Border Poll Debate: Prior Reforms, Not Rhetoric, Required

by Joe Duffy, published in

Readers of Rupture will be aware that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland is now the subject of scrutiny and analysis, not just by the various left political formations, but also by other civic groups including trade unions. The political initiative and manifesto entitled “Uniting Ireland, Uniting Workers” by the recently formed Trade Unionists for a New and   United Ireland group (TU4NUI) is a new and potentially significant addition to the wider republican campaign for a ‘Border Poll’ as allowed for under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Their manifesto [1] needs to be critically evaluated, as although it represents a genuine attempt to insert class politics ‘front and centre’ into republicanism, it falls short in terms of its fundamental strategy. 

This article is written then with a view to providing a less theoretical – but more concrete – way forward for the left regarding the national question in the immediate period ahead. It is meant to complement, rather than critique, the previous contributions to the discussion in this magazine.[2] While they all, despite their differences, offer a coherent perspective and a general guide to action, they do not advance a practical strategy to peacefully prepare the ground for the historic task of ending the partition of Ireland. What is missing from those contributions is a dynamic strategy identifying policies and changes required to further shift the terms of the debate and perceptions in advance of such a poll. Whilst all agree that we must move the terms of the debate away from the narrow parameters of nationalist and unionist perspectives, it will not be mere words or analysis that can achieve this. 

Paul Murphy’s astute observation in issue 2 highlights why we now need to sharpen our focus and implicitly acknowledges that we will need more than theoretical analysis:

“A referendum on both sides of the border…does not allow for evasions or long-winded answers. It cannot be answered simply with reference to the socialist solution we favour. It will require a concrete answer.”[3]

In a nutshell, socialists will not be given the time or space to present their progressive tenets about workers’ unity in the heat of an inflamed campaign. If the Brexit Poll campaign in Britain taught us anything it is that logic is more often trumped by irrationality and that expecting a reasoned debate in a heated referendum underestimates historical legacies, identity and consciousness.

Indeed Paul himself, with his reference to Trotsky’s observation on black oppression and arising emotional responses, explains why we will need more: 

“…an abstract criterion is not decisive in this case: much more decisive are historical consciousness, feelings and emotions”.[4]

Given then that ‘abstract criterion’ (e.g. talk of ‘visions’ of a New Ireland, ‘workers unity’ etc.) will also not be decisive on the doorsteps in a border poll campaign, it is crucial that we have a practical, phased strategy that moves the debate away from vague rhetoric like ‘the fulfilment of nationalist aspirations’ to the earthy ground of reforms required prior to the poll, as well as post the poll… to fulfil the aspirations of both communities in Northern Ireland.

And so to the manifesto and strategy of the TU4NUI campaign…

At the outset here, we should note that the sub-text to the TU4NUI intervention, signed by in excess of 200 trade union activists, is an expectation that a Border Poll can take place in the wake of a new Sinn Féin led government emerging in the next few general elections. While being a progressive, worker-focused document, the TU4NUI manifesto reflects a quite similar political world-view to that underpinning the present idealistic Sinn Féin strategy of ‘offering a vision’ (to the electorate North and South) of a New Ireland and of what is possible following the proposed border poll.

The TU4NUI Manifesto presents the standard Left Republican analysis and contains a proposed reform agenda including a Bill of Rights, progressive taxation measures, a constitutional right to housing, an All-Ireland National Health Service, legislation to improve workers’ rights and measures to tackle climate change on an all-island level. Measures supported by socialists of all shades.

It’s a manifesto for what a New Ireland can look like after a border poll ends partition. It’s pitched, therefore, as a political statement and an election-type manifesto to appeal to both ‘communities’. And the reforms listed are aimed at making workers’ interests central to the campaign for a New United Ireland.

However, while being a genuine vision of what should happen in terms of reforms, its strategy only offers the reforms in a post-poll vision of a ‘new’ Ireland. It does not offer a decisive dynamic in the period leading from now up to a border poll. 

I believe, however, that there is a way right now to profoundly and materially challenge Northern Irish perceptions of the Republic of Ireland just as the Repeal the 8th and Equal Marriage referendums did. Similar, radical changes in the economic and social sphere, embedding a properly funded NHS style health system, funding a massive programme of public housing, copper-fastening workers’ rights, tenants’ rights and other reforms can be another equally powerful dynamic in shifting the perceptions of Northern Protestant workers of the Republic. 

A socialist vs a left republican strategy: 

The key difference I’m outlining here is that socialists should demand that the above reform agenda outlined in the TU4NUI document be achieved prior to a Border poll! The material changes and reforms must precede the poll and they therefore can impact on the consciousness of Northern workers far more than republican rhetoric canvassing for the benefits of a United Ireland down the line. Actions speak far louder than words. Bricks and mortar and enacted legislation will trump electoral promises any day.

In fact TU4NUI completely lets Sinn Féin off the hook. If Sinn Féin, the would-be All-Ireland vehicle to deliver the new Ireland, get enough votes to ‘lead’ the next government, then their bluff should be called by the left. We can put it up to them. “Stop waffling about what you are going to do after a border poll in the future. Do it now! You are in power! You, Sinn Féin, have a golden chance to give both communities North of the border serious grounds for evaluating your credentials to deliver a rights based, worker-friendly and inclusive united Ireland.”  

“Let’s have the changes now!” must be the distinctive and strategic battle-cry of the Irish left. The left should not row in behind the Sinn Féin two stage “border poll first, change to come later” line. The two referendums referred to above illustrate the power of prior reforms to shift perceptions. They serve as a model for the way forward on the social and economic fronts.

The left can put serious heat on Sinn Féin when in government and especially on their members to demand urgent delivery of reforms from their leadership prior to a poll. Groups such as TU4NUI and People Before Profit (PBP) should adopt a strategy of publicly demanding this from Sinn Féin, in preparation of course for exposing their likely reluctance to implement real change when they do form a future government, possibly with FF and Labour. And of course, if and when Sinn Féin fails to deliver, the scene is set for the rise of a genuinely left force, perhaps PBP, to replace Sinn Féin as the party of real and radical change.  

Over the next two general elections, the likely key change in the political landscape is Sinn Féin becoming the major party in power for some years prior to any border poll. In that scenario, procrastination and pleas for patience won’t wash. If they fail to deliver real change in their first term of office in the midst of housing, health and climate emergencies, then how can they expect people to trust them to deliver anything other than division and disillusionment after a border poll? In effect, Sinn Féin’s deep caution and desire to prove their conservative credentials to the establishment could sabotage the chances of a successful border poll, with all opponents of such a poll primed to highlight their broken “commitments” and contrast the Sinn Féin record with their rhetoric.

Avoid a premature poll and prepare for success!

A premature border poll, i.e. a poll held in the absence of serious social and constitutional reform of the Southern state, would not result in any significant re-evaluation of the Republic by the majority of the Protestant workforce. In reality it would confirm long-held suspicions that Sinn Féin and other, more left wing forces, such as TU4NUI  are merely canvassing and peddling promises. There is also a major risk of regression to even deeper divisions in the course of any premature poll campaign, as the debating ground will instead be haunted by ‘green’ versus ‘orange’ issues with old wounds being opened up. 

It is the job of the serious left to troubleshoot in advance of a campaign for any united Ireland, to ensure that the debate takes place primarily around social, rather than simply flag or regime-change issues. I firmly believe that major left reforms and change will need to be implemented first in the Republic to give sufficient cause and optimism to the northern population that it will indeed be an inclusive and viable ‘New’ Ireland they are then being asked to consider joining. Securing reforms prior to pursuing a border poll, rather than promising them in the wake of it, will enable proponents to counteract and expose sectarian distortion of the debate. Proof of the pudding will have been tasted via solid delivery of rights-based reforms. Wary Protestant workers will not buy ‘a pig in a poke’ and this materialist strategy will shift the concept of a ‘new’ Ireland from being a pitched ‘vision’, to a verifiable continuum of real change.

Yes, this would still be a work in progress, but on solid workers and citizen’s rights foundations. Equally, work begun on a new 21st Century Constitution  to enshrine the rights of workers, women, tenants, citizens, minorities and children would also help dramatically transform the debate.

The New Doves will be caricatured as Toxic Messengers:

A two stage based appeal campaign (as in ‘Vote now, Change to come later’) will also require the emergence of an unprecedented level of trust in Sinn Féin as the new ambassadors of cross-community equality. In the eyes of most Protestants, the erstwhile armed hawks, Sinn Féin, are presenting themselves now as doves and missionaries of peace and harmony.  But for those loyalists looking to thwart any debate on possible Irish unity, the new doves of peace and unity will be caricatured as toxic messengers with serious baggage.  

Protestant communities, like their Catholic counterparts, are sick of broken promises and habitually being told to be patient in a Tory engineered scrap for scarce funding and resources. They have seen their working class communities in particular decline over decades of neglect and unimplemented “commitments”. It is wishful thinking to believe they will decide that they will be better off governed by Sinn Féin, on the basis of promises of ‘new’ rights in a ‘new’ republic when they know it will also be in the context of ‘more-of-the -same’ neo-liberal ‘economic realities’ that manifest in any EU capitalist economy. While membership of the EU will be a game-changer for some, it is easier to imagine the majority not buying the Sinn Féin message and withdrawing further into a siege mentality. There, they will hope to cling onto their identity and territory for comfort in an increasingly hostile world, rather than opting into a new living arrangement with their historic adversary.

Without prior and major reforms already delivered in the Republic, the majority of unionists will see the whole border poll project as just a slick marketing ploy to sell them a new political arrangement in which they are relegated to being a vulnerable minority on the island.

A growing danger also is that if the left do not have a practical alternative approach to the border poll that sharply differentiates them from Sinn Féin, it could well drive significant numbers of Protestant youths into the arms of loyalist paramilitaries and even to groups like Britain First. Where the left fails to connect, the right thrives. 

The Achilles heel of Catholic conservatism:

Another problem for those arguing “for a border poll now” is that the quite conservative Catholic middle class view in the republic is likely under-estimated in polls ascertaining views on Irish Unity. [5] A significant chunk of them may well, in the privacy of the ballot box, furtively opt for the status quo that has served many of them very well in order to avoid what they see as a potentially costly (to them) unification with possible “ongoing instability” lurking, particularly if there is major unrest in loyalist areas in the run up to the poll. This cohort could easily significantly erode the Catholic numbers expected by Sinn Féin to vote to end partition. In Northern Ireland, many middle class Catholics are doing well enough under the present British-subsidised system, and a section of them may equally well baulk at the prospect of uncertain change. They are also well aware that given the long-term decline of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, a United Ireland would be driven North and South of the border by a Sinn Féin led government. North and South, a Sinn Féin government is definitely not their cup of tea.

Media Debates:  Entertainment Vs Information, Agendas Vs Access.

Much as we may wish otherwise, the left will not control the mainstream narrative. The debates in the Northern media will be dominated by those introduced by presenters as ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Loyalist’ speakers as at present. And in that standard formulaic context, socialist voices could well struggle to be aired, particularly if Sinn Féin haven’t implemented prior reforms as listed earlier. And as for what circulates on social media, the peddling of old myths and promotion of fears will wreak havoc in those forums, with each side being fed their own sectarian tinged titbits and newsfeed. 

In exploring how a campaign to win support for a New United Ireland will struggle to get the majority behind it with the present two stage strategy of border poll advocates, I am not merely ‘scare mongering’. Nor am I refusing to factor in demographic and societal changes, including the crisis within unionism. Those factors may ultimately be crucial in getting the end of partition over the line. But our job as socialists also is to find a strategy that does not just ‘get it over the line’, but actively promotes an outcome in terms of limiting any resulting alienation and scope for a hostile ‘backs to the wall’ reaction from Protestant workers. 

The Guiding Compass of Workers’ Unity: 

And this should be the crux of the matter for socialists. A border poll is not just about the right to self determination full stop. Paul Murphy has correctly identified that whatever strategy is deployed by the left, its central focus and dynamic must be to promote unity between the two communities:  

   “…we should utilise the fundamental method underlying the ‘right to self-determination’ concept, rather than the formula itself. In other words, seeking to find a way to unite the working class, despite its real divisions” [6].

The strategy argued for in this article offers such a dynamic to build workers’ unity through dialogue, engagement around concrete issues and a common struggle for worker-friendly reforms on both sides of the border in the period before a poll. And of course it requires a socialist movement to struggle for such reforms given the predicted failure and indeed reluctance of republicans to embrace the challenge of transforming the existing republic.

We all share the objective of wanting a vastly different and socialist United Ireland for all our citizens. But it’s crucial to take the temperature, research and troubleshoot in advance of advocating a course of action. Calling for a border poll now without prior material preparation will be a recipe for the campaign to be dominated by republicans of all shades and conducted largely on ‘green’ terms. Socialists must advance a clear distinctive strategy to avoid being sucked into a nationalist maelstrom and the unnecessary division it will entail.  

Is there an alternative? Yes…Put the horse back before the cart!

Sinn Féin are widely expected to lead the next government. If there is another surge to that party, it is even possible that within one or two elections there could be the possibility of a Left-led Government comprising Sinn Féin, PBP, Social Democrats, Labour and the Green Party.

If significant reforms have been enacted, financed and delivered on the ground, socialists will then be in a solid position to confidently raise the ending of partition as being a further progressive step for workers on this island. The Left’s position on the Border Poll can and should be 100% distinguishable from the Republican one and put the horse of reform before the cart of constitutional arrangements. 

A Left programme and strategy, as outlined in this article, offers a pathway that sees further social, economic and environmental reform in the south as a dynamic driver for ending partition. In addition, the building of an all island movement to tackle climate change can harness the younger generations to be centrally involved in campaigning for their future in a movement that is ‘beyond borders’ in perspective. [7] 

Such a combined strategy can also prevent a future Border Poll campaign from being dominated, driven and determined by conservative, speculative and sectarian voices and facilitate a focus on workers’ lives, their common interests and a sustainable future. It is a practical way forward and offers a New Ireland, not as an abstract slogan, but as an inclusive and materially-referenced proposition. It will be far more likely to succeed in peacefully ending partition, not just in statute, but crucially in and between communities. 


[1]   TU4NUI Manifesto Uniting Ireland – Uniting Workers

[2]    Paul Murphy, ‘Unifying a divided working class’, Rupture, Issue 2, Winter 2020; Ciarán Mulholland, ‘The frog at the bottom of the well: Marxists and the National Question in Ireland’, Rupture, Issue 3, Spring 2021; John Molyneux, ‘Partition and the question of a border poll’, Rupture, Issue 4, Summer 2021.

[3]    “A referendum on both sides of the border ….does not allow for evasions or long-winded answers. It cannot be answered simply with reference to the socialist solution we favour. It will require a concrete answer”. Murphy, ‘Unifying a Divided Working Class’, p. 85.

[4]   ‘As Trotsky put it when discussing the oppression of black people in the US, “an abstract criterion is not decisive in this case: much more decisive are historical consciousness, feelings and emotions”’.  Ibid, p. 81 

[5]  A RED C Poll published on April 22 2021, found that only 32% of people in the Republic of Ireland believed we would see a United Ireland in the next 10 years.  While this is only a poll and did not seek a direct view from those interviewed as to their own preference vis-a-vis ending partition, it does show considerable scepticism that there is enough support and political will for a United Ireland, and probably masks an element of reluctance to endorse unity amongst the respondents too. The attitude of middle class southerners not wanting to “import trouble down here” from “up there” is well known. 

[6]  “We should utilise the fundamental method underlying the ‘right to self-determination’ concept, rather than the formula itself. In other words, seeking to find a way to unite the working class, despite its real divisions”. Murphy, ‘Unifying a Divided Working Class’, p. 80. 

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