In 1968 Sergio Leone directed one of my all time favourite films, the classic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly starring Clint Eastwood. As we look back on the year that was 2022 I give you my good, the bad and the ugly of the Constitutional debate.
The Good: The May Assembly election results
Sinn Fein topped the poll eight percent ahead of the DUP, making history as the first united Ireland party to do so in the 101 years of the gerrymandered statelet, a historic moment that was reported around the world. More seismic still, where once unionism outnumbered nationalism two-to-one, in this election the combined Unionist bloc outscored Irish Unity parties by only a single percentage point (42 to 41 per cent) or around 5-6,000 votes. The icing on the cake was that second preference votes of Alliance and Green candidates broke disproportionately in favour of united Ireland parties which augurs well going forward.
While opinion polls can sometimes be a useful guide there is nothing like real votes in a real election to find out what people really think. The election sent a powerful message that unionist hegemony is over and isn’t coming back. The election showed support for Irish unity has never been stronger. Combining these results with also having more pro-unity MPs than unionist (9 to 8) and four of the six counties now having an outright pro-united Ireland majority makes for a happy story.
To turn an old advertising slogan on its head – The future is bright, the future is green.
The Bad: That Irish Times Poll
I suppose it has to be that poll in the Irish Times which found 50 per cent favoured the Union as opposed to just 27 per cent for Unity. The poll gained a lot of traction in the media and fed a feeding frenzy among those already hostile to unity. Kevin Meagher has already poured doubt on the poll’s findings but for now let’s take it at face value.
If it was accurate then it’s a body-blow but one from which we can definitely recover. Indeed if we look at the relatively low support for Scottish independence before the referendum was called, we can take encouragement in relation to how much support for independence surged from a fairly low base when the campaign got underway.
In other respects this poll could be a blessing in disguise. Winning a border poll was never going to be a walk in the park and anyone who thought we just had to sit on our hands and wait for the numbers to rise will surely have been disabused of such notions now.
If we want to win over the soft voters and the Inbetweeners then it’s time to move the discussion from the abstract to the concrete and specific. That means being able to answer the hard questions in advance of the referendum. Like, will there be a universal health care system free at the point of delivery? How do we make that happen and how long will it take? How will a united Ireland economy benefit workers, producers and consumers? Public transport infrastructure? Education system? Pensions? You get the drift?
Tough questions that require evidence-based answers. That’s how the poll will be won or lost when it comes.
The Ugly: Paisley bid for a super-majority in a Border Poll
The Bill currently before the British Parliament and endorsed by DUP requires a supermajority from a pro-Unity vote in a referendum but not for the vote supporting the Union. The Bill would be funny if it wasn’t so ugly.
Imagine if Sinn Fein proposed a super-majority the other way around? It would be met with universal outrage and rightly so. Yet the dominant media narrative interprets the proposal as no big deal. The sponsor of the Bill Ian Paisley is presented as a cheeky chappy, a little bit mischievous and on a bit of a solo run.
History however, shows us that it is a big deal because political unionism has previous when it comes to thwarting democracy. It refused to accept the democratic result of the all-Ireland 1918 election for Irish independence. What followed was the Belfast pogrom, partition and 50 years of Unionist anti-democracy involving discrimination against Catholics in voting, housing, jobs, policing, the courts and gerrymandering.
So forgive me if I consider the current attempt to bastardise democracy by insisting on a supermajority a big ugly deal. What the DUP are saying via the Bill is that the aspiration to a United Ireland is not to be treated on an equal basis as support for the Union. The good news is that the inability of political unionism to accept political equality and the ballot box is clear for all the world to see and it’s not a pretty sight. Unlike in the past its attempts to change the democratic goalposts will not succeed.
So there you have it. My Good, the Bad and the Ugly of 20222. Now let’s hear yours…