Saturday 10 March 2012

Everyone gets a vote…except us

Bringing in the votes on another offshore island
HER Majesty’s Secretary of State  for Northern Ireland has no intention of allowing us to have a say on the issue of partition, as provided under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.  Last Wednesday (7 March,) Owen Paterson told the British House of Commons that he hadn’t received ‘a single letter or phone call’ asking for such a vote.
Owen Paterson
Paterson must not have been listening last month when Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called publicly for a referendum on the Border and even suggested that 2016 might be a good time to have it.  Perhaps our political overseer regards such widely reported public utterances on this side of the Irish Sea as being about as reliable as a ‘bogus Tweet ‘to RTÉ’s Pat Kenny.
However, McGuinness’s suggestion of a Border poll was welcomed by unionists who are confident of victory for the status quo on the basis of recent opinion polls. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds says 80% of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the UK. Leading unionist commentator Alex Kane even urged the British government to ‘bring it on’ in his 13 February column in the News Letter.
The Secretary of State must not have read his copy of the News Letter that day either.
Little wonder, therefore, that Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams described Paterson today (10 March) as  ‘not one of the most adroit or skilful’ Secretaries of State dispatched from Westminster to keep us in line: ‘Quiet down there at the back of the class! I’m not listening to a single word you’re saying!’
Letters and phone calls to our political overseers notwithstanding, the idea of a plebiscite on partition is never far from the surface of public discourse here. Most outsiders seems to believe we are fixated on the issue. So why do we need permission from Paterson or anybody else to address the question formally when any ‘smart Alex’ can set the date and even the question for Scots to tell England and Paterson’s Tory party where to go?
The Scots are straining at the bit for their referendum in 2014, while our polite  suggestion that we might have a vote two years later is met with a cursory caution to get back to our desks and don’t move until I say so.
It seems unfair, because compared to the Scots, we have more form on airing our views about the Sasanachs and their propensity to treat us like unruly children.
Stormont Assembly – sharing power, taking sides
Yet outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that every time we go to the polls in Northern Ireland we are casting votes for and against the Act of Union.  For the results of every election – from Westminster  parliament, to Stormont Assembly  to local councils – are interpreted as indicating the balance on the Border.
Notwithstanding the seemingly inexorable rise of Sinn Féin and the erosion of influence by Paterson’s erstwhile UCUNF allies in the Ulster Unionist Party – which is shedding its third leader since the Good Friday Agreement – the Union looms large in our lives over here. Just about every single act appears to indicate one’s views on the Border.  Where we live, go to school, shop, take a  short-break holiday, play or support sports and individual teams, and even what we call the political entity  in which we live,  reveal views on partition.
Never mind opinion polls, we are living the plebiscite daily . So who has time to write a letter or make a phone call to Owen Paterson?  Who even knows the address or phone number for his North Shropshire constituency office in England?
Yet when it comes to putting our ‘X’ where our mouth is, or listing our constitutional options in order of preference, it seems we must wait patiently while Her Majesty’s Secretary of State  deals with more pressing problems.  And those do not even include showing up for a debate  in Westminster Hall on reviving the Northern Ireland economy. Instead, Paterson showed up in the Commons with a fake Irish accent on Wednesday to tell a yarn about a soldier in the 87th Irish Foot who seized the standard of the French imperial  eagle in a Napoleonic Wars battle in March 1811:  ‘Bejesus I have the cuckoo!’  If the House hadn’t been almost empty, he might have been hauled up for racist  mockery.
But back to the Border and the chances of a ballot.  Given that everything we do seems to be taken as a declaration of how we would vote,  outsiders might wonder why we even need a formal referendum at  the pleasure of Her Majesty’s Secretary of State. One reason might be that we’ve never actually had a vote -off on the issue in the ninety years of Northern Ireland’s existence.
Boundary Commissioners Fisher,  Feetham and MacNeill in Armagh 1924
Partition was implemented in 1922 when the Dáil  voted for the  Anglo-Irish treaty.  Under Article 12,  a Boundary Commission  was to decide the eventual  lay of the land and both sides suspected, with reason,  that this would render Northern Ireland inoperable. Then a leaked disclosure of an unfavourable outcome  prompted Dublin to do a behind-the-scenes deal copper-fastening Unionist control of the six counties  in exchange for wiping out  its share of the Imperial War debt  (which would probably not have been paid anyway). 
So after 50 years of two sectarian states ,Britain decided we should have a vote – bizarrely called a ‘sovereignty referendum – at the height of the Troubles in  March 1973.  It was boycotted by nationalists  and republicans (less than 1% of Catholics  voted ) and produced  a meaningless 98.9%  ‘landslide’ . Even the Alliance Party which voted for the ‘union’ said voters should have been asked a different question.
Gerry Adams: Tiochfaidh ár lá!
Times change and so do the sides. Following the success of the all-Ireland referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, surely it is time to  use its provision for a vote on the constitutional position? Owen Paterson doesn’t think so, but Gerry Adams says a border poll is inevitable: ‘The political landscape in the north has been transformed in recent years and there is growing support for a united Ireland. A border poll is inevitable. Mr Paterson knows this. It is only a matter of timing.’
So the sides are already engaged, but the referee hasn’t even showed up at the right venue.

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