IMAGINE this: it’s your 100th birthday, but instead of voices raised in ‘Happy Birthday’, all you can hear are muttered comments on whether you’ll be around for much longer. Not good for the morale, indeed, Virginia. But that’s the position unionist politicians find themselves in, this centenary year of the establishment of North(east)ern Ireland (NEI).

The Financial Times recently reported one Tory MP as saying: “The DUP have done more damage to the Union than the IRA, Sinn Féin and all the nationalist forces combined.” Former Chancellor of the Exchequer and now editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, took, if anything, a more biting line: “By remaining in the EU single market, it [NI] is for all economic intents and purposes now slowly becoming part of a united Ireland. Its prosperity now depends on its relationship with Dublin (and Brussels), not London.

The politics will follow.”  First Minister Arlene Foster finds herself facing muted concerns even from within her own party. Former leader Peter Robinson believes unionists need to “insure” themselves against a border poll. Gavin Robinson leans in:  “Peter is absolutely right not only about how we should think about these things, how we should engage in wider discussions within unionism, about how we strategise for ourselves, how we position ourselves, and how fundamentally we advance the cause of the union through thought and argument.”  

That’s Gavin’s slightly long-winded way of saying: “Batten down the hatches!” And what’s this? Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart says: “Gavin is taking a very sensible, pragmatic approach. It's vital that we prepare ourselves for the future and any scenario, including a border poll.” And crikey, mirabile dictu and did you ever? Gregory Campbell says he fully supports Gavin’s stand on the matter. Et tu, Brute?  

But those are all just points of view, opinion. What about facts? Well, there’s the fact that the latest LucidTalk poll shows that 51 per cent to 44 per cent of voters here want a border poll inside the next five years.  Down south Micheál Martin has promised to fund any NEI students wanting to follow the EU’s Erasmus scheme. That’s part of his Shared Island project, with £500 million ear-marked for cross-border projects .  


The wind does appear to be blowing one particular way, and nationalists/republicans have quite a bit to smile about.  But before any border poll, nationalists and republicans need to ensure some things are in place.

(i)  The south needs a health service that matches or even surpasses the NHS in the north.  Inclusion in the blueprint for a New Ireland simply won’t be enough. A strong, robust health service needs to be up and running in the south before any border poll. Promises are fine, but an established reality will be needed to convince some unionists.

(ii)  Nationalists/ republicans need to make clear that a united Ireland is NOT the south annexing the northern state. We’re talking about a new Ireland here and we need to know what we’re talking about. Plus, we need to be open to radical, maybe uncomfortable change: a new national anthem, a new flag, Stormont as a regional Assembly, a guaranteed number of unionist places in the Dáil. Tough topics but we must at least be open to the possibility of such changes.

(iii) Those calling for a border poll need to accept that detailed planning for a new Ireland MUST first take place. Otherwise, we’ll blunder into voting for…what? Abolition of the border?  Hah. Haven’t you noticed? It’s gone already. It’s what comes next that matters.

(iv) Nationalists/ republicans need to remind themselves that Brandon Lewis or his successor is a unionist. Successive British Secretaries of State, even PMs, have made that clear. So we’d better get wise to the fact that the British SoS will be looking at ways to avoid a border poll or, failing that, calling it in circumstances unfavourable to nationalists/ republicans. 

And there’s one major way he could do that: call it before nationalists/ republicans have done their homework on the shape of a new Ireland and the place of unionists within it.  As that great political thinker Roy Keane put it: fail to prepare, prepare to fail.