It stands to reason that for a united Ireland to happen both North and South would have to agree to it. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in December last year recorded the results of an opinion poll on support for a united Ireland in the South.
An Irish Times columnist summed it up right from the start – ‘So, you want a united Ireland? Of course. Soon? Eh, not really. Want to pay for it? Nope. Want unionists involved? Sure. Want to change the anthem or the flag? Not a chance. How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’
One thing really gets me about this type of thing, but I’ll get to this in a minute, after I briefly set out the results of the poll.
Support for Irish unity is broad – 62% support it, 16% say Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, 13% are undecided and 8% won’t bother themselves to vote.
Asked when they would like to see a referendum, 15% said now and 13% said never, while a further 16% said they would like to see it more than 10 years in the future. Since the most popular response was ‘in the next ten years’, at 42%, it means that support for a referendum within this timescale is almost the same as that supporting a united Ireland at 57%.
It might be thought then that those supporting a united Ireland are rather keener on it than the spin placed on it by political commentary such as that just quoted. Unfortunately for such a view the question was asked ‘how important is a United Ireland to you?’ and the most popular answer was ‘not very important, but I would like to see it someday.’ (For some reason this makes me think of this less well-known Irish rebel song).
This was the response of a majority of 52%, with only 20% saying it was ‘very important, it is a priority for me.’ More people than this, at 24%, said it was ‘not at all important’ with 4% saying they didn’t know. Even among Sinn Fein supporters this was the most popular answer at 47%, with 16% saying ‘not at all’.
If I might seem flippant about this question it is because how important something is very much depends on the context and one might reasonably expect that an actual referendum would make the question have greater importance. Whether this would increase or reduce support for a United Ireland again depends on context.
To determine the importance of it, or rather to emphasise its unimportance, the poll asked a number of questions about what compromises people in the South were prepared to make in order to make a united Ireland happen. Hence the comment above – ‘How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’
So, asked if they would agree to a new flag, a new national anthem, paying higher taxes, having less money to spend on public services or re-joining the Commonwealth, support was 16%, 21%, 15%,13% and 14% respectively. Or, to put it another way, 77%, 72%, 79%, 79% and 71% said no. On the other hand, 47% agreed to ‘having closer ties to the UK’, whatever that meant – perhaps visiting their cousins more often? – and 44% agreed to ‘having unionist politicians as part of the Government in Dublin’, which is a hell of a lot more important than a flag or a song. Yet another reason to doubt the value of these particular questions.
Which brings me to the one thing that really gets me about this type of thing. These ‘compromises’ are paraded by liberals and the great and the good as if they are in the least bit important to unionists. These people continually parrot that the concerns of unionists have to be listened to, yet their proposals show that they are the last to listen to them. Unionism frankly doesn’t give a shit about what flag is flown in the South of Ireland and doesn’t care what the national anthem is either etc. etc. As far as they are concerned, or rather proclaim loudly, it’s a foreign country and you can stand to whatever flag and sing whatever song you want.
In such circumstances, refusal to countenance such ‘compromises’, where only one side might agree, is perfectly rational.
This, however, is not very important. What matters is the question that wasn’t asked, which reveals much about the blindness of those behind the opinion poll.
In the North, Lord Ashcroft’s poll asked ‘what would change in a united Ireland?’, in other words, what would be the benefit or cost of a united Ireland to unionists, nationalists and ‘neutrals’. In the The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll only costs are considered to exist and only questions on this were asked.
Behind the poll is the view that partition has brought the Irish state freedom and is an unquestionable success, how could it be improved? How could incorporation of the North involve anything but potential costs or uncomfortable compromises?
For the liberal political classes and their cultural and diluted political nationalism, what might be acceptable to their comfortable existence – which they deftly weave into working class concerns about standard of living and welfare services – is the only relevant issue.
There is therefore a complete absence of the question ‘what problem is a united Ireland meant to solve?’
As far as the Southern establishment is concerned the only headaches reside in the North while a potential united Ireland itself raises problems.
But before we pour scorn on the bourgeois political classes in the South, socialists also have to ask themselves – what problems do we see being solved (at least even partially – as a step forward) by a united Ireland?
Since the answer is the unity of the working class this can only register in political consciousness in the South if there is a struggle for the independence of the working class for which such unity is required – and where is that struggle?
It hardly exists. The trade unions are bureaucratised and are welded to social partnership in whatever form it takes, or appears not to take. There is no mass working class party asserting the separate interests of the working class, and the left organisations with elected representatives are wedded to an electoral strategy fundamentally based on the institutions of the Southern State, with implications that they don’t understand and an effect on their state-socialism they are equally only dimly aware of.
Of course, they want a united Ireland, or some of them do, but since their conception of advancing socialism is through the current Irish State their whole approach involves promises of the potential benefits from this state and not the gains from an existing mass working class movement that has already delivered.
We can point to the gains made by the women’s and gay movement, in contraception, divorce, abortion and gay marriage but where is the recent experience of a mass workers’ movement achieving more or less comparable permanent advances?
A booming economy with higher living standards and lower unemployment is the result of multinationals and this is now sold as the same route to prosperity in the North, through its unity with the South. The left wants the fruits of the relative success of capitalism in the South spread more widely with particular market/state failures addressed (such as health and housing), which rely on this growing economy, in turn reliant on US multinationals.
On the same day that The Irish Times reported its opinion poll results it also reported on some other statistics. These were from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which showed that almost double the number of Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged over a five-year period from the beginning of 2016. This is the sort of material reality that drives Irish nationalism in the North.
The absence of such a reality in the South explains a lot.
Marxists are always regaled with the charge that they don’t understand and can’t cope with nationalism. The experience of Ireland shows that nationalism doesn’t understand itself and can’t cope without material reality, understood by Marxists, giving it substance. It is the power of the state that gives nationalism an objective and in the South of Ireland they’ve already got one.
Back to part 3