Could a border poll become the Irish Brexit?


At a Féile an Phobail event at St. Mary’s College, Belfast, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar performed his usual party trick of saying something quite reasonable and sensible, and making it seem profound.


Responding to the intensification of Sinn Féin’s calls for a border poll, as Britain looks set to continue on its latest masochistic streak, Varadkar said that now was not the time for a referendum on reunification and that there was much work to be done to prepare for such an eventuality. 


Varadkar said that in the event of a border poll it would not be feasible to merely stitch Northern Ireland onto to Republic of Ireland. Varadkar said that what followed would have to be a ‘different state’ with a ‘new constitution,’ highlighting such controversial issues as language among those that would need to be considered. 


Another such vital issue, often cited by unionists, is healthcare. This is one area in which erasing the border entirely, with no other change, would be a regressive step as it would mean waving goodbye to universal healthcare. However, this should not be considered an impediment to unity, but rather a reason for further integration. 


According to a biography written by Marianne Elliot, Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish republicanism, believed that ‘the future to a more liberal Ireland lay with the advanced thinkers in the north,’ and it could be argued that it is in the North that progressive thinking is found at the most concentrated levels. In the week where workers of Harland and Wolf are out fighting for their jobs, we should remember that it was Belfast that launched the profiles of Jim Larkin and James Connolly, not Dublin.  


There is a case to made for a cross border health service, and such a thing would at the very least be an interesting topic for a Citizens Assembly - and these have proven successful in the past. 


Another matter where partition is most visible is transport. Prior to the break-up of Ireland,  one was never more than five miles away from a rail station. As stations were closed from the 1950s to the 60s, concurrent to similar developments in Britain, it was done on blatantly sectarian lines with one single line through Newry, to Dublin, left open, and the entire west serviced by Derry. 


As we become increasingly environmentally aware, with both Dublin and Belfast seeking improvements to their respective public transport networks, it is logical to consider all-Ireland cooperation on this matter. From a purely practical standpoint, when one flits between the two states countless time on a short drive it is simply farcical that cooperation not be the measure of policy.  And quite frankly, it should not take two and a half hours to travel from Belfast to Dublin, when you can fly to London in less than half the time. 


The practicality of cross border initiatives is even, slowly, dawning on the DUP, as the party announced recently that they are open to an all-Ireland customs regime on food, as the price of a term-limited backstop.  


The main political effect of partition, in the short-term, was to hand power on both sides of the new border to partitionists in whose interests it was to affirm it. So it was that de Valera announced a Catholic state for a Catholic people, and Viscount Craigavon counterbalanced him in the North with his unionist politics. Their legacy, which drove a wedge through the nation, as much as it drew a line across the land, has lived beyond their lives and will take some measure of counteraction in order to restore the country as it once was. 

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