Dear QUB Sinn Féin,
The upcoming referendum in Queen’s University, Belfast, on the question ‘Should Ireland be a united and independent country?’ has engaged and outraged much of the student body, to no surprise I’m sure. The debate is lively and, more often that not, tainted with a familiar contentiousness.
I have long been in favour of a United Ireland. I hold this view for a variety of reasons (which I will elucidate at a later occasion), but it should be noted from an early point that the United Ireland I aspire to is in many ways radically different from that traditionally proposed by Sinn Féin. Be that as it may, I admire Sinn Féin as an undeniably progressive party (certainly in terms of their social policies) and thus I’m always tempted to lend my support, particularly in the arena of partition, or a future lack thereof.
It’s for this reason that I don’t smile smugly or knowingly (which as a croid, I’ve been known to do) when I confess my reluctance to fully endorse this referendum, at least as I write this to you now. Of course, the predictable shrieking, hysterical non-arguments that rampage -and indeed, will always desperately rampage- from certain unionist outlets are not what give me pause. Such classics include ‘referenda like this are divisive,’ and the marvellous ‘what about my sense of [insert nationality here]?’ These outbursts are easily dissected, and this indeed is something I hope to do in more detail soon. No, what struck me is two more moderate contributions.
The first rests on the following question: what is the job of Queen’s student council? Is it to discuss and pursue policies and practices in the interest of and for the betterment of the students of this university? If so, could the question of Irish unity really be considered to fall decisively under this category? I would contend that it does, but then, what doesn’t?
I propose that the constitutional question is one of the most important issues we face, not least for the fact that it does have an effect on everything we do. Still, is this an issue with which the student body should be burdened? I find myself stopping here, as I almost see the whispers of an old Better Together argument in my text, and seeing as I have for a long time been utterly reviled by that cohort of politically and economically illiterate British nationalists, I suppose I should crystalise the essence of my question: why is a Students’ Union, built for and by the students, compelled to state its collective view on a United Ireland?
The root of this point is in the neutrality argument: as a public provider of education, is it right for Queen’s University -while encouraging political debate- to adopt an official stance, as an institution, on constitutional questions such as Irish Unity? Is it consistent to claim the university maintains an ethos of critical and political debate, when the very institution itself has made up its mind on the issue? If QUB says ‘Yes’, where does that leave the debate? Where might a moderate unionist find an outlet in such an environment? What if they say ‘No’? What then for us who aspire to a genuine, social democracy across the island of Ireland?
If we take this referendum to be legitimate and justified, however, another qualm remains. There’s no doubt that a ‘Yes’ vote in any future Border Poll will require some very exemplary campaigning indeed, in addition to a radical change of public outlook. Most of the people I speak to on this issue continue to believe some of the most basic fallacies attached to the idea of Irish unity: ‘we’ll be poor’, ‘the South has no money’, ‘our NHS will disappear’ et cetera. These, faulty though they are as arguments, are my impressions on the ground of what a United Ireland currently means to the average person, across both communities. The pragmatic, positive vision of a United Ireland articulated by the likes of you and me, and that exists to the benefit of all who live and work on this island is there, but surprisingly few people have heard of it just yet. It will be a long battle to get that message out, and given the public’s -albeit largely unfounded or badly aimed- misgivings on a United Ireland, I must ask: is now the right time?
It has now been just over a month since Scotland rejected its own independence. A recent poll (albeit from The Belfast Telegraph, a rather dubious source) showed that while only 5.7% of Northern Ireland would vote ‘Yes’ in a Border Poll tomorrow, 24% would vote ‘Yes’ in 20 years time. I’m of the conviction that this minority will never vote ‘Yes’ unless they are convinced they will be better off for it (the same sort of attitude I mentioned above is present here, promulgated by those who still buy into the old, ingrained, imperial economic fallacy of ‘big country rich, little country poor’). Say for the sake of argument though that I’m mistaken, and they do mean to say that the time is simply not right. Is this referendum too soon? Could it steal us further away from a United Ireland?
I want to vote Yes. I want to help take this generation closer to a united Irish republic, where we can at long last have the pride and confidence in ourselves to hold a tangible influence in our own futures, both north and south of the border, and from within all communities. I want to help us escape the archaic, neoliberal oligarchy in which we find ourselves here in the UK, and increasingly the current Irish republic also. I want these things, but I need more convincing. I’m meeting with representatives from the student referendum campaigns shortly. Before the results on Monday, I hope to have quelled these worries.