As hair and beauty salons, barber shops and outdoor attractions reopen north of the Border, shaggy-haired residents of the Republic are looking with envy at lockdown divergence between the jurisdictions, although catch-up will happen. But on the unity question, the two parts of this island are already moving into closer convergence.
While the stars aren’t exactly in alignment, encouraging signs are appearing that a common destiny is recognised. Consider the recent polls commissioned to mark the centenary of partition by BBC NI’s Spotlight programme – one held in the Republic and the other in the North.
A key take-home message was that 51pc in the Republic would vote yes to unity in a referendum today, compared with 43pc in Northern Ireland. So, only eight per cent difference between the positions.
Those pro-unity figures are extraordinarily high considering no timetable is in place, no formal plan has been advanced specifying the shape and cost of new constitutional arrangements, and Boris Johnson and Micheál Martin have formed a pincer movement to downplay the prospect of a Border poll.
Drill into the statistics emerging from the poll conducted by Lucid Talk, and the results are more fascinating. For example, how would under 45-year-olds vote on unity? In Northern Ireland, 50pc said they favoured it compared with 45pc against. This is a figure to watch – it’s a rising tide.
Consider another shift. Northern Ireland’s two tribes narrative continues to be dismantled, with space opening for a sizeable third group which no longer votes in traditional ways. Alliance is the main beneficiary, but until now their voters’ position on unity has been uncertain.
The poll reveals some 77pc of those who identify as Alliance/Green/Others say they “would, or possibly would” support Northern Ireland joining the Republic in a united Ireland. Most of this group – 58pc – were influenced by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
This points to a significant group of Remain unionists who are at least open to persuasion. Northern Ireland’s founders believed the link between religion and politics was fixed at birth but that’s no longer the case. Other groupings, particularly Alliance, will continue to win political support.
Consequently, it’s no exaggeration to say the northern component of the poll is uncovering seismic shifts – which people from outside the region may miss, focused naturally enough on headlines about children rioting, or a bomb planted beside a part-time police officer’s car. The device in Co Derry was defused, two men were arrested yesterday, and it’s worth noting the bomb – while alarming – was a primitive device.
Something else of note this week was Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond’s entry into the lists, wearing unity colours. While he makes it clear he’s advancing his personal view, and says he will continue to advance the case, there are advantages to Fine Gael in the position he is adopting.
Internal polling conducted for various political parties indicates young people have a keen interest in unity, meaning there are votes at stake here. Like other parties, and faster than some, Fine Gael realises it needs to enter the unity space. Sooner or later, every party on this island will be obliged to decide where it stands on partition. Pieties devoid of practicalities, chanted from the fence, won’t meet the required standard.
In an interview with RTÉ’s Your Politics podcast on Thursday, Mr Richmond said the generational shift allows the national question to be discussed in a way that wasn’t possible during the Troubles. Advocating unity didn’t make someone a “rabid republican” or mean they were “condoning paramilitary violence,” he said. Like Jim O’Callaghan of Fianna Fáil, he insists on the legitimacy of making a respectful case for unity. Time for other parties in the Oireachtas to step up.
And so to Britain’s prime minister, in full Blustering Boris mode during the BBC Spotlight interview when he said there wouldn’t be a vote on Irish unity for “a very, very long time”. He’s trying on the same, unrealistic veto with the Scots.
Mr Johnson was lending political cover and some limited measure of comfort to political unionism for now, but essentially his words are meaningless. He has no fear of inconsistency or U-turns – he was Boris-ing, that’s all.
He can’t say out loud he doesn’t want Northern Ireland in the UK, or it’s not really on his radar, but he’s showing it by his behaviour over the Protocol. Like a born-again DIY enthusiast, he rambled on about sandpapering the Protocol, scrapping barnacles and removing protuberances. It’s a wonder he didn’t pose with his Black and Decker drill. Translation: the Protocol is here to stay.
Much of the analysis around the BBC Spotlight polls centred on anxieties about violence flaring up again – a negative way of framing the discussion, not least because it enflames fears. As we’ve witnessed in recent weeks, talking up threats of violence can act as a prompt to young loyalists not even born at the time the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Some 76pc in the North and 87pc in the Republic thought violence could be reignited. But let’s remember the data was gathered in the middle of tensions, with disturbing graffiti and the PSNI under attack.
It is misleading to conflate any discussion of unity with violence. Sectarian division is being inflamed cynically by people who benefit directly from it.
That said, there is a disconnect between nationalism and unionism over the Good Friday Agreement: nationalists saw it as a halfway house while unionists regarded it as a final settlement. But it does clearly reference a border poll. Unionism is unsettled, and in need of rational leadership, but unionism cannot veto unity discussions.
The challenge is to make an attractive case for unity, which should happen in conjunction with an acknowledgement of the Ulster-Scots tradition as a rich one whose diversity would benefit the Republic.
In that context, it was instructive to hear Mr Richmond reference his Ulster-Scots heritage in the course of a contribution to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge’s discussion series. Scotland’s second independence referendum will impact on Irish unity, he predicted – wielding more influence even than Brexit or the pandemic.
Unionism is no monolith, its positions are not immutable, its followers are capable of switching allegiance or adopting subtleties of position. Equally, desire for Irish unity has nuances, as Mr Richmond’s involvement shows. The notion of reclaiming a lost green field is anachronistic.
Finally, Bertie Ahern has a deep understanding of the North – surely a role could be created for him? Granted, he has made serious mistakes in his past political career. But as the unity debate steps up, his adroit negotiating skills and enormous experience would allow him to make a significant contribution. And not for the first time.