottish and Irish.
Brexit supporters were right to accuse those in England who refused to accept the Brexit result as being bad losers and anti-democrats. Yet Tory MPs who supported the Brexit referendum and celebrated the importance of sovereignty now endorse their government’s rejection of the right of Scottish voters to exercise their popular sovereignty. And English Tory supporting papers whoop and holler their support when the British PM speaks down to the First Minister of Scotland.
But surely a British PM who values democracy wouldn’t continue to block an IndyRef2 if that’s what Scots wanted? Or deny people in the north of Ireland the transparency they are entitled to in respect of what criteria must be met in order to achieve a border poll?
If London rejects the reasonable requests of Scottish and Irish nationalists then the Union is no longer a voluntary Union. This hypocrisy and double standard should worry all democrats even if they have no love of Scottish or Irish independence.
Bizarrely, the government in Westminster appears to have no plan to persuade voters in Scotland and the north of Ireland to remain in the UK. They wallow in the comforting delusion that Scottish and Irish bids for independence are merely a phase. They miscalculate that normal service will be resumed and that the political temperature around separatism will eventually drop. But the genie is out of the bottle and the conversation is unstoppable. The argument grows louder and more reasoned and will dominate politics in the coming decade until addressed.
The question for democrats in Britain is this: Are you concerned that the relationship between the UK and its constituent nations seems to be tipping into one of coercion rather than consent? The irony is that attempts to block the Irish and Scottish referendums indicate a sign of weakness of the union, not its strength.
The hypocritical approach of the Liz Truss government towards the constitutional question amounts to bad faith politics and illiberalism. Refusing to engage with an Irish border poll or Indyref2 indicates a retreat from democracy that should worry all democrats irrespective of their wider political views on Brexit, the Union or anything else.
The constitutional question and issue of democracy are too important to ignore. That’s why this weekend, at the Battle of Ideas, we are bringing the different sides of the constitutional debate together. Come join us in the constitutional conversation.
Kevin Rooney is editor of irishborderpoll.com.
He is chairing a session at the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 15th October – From Indyref2 to a Border Poll: Are We Afraid of Democracy?