Seamus Mallon’s recently published book A Shared Home Place is not merely an unhelpful contribution in a difficult situation but is positively dangerous.
Thanks to his profile as a former leading member of the SDLP and former deputy first minister, he is gaining publicity for an ill-conceived and poorly thought-out proposal that might otherwise be dismissed as the musings of an old man.
Mallon insists in his book that in the event of a border poll a return of “50 per cent + 1” in favour of unity should not be sufficient to end partition.
Not only would this be yet another perversion of democracy but it would have consequences even more damaging than those envisaged by Mallon.
The northern state was created in the first place by riding roughshod over the expressed wishes of an overwhelming majority of the Irish people. Thus founded, Northern Ireland’s ruling elite continued to govern for decades, with little or no concern for democratic norms. To once again set out a constitutional template giving precedence to the wishes of a minority would have continuing and dangerous implications for democratic governance in Ireland.
Bear in mind that Seamus Mallon is not alone in advocating this position: Leo Varadkar said much the same last year in Belfast, while the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is also on record as saying that 50 per cent + 1 ought not be enough to end partition. If unionism is not bound by adherence to a universally understood application of democracy, might a property-owning elite not adopt a similar position in the event of a socialist government coming to power in Ireland?
However, apart from these admittedly important philosophical questions, there are serious practical issues that have to be considered when discussing this matter.
The first difficulty thrown up by the Mallon line is that we no longer know what percentage is required to bring about change. If 50 per cent + 1 is not enough, what arbitrary level should be acceptable? And what message would this send to dangerous and intransigent elements within unionism? Telling those reactionary elements that threatening or practising violence secures their place within the United Kingdom would guarantee that very outcome. If ever there was such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy, surely this is one.
Anybody with even a superficial understanding of Northern politics knows only too well of an almost irresistible tendency within unionism for its leaders to be pushed towards the “not an inch” and “no surrender” position. Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner and David Trimble all fell foul of what we might now describe as Orange populism. So, instead of encouraging “understanding and reconciliation” within Northern society, Mallon’s proposal would simply give an incentive to irreconcilable loyalism.
As a consequence, it would undoubtedly marginalise and intimidate the emerging unionist middle ground, leaving it subject to well-practised accusations of Lundyism or possibly worse.
Moreover, and apparently overlooked in this discussion about unionism’s response to a poll favouring Irish unity, is the reaction from within the republican/nationalist population in the Six Counties.* What might be their response if told that nothing changes after gaining a democratic majority is surely the second and possibly greater flaw in Seamus Mallon’s thinking.
Left abandoned by the Southern state in 1921, and subjected for decades thereafter to the systemic injustices of the Orange state in the North, there is little affection within the republican/nationalist community for the political entity that is Northern Ireland. This community is unlikely to remain indifferent or passive if denied what has long been promised, i.e. that a vote to leave would be respected.
This throws up at least two unpalatable scenarios.
For a start, there is the obvious fact that even a slim majority in a border poll would be reflected in the make-up of any devolved administration. Under existing arrangements, this would mean a non-unionist first minister in charge of an administration with an anti-partition majority elected by a disgruntled community. Faced with an aggressively hostile unionism, and in order to appease its electorate, the assembly would probably introduce nationalistic legislation.
Imagine the tremors that would convulse many unionist circles when parity of esteem would be granted to Irish, to flying the Tricolour, and to enhancing all-Ireland institutions. How could peace and reconciliation prosper in that climate?
And this is the more benevolent scenario. It hardly needs pointing to something still more serious. There is the distinct possibility, indeed probability, of an intense republican armed campaign. How would a British government then defend its decision to ignore the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland? How long could London sustain support for such a position? And what scale of catastrophe might ensue if it were forced to withdraw in the face of domestic and global condemnation? How, indeed, would a Dublin government respond to such a situation?
Ideally it would be best if 100 per cent of the North’s population were to vote Yes in a border poll. Common sense indicates that this is a pipe dream; and therefore the next-best option, even if deemed the least-bad one, must prevail. Standing firmly over the democratic norm of 50 per cent + 1 offers the only viable option. It brings clarity and therefore reality to the process. Avoiding the ambivalence of a movable, arbitrary ceiling would force all concerned, including both states and people, to think seriously about the future.
Moreover, and contrary to Mallon’s jeremiad, by making it clear that a majority vote would be vigorously upheld would offer positive benefits. In the first instance it would become clear that violent resistance is futile while simultaneously strengthening the case of those advocating positive engagement.
Finally, though, none of the above removes the enormous onus that is on those advocating an end to partition to engage positively with the unionist population. Let us keep in mind that many in that community view the prospect of constitutional change with deep apprehension and fear. It is important, therefore, to argue persuasively and to convince them that socialist republicanism does not view this step as crude annexation by the “Free State.”
It is vital that our unionist neighbours (and indeed all workers) come to understand that they are being invited to join in the building of a new and better political entity in Ireland—a workers’ republic.
It has to be made clear that such a republic will not only guarantee freedom of conscience but will also provide a better standard of living for all. To do this requires the development of a programme encompassing these objectives.
In January of this year many of our readers and their friends gathered in Liberty Hall, Dublin, to celebrate the centenary of the first Dáil and to promote a Democratic Programme for the 21st Century. This initiative offers the opportunity to address these issues, but it must be developed and built upon by working at the grass-roots level to involve people meaningfully at the heart of political and economic life. We have to demonstrate to people what a progressive and thoroughly democratic Ireland will look like.
Let us therefore lay to rest the profoundly undemocratic notion being promoted by Seamus Mallon in A Shared Home Place. The elderly politician waited eighty-two years before writing this, his first book. It would be helpful if he waited another eighty-two years before writing a second.
*Republican/nationalist: Neither term is perfectly accurate in all cases, but it is used here for the sake of brevity.