The unity debate is overlooking an important distinction
Lorcan Mc Laren explains why those who are pro-unity should still vote neutral in this week’s preferendum on Irish unity
Debate on the prospect of a unified Ireland is often characterised as impervious to logic and deeply personal. Beliefs on both sides are formed by the community in which one grows up and most people, north and south of the border, have an instinctive and deeply emotional reaction. However, the preferendum on Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s (TCDSU) stance on Irish Unity is not a personal vote and should not be considered as such. If a pro-unity stance is taken, the SU would be mandated to lobby in favour of a United Ireland on behalf of all Trinity students.
As a student who grew up in a border-town and who lost family members to the Troubles, I would urge you to vote with your head rather than your heart in this preferendum. While I and many others in favour of a neutral stance would one day like to see a United Ireland, we share the belief that a pro-unity stance would have negative consequences for both the SU and the students of Trinity, and little consequence at all in the political sphere.
TCDSU currently has mandates on issues that some students do not agree with, including their stance on the 8th Amendment and on fossil fuel divestment. These mandates have a sizable consensus and yet questions have been raised about students’ automatic membership and funding of an organisation that may not always represent their views. A stance on Irish Unity would not only be orders of magnitude more divisive than those just mentioned and raise questions about the very function of TCDSU, but it would also be entirely unnecessary and inconsequential. There is simply no target for the SU to lobby on this issue.
“Efforts to lobby the Dáil before the late-stages of this process would have no effect and the SU does not have jurisdiction to lobby Northern Irish bodies”
Under the 1998 Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must be the one to initiate legislation proposing Irish Unity. This would then be put to a vote in Northern Ireland before citizens of the Republic can have their say. Efforts to lobby the Dáil before the late-stages of this process would have no effect and the SU does not have jurisdiction to lobby Northern Irish bodies. In effect, we could be sacrificing the consolidated voice that TCDSU provides for nothing.
“Should TCDSU take a stance that would alienate an entire portion of the population, no matter how much some of us may disagree with their beliefs?”
It is also important to note that TCDSU is not a government – it can afford not to take a stance on certain issues. The neutrality campaign has repeatedly asserted that there is simply no benefit in having a stance in this case. The Brexit Lobby Group of the SU is currently working in the interests of students on mitigating the potential repercussions Brexit could have. If the prospect of Irish Unity becomes likely, this group and the SU at large can expand their campaign to include this. For now, it is a game of hypotheticals.
“The pro-unity campaign has made unfounded claims that sectarian culture will cease, that reproductive rights will strengthen, that this will galvanise the fight for equal education”
The Provost, Patrick Prendergast, has described his goal of making Trinity “a university for the whole island of Ireland”. Should TCDSU take a stance that would alienate an entire portion of the population, no matter how much some of us may disagree with their beliefs? As someone who wants to see a unified Ireland, what I do not want to see in Trinity is a stopper put on the debate of an extremely complex legal, political and cultural issue. The pro-unity campaign has made unfounded claims that sectarian culture will cease, that reproductive rights will strengthen, that this will galvanise the fight for equal education. The political implications of a pro-unity stance are minimal. The implications for current and prospective students are myriad.
A neutral stance is not a claim that the island of Ireland should not or could not be unified. Nor is it a claim that Ireland as a whole would not benefit from this process. What it would mean is that TCDSU will not be mandated to lobby on this issue. This would avoid alienating current and potential students and maintain an environment that allows balanced and nuanced discussion of all consequences with input from all parties.
At this point, it seems hasty and unwise to take what is effectively an irreversible, ill-considered and inconsequential stance. We are not voting on Irish Unity this week. We are voting on whether the SU should have a stance on Irish Unity. This distinction is being overlooked in much of the debate.