Opinion polls and the Irish unity debate

SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood
SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood

A number of recent polls have cast doubt about the appetite for Irish unity amongst its traditional constituency. So as the volume of loyalist dissent has increased has there simultaneously been a quiet crisis in Irish nationalism?

Most recently, a poll carried out by the BBC’s Spotlight programme found that a small majority of those from the Catholic community would not vote for Irish unity if a referendum were held the next morning.

Since the poll’s release many have, with great glee, jumped to comment on the findings of these results. Their verdict would dictate that the unity debate is now over, there is no prospect of it, no desire for it and therefore no point in its continued discussion. So are they right?

Opinion polls have their purpose. Any politician worth their salt knows it. They give a valuable insight into the attitudes and preferences of the electorate at any given period of time. They are not however, and must never be allowed become, a substitute for the richness of debate or the full and thoughtful analysis of big ideas. Politics, in general, cannot afford to be reduced to, or solely become, a retail exercise. It should not be about following trends and opinions, it has to be about shaping them. Otherwise political life is destined to become trapped in an unhealthy dictatorship of the prevailing political wind rather than holding the responsibility for directing the hopes and prospect of political change.

Irish unity, a unity of its people and of its politics, is the very epitome of a big idea requiring big debate. It is beyond the representation and advocacy of any one political party or even any one generation of people. It is too big to be buried by a series of opinion polls. Big concepts and big ideas deserve more than to be condensed and judged within the narrow context of a single question.

It is probably easier to make this argument in Derry. The sheer unnaturalness of partition is visually and practically apparent in our daily lives. As a political representative here I believe passionately that the political union of this island will ultimately serve the greater interests of all the Northern Irish people, unionism included.

It may sound strange for a politician who lives and dies by the popular vote, but even if opinion polls continue to show a growth in support for the continuation of partition, I am convinced that my position on unity will remain unchanged. The SDLP, and I hope all other political parties who profess the desire for unity, do not do so because it supplies benefit to an individual electoral cycle. It is a belief anchored by much more than a fleeting party political mandate. Irish unity has to be an aspiration devoid of narrow party political interest.

What is unavoidably true, as shown by the recent polls, is that the unity visions contained in the manifestos of Irish nationalism have not inspired the buy-in or confidence needed. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that. Those from this tradition, myself included, have to accept some responsibility for this. We need to do better, much better. After the ultimate victory of constitutional nationalism in the 1998 Agreement, the journey and job of political reconciliation of the island represents its next natural task.

The idea of a reunited Ireland, a new Ireland, burns as brightly as it ever has. What needs to change is the context through which it is perceived. Instead of its question being conceived through the parameters of the past, it needs re-engineered as desired creation of the future. Instead of the debate being limited to the narrowness of a single question, the unity debate should be preceded by a flood of complex questions imagining Irish unity’s consequence and construction.

Those are the questions which my political generation, North and South, need to start answering. It is a huge job. Big ideas, though, deserve no less.