To reduce tensions, just tell the truth!
Sinn Fein’s recent call for a ‘Border Poll’ in three years is outside the terms of the 1998 Agreement, and is every bit as inflammatory as the delivery of leaflets targeting the Alliance Party on false grounds. Like those leaflets, it constitutes a deliberate attempt at raising tensions for an unattainable goal within this time-frame, causing untold harm by so doing. The fundamental problem is that politicians on either “side” of the sectarian divide are simply not telling people the truth!
Sinn Fein is, of course, democratically entitled to campaign for a Border Poll and there would be nothing at all wrong with a rational debate about it. However, anyone with even the remotest comprehension of Northern Ireland knows perfectly well that, if such a debate were held ahead of a referendum right now, it would be anything but rational. That is why the conditions required for the so-called “Border Poll” were so rigidly enshrined within the 1998 Agreement; conditions which state that there has to be evidence that it would lead to a change. No such evidence exists.
On 3 December, for the first time in the history of Ireland, Irish Republicans voted to fly the Union Flag over a Civic Building in line with the Crown’s own recommendations and in line with local authorities across the UK. That is what actually happened – think about this for a second! But how rational was the “debate” which followed? How should “confident Unionism” have responded to this obvious triumph?
Northern Ireland remains a fundamentally divided society. People’s choices – educationally, socially, politically and even constitutionally – remain more often than not conditioned by their “background”. Whenever that background is perceived to be under threat, however real that threat may be, there is potential for disruption and even violence. Sinn Fein proposing a three-year campaign at this time appears to confirm the fears of so many of the protestors that the “spectre” of a United Ireland is looming – even when, rationally, we know that it isn’t.
Any parent would know that the real issues we face are jobs, not flags; education, not symbols; health, not street names. Yet children are allowed out to block roads night after night, depriving themselves of training and education, and risking a criminal record. This is not the rational thing to do – but in the history of Northern Ireland, it is what happens when fear enters a community which perceives itself to be under threat.
To be clear, some Unionist Leaders are hardly helping matters with the suggestion that a return to the old days – in general, or specifically through things such as 365-day flag flying – is an option. We have seen this through, for example, the DUP bringing this to the Assembly Commission at Stormont – also at the height of recent tensions. To overcome the fear, change towards a better Northern Ireland has to be promoted, not manipulated. One of the biggest frustrations in inner-city, majority-Protestant communities is quite simply that people are not being told the truth!
Far from suggesting constitutional change is nigh, the census in fact suggests people are becoming ever more content with a “Northern Irish” identity, and that the key priority for politicians should not be inflaming tensions over flags or mock campaigns for “Border Polls”, but actually tackling the real issues around jobs, education and health that are most people’s daily focus. If politicians were to deliver tens of thousands of leaflets demanding better educational facilities, or calling for local polls on health provision, this would be a mark of a truly functioning, democratic society – this would remove the fear which is so much in evidence on the streets currently.
There is no justification for a single road to be blocked, but we should be clear: one of the reasons for the on-going protests is the straightforward point that too many politicians are not doing their job and people feel they do not know who to trust. Now, more than ever, we need politicians prepared to stop raising false expectations and instead to tell the people they represent the truth!