TCDSU’s vote for a preferendum on taking a stance on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland defies both right and reason. The preferendum, proposed and voted upon by the SU council on Valentine’s day, can only go badly. There is no possible positive outcome: the preferendum itself will be a polarising mess with Northern students in the crossfire, and, outcomes aside, it is morally wrong to suggest that the SU should have a foot in this particular doorway. This is a terrible idea.
The Student’s Union’s stance on a United Ireland, whether for or against, will do nothing to prevent or hurry the process. TCDSU and the students it represents are far away from the minds of anyone with influence on Northern Irish politics. Even though there are campaigns on many issues as it stands, a stance on a United Ireland is fundamentally different from the SU taking one on issues such as the Eighth Amendment, Divestment from Fossil Fuels, or the rights of non-academic staff; in all of the other cases, the SU is a part of the jurisdiction in which it is trying to bring about a change (whether this be Trinity or the State of Ireland), and has a clear target to lobby, such as the Irish Government, or Trinity’s Board of Governors.
It is unclear whose mind this preferendum, and the campaigning which would come from it, are aimed at changing; the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would only be changed through a vote of the six counties, not through any kind of government action in the Dáil.
TCDSU, in passing this motion, makes leaping assertions about both the purpose of the SU and the realities of the political situation in Northern Ireland. The justification for the preferendum is that “Northern Ireland has never been closer to having a referendum”. In spite of the Brexit vote and the possibility of a hard border, there is very little reason to expect a border poll any time soon.
The majority of people in Northern Ireland are happy with the relative stability and peace offered by power-sharing, even though it has been tested recently by the RHI scandal. This particularly applies to young people (notably students) who never directly interacted with conflict and have little reason to harbour bad blood or a sense of having ‘unfinished business’. Given that a referendum in The North on a United Ireland would significantly raise tensions and upset the peaceful order in which young people are carving out careers and lives, it is not only unnecessary for TCDSU to demand this, but also a significant misrepresentation of their constituency of students.
Significantly, the role of this preferendum is to take a campaigning stance specifically to lobby in the case of a border poll in The North. It is unlikely that this will become anything but an official stance that will be occasionally mentioned but functionally ignored: The Student’s Union doesn’t have the resources to spend on every campaign that they take on board. If a United Ireland were to become a priority campaign, it would take away massive amounts of resources from other SU activism on issues like Repealing the 8th and Mental Health.
In spite of this nonsense preferendum, Trinity’s Student’s union knows the difference between taking a stance and making something a priority, and will keep a focus on the issues that concern and can be affected by the majority of students in Trinity, rather than expend massive amounts of resources on a hypothetical debate outside the SU’s remit. This preferendum is a waste of resources, but TCDSU are responsive enough to students to not let it be an endless fire that they will continue to throw money on. As a consequence, the commitment being made to campaign will most likely be a hollow gesture.
Even if we were to assume this preferendum by TCDSU could make difference, there are moral issues with holding this as a poll of Trinity students as a general body: it is insulting to Northern students to allow our Students union, by a general vote, to take a clear stance on a United Ireland; a preferendum on whether it would be in the Interests of the South to allow the North to join (in a Southern border poll) would perhaps be more appropriate, but to have a stance on whether Ireland should or should not be united, in a philosophical sense, seems to be a direct attempt to influence Northern students in a border poll, rather than a real acknowledgement of our actual opinions on this issue.
It is regrettable that the SU did not feel it appropriate to put this out for any kind of closed consultation of those actors most affected (students from the North) before turning this into a public debate about the interests of that minority.
The issue of a public discussion about the goals and rights of a minority is the core problem with this preferendum; no matter which stance that is taken, this preferendum will have unacceptable effects on both prospective and current students in Trinity that hail from the North. In the short run, the campaign will be exhausting for northerners. It is likely that the kind of polarising dialogue that often consumes politics in Belfast will seep into our own discussions in Dublin.
These conversations rarely go anywhere, but often place a demand upon someone to pick a side. Unionist or Nationalist? British or Irish? Catholic or Protestant? The debate about these issues is not as simple as the language used (on the ballot paper and by people on the outside), and the inevitable expectation that Northern Irish students will have a learned opinion unfairly demands that we disclose a particular one. I am certain that I will be asked by multiple people in the next few weeks which way that I intend to vote, and I am uncomfortable with TCDSU putting me into a position of having my identity questioned like this for little gain.
In the long term, the result of this preferendum will become an official policy that may tell students from one side or the other, both existing and incoming, that for Unionists the Students Union they are forced to join either believes that their country should not exist, or for Nationalists their home has no right to be a part of the place to which they feel they belong.
The only correct option to avoid alienating some Northern students is to profit from the ambiguity of having no policy at all, but to officially sanction this with a choice of not having a policy both risks endangering that ambiguity, and will disappoint those on one side or the other who would want a different outcome, after an alienating election period.
Trinity’s Student’s Union faces a raft of criticism every time it chooses to campaign on something beyond the very base issues of fees and library fines. Pro-life students feel disengaged, and that their fees are being unfairly and immorally used, because the SU wishes to Repeal the 8th.
In spite of this, it is a good thing that we realise the need to represent female students, given the majority of us agree that abortion is a right that the Irish government should bestow. Voting on a United Ireland is vastly different; it is vastly unclear who we’re campaigning against, to, or on behalf of. All of the normal controversy about the SU’s political role will surround this preferendum, with the added issue of how this process marginalises students from the North. Even as a defender of The SU in the majority of cases, it is hard to see this vote as anything but a strange and meaningless hill that council has chosen to die on.