Let There Be a Referendum
The United Kingdom is 'a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-national liberal democracy - the fourth largest economy in the world - the most reliable ally of the United States in the fight against international terrorism', David Trimble told his party conference in Belfast. He called for John Reid, Secretary of State, to hold a referendum next year at the same time as the Assembly elections on whether the North should join a united Ireland, so that the issue could be put to rest for a generation and republicans stop daydreaming.
Sometimes people bite off more than they can chew.
I would like to ask David Trimble a question - not that I expect an answer. It is this. Do the people of the multi-national liberal democracy, he believes he is part of, also have a say and would he abide by the will of the majority? There is an old slogan from the time of the US colonies, 'No taxation without representation', which relative to the British public's massive subvention to the North should allow their voice to be represented, to have a say. Indeed, if the costs to British taxpayers were more widely known (is it still £2 billion annually, or more?) taxpayers might even be more disenchanted with 'the union' than opinion polls consistently demonstrate.
Of the 18 surveys conducted by reputable organisations between 1971 and 1993, 16 showed more than 50% of Britons supporting withdrawal. A 'Guardian'/ICM opinion poll last August found that only 26% of Britons believe that the North belongs to the United Kingdom.
And why wouldn't the British public vote to withdraw, if they were allowed a say?
What richness, what contribution, what culture, what liberalism, what philosophy does traditional unionism and its more fundamentalist derivatives add to this multi-national liberal democracy? Is there a sport it contributes? A language? A cuisine or even a type of pudding? A body of literature or poetry, that hasn't been informed by contact with the indigenous population or isn't a synthesis of our shared history?
Unionism, as far as the British public is concerned, is a nuisance, its representatives always moaning, complaining of sell-outs here, there and everywhere.
The House of Commons empties during 'Northern Ireland Question Time'. Unionism is represented by loyalist paramilitaries who when they are not burning Catholic homes or shooting each other in turf wars are bombing the RUC in order to preserve the RUC. Unionism is represented by images of foul-mouthed adults wrapped in Union Jacks attacking school children, or, by people who dress up in bowler hats, wear sashes and gloves on the hottest day of the year, build arches, love marching through areas where they are not wanted and where they can cause the most offence.
People more British, more royal, blue and true, than the British themselves.
The main UK parties feel the North is so British that they don't even organise branches.
Just a few days after Trimble's eulogy about being vibrant, multi and British, and his attack on the south (a 'pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state'), fundamentalist Protestants, who had threatened 'to take every action necessary, regardless of the consequences', prevented the 102-year-old Ballymena Agricultural Show being extended into the Sabbath for the first time. Paisley had warned: 'The turning of God's day of rest and worship into a day for worldly trade and gain can only bring a weeping of disaster.'
Even the spring lambs aren't allowed to gambol and frolic on a Sunday, the cows moo or the chickens cluck.
The Belfast Agreement allows for the holding of referendums on the union although it is not clear if a referendum can be called at the discretion of the Secretary of State or only in circumstances where it appears likely that a majority for unity has emerged. There is probably an overall majority in Britain for unity, in Ireland if taken as a whole, but not yet in the North. A 'Belfast Telegraph' poll in February 2000 showed that in the North more than a third of Protestants - terminology one is forced, regrettably, to use - believe it likely the island of Ireland will be united over the next twenty years.
Three weeks ago the London 'Independent' claimed that last year's census - to be published later this year - will show Protestants close to a bare majority, at 51 or 52%, with only a 5% buffer of 'others' between them and the growing Catholic population. No doubt there are pro-union Catholics who probably outnumber pro-unity Protestants but not the figure - 20% - 25% - Trimble, in his speech, assumed there to be. He may have got that figure from a 1994 poll which claimed that 28% of Catholics want the North 'to remain part of the UK'. But that was before the ceasefire and at a time when Sinn Fein's support across the North stood at only 12%: in last year's Westminster election Sinn Fein took almost 22% of the vote.
A referendum on the union is bound to galvanise party supporters across the political spectrum and not just those of Ulster Unionists. Far from laying the issue to rest for a generation it can only remind unionists of a ticking clock and how outmoded and tenuous is their position. For some it may become an excuse for madcap terrorism; for others, the opportunity to look at how best we can progress towards agreement, and start building society and country together.
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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison