This week's announcement of a potential border poll looks set to provide another chapter to the wonderful world of Northern Irish politics. Referenda seem to be the order of the day at the moment with Scottish independence, EU membership and now a Northern Irish border poll on the agenda. But surely a referendum cannot be the answer to Northern Ireland's woes?
Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland's largest nationalist/republican party, has proposed a border poll which would decide whether or not Northern Ireland re-unifies with the Irish Republic. The DUP, the country's leading party, has hinted at accepting the idea in order to "call Sinn Féin's bluff" according to deputy leader, Arlene Foster.
The unification of Ireland can only be decided directly by the people, in accordance with 1998's historic Good Friday Agreement. Polls have however shown little desire at present for a united Ireland, with first minister Peter Robinson perhaps boldly claiming that a majority of Catholics (who largely vote for nationalist/republican parties) are happy to remain in the United Kingdom. This makes the potential for a border poll all the more puzzling.
"It's the economy, stupid" as Bill Clinton told us ahead of his 1992 election victory. The Northern Irish economy is indeed rather stupefying and unlikely to be welcomed on board by the taxpayer south of the border, just as much it provides a burden to our friends across the Irish Sea. Former prime minister Harold Wilson was once lambasted for attributing the word 'spongers' to Northern Ireland, but in many ways he hit the nail on a head which is yet to have been fully dislodged. The public sector accounts for approximately 30% of the region's workforce, with Northern Ireland a massive benefactor of British spending. And despite reluctance to reduce corporation tax in line with the south, the British government has certainly not skimped on the region.
The introduction of water bills has been continually delayed, despite an archaic infrastructure and at the same time, tuition fees remain at the original rate for local students in Northern Ireland, despite hikes elsewhere under the coalition. And of course, all parties oppose a raise in either, for fear it may lose votes. It's much easier to oppose taxes than to find ways of generating the revenue they cover.
"Playing to the galleries" was a quote political commentator Chris Donnelly attributed to DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson during Stephen Nolan's debate/chat show on BBCNI. It perfectly sums up the current drain among the main political parties. Donaldson's performance was one of milking loyalist sentiment, whilst shying away from the realities and failures of both he and his colleagues. His party's one-sided approach to policy in Lisburn was called up as just one example of a failure to endorse the shared-future.
Sinn Féin followed suit, casting a blind eye on violence coming from the nationalist Short Strand during flag protests, with party president Gerry Adams in blatant denial against compelling evidence. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt rolled back the years and followed the auto-cue of the DUP's example, jumping on a bandwagon to avoid appearing weak, whilst undoubtedly alienating moderate, liberal unionist voters -only party dissenters Basil McCrea and John McCallister displayed the individual bravery to think beyond the status quo.
Elsewhere, SDLP scored a massive own-goal in its decision to support the naming of a children's playground after IRA hunger striker, Raymond McCreesh in the border town of Newry - a ludicrously insensitive two fingered salute to IRA victims in a horrendously ill-informed attempt to eat into the Sinn Féin vote (SDLP has however since decided to review the decision in Newry & Mourne). And as for the peripheral Progressive Unionist Party, its support for the flag on designated days soon progressed to supporting a 365 day approach when the Belfast City Hall flag issue came to the fore in a gutless jump with the tide.
Of course, another issue to arise from Nolan's passionate broadcast was the issue of consensus, which Donaldson and Donnelly both agreed was at the core of the Good Friday Agreement. Consensus has been achieved, but only in tiny fractions, through slow steps or when soaking up some more money from Westminster whenever possible. If Northern Ireland was all lawn, its mower would be a lone man with nail clippers. The lone men with nail clippers among the political class are the outsiders, the non-tribal parties - Alliance and Greens. The former has risked losing unionist votes on principle at City Hall and the latter are perhaps even less relevant on the Northern Irish politoscope, but at least the two demonstrate ideology beyond the usual flag-hugging one-upmanship.
Politics in Northern Ireland needs to address the real issues. We've practiced and mastered whataboutery for too long. The result is a flailing economy, unaided by friendly fire from within and a divided political shambles, completely devoid of consensus. Whenever Northern Ireland shows some self-sufficiency, perhaps then we deserve the right to allow ourselves the opportunity of a border poll. Because, at the minute, who really would or should want us and all our excessive baggage?
To even suggest a border poll is arrogant - Sinn Féin's reasons, beyond a never-ceasing desire for a united Ireland seems strangely timed, while the notion of a DUP rubber-stamp for solely bluff-calling purposes is a sad reflection upon our democracy. Why not blow another few million on a referendum of which we already know the result? We could do with a bit more tension and antagonism right enough. Our time our place, stroke cities of culture, Justin Bieber, MTV, b*llocks to that. Get over ourselves, show some self-sufficiency and achieve something before we think we've earned the right to throw money at an irrelevant border poll. The shared-future is a myth. It's a divided politics, of divisionary parties built on segregated estates, apartheid education and a pseudo shared-future.
If we cannot co-exist in harmony under British rule, what will suddenly change under Irish rule?
It's time for the ruling elite in Northern Ireland to address the real issues that matter within the region before the mere notion of a referendum is entertained.
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