On this day one year ago I was sitting in Oude Markt, a large square adorned with bars and cafes in the heart of Leuven, Belgium. While my friends were drinking beer, I was checking my phone, waiting to see the result of Trinity’s Irish unity preferendum. A few weeks before, when I heard that the referendum would take place, I was both excited and frustrated.
I was excited that students in Trinity would have the opportunity to vote on such a crucial issue, but frustrated that I couldn’t campaign on the ground with my friends on account of studying abroad. Instead I opted to help run the TCD for Unity Facebook page. In the end, students voted by a small majority of 55% for neutrality, 43% for unity and 2% against unity.
Being from a border community that has suffered the devastating brunt of partition, I was disappointed by the result but I believe that it’s worth reflecting on the year that has passed since the preferendum and what it might mean for the future.
One year on and students from the North are still none the wiser about our future outside of the EU. One year on and students from the North still cannot marry someone of the same sex in their hometown or village. One year on and students from the North still cannot access abortion at home even while the Republic prepares to vote on the Eighth Amendment. One year on and Gaeilgeoirí are still denied official status for their native language in the six counties. One year on and Northern Ireland is still without a functioning executive.
The reasons why we need a united Ireland are still there and they won’t go away while the island remains partitioned. Since Trinity’s preferendum, University of Limerick and Dublin City University have voted in support of Irish unity, joining the ranks of National University of Ireland, Galway, University College Cork and University College Dublin.
Not only is this a great demonstration of solidarity with students from the North, it dispels the myth that a mandate for unity makes college a cold house for unionists. After all, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s pro-choice mandate didn’t stop pro-life students from attending college, being active on campus or voicing their views.
Trinity risks being left behind when we should be showing real leadership on Irish unity as we have on the Eighth Amendment and many other issues. It’s not too late to take action on the issue. Support for a united Ireland continues to grow in the North and remains consistently high in the South.
While it’s worth remembering that Trinity’s preferendum was explicitly non-binding, any change in the SU’s position would best be brought about by another referendum. Given the unprecedented uncertainty that Brexit has cast over the North, it is reasonable to expect another Irish unity referendum in Trinity at some point over the next few years.
The only thing more disappointing to me than last year’s result was the low turnout. There were 2,155 valid votes cast over two days, roughly 12% of Trinity’s student population. Only 257 votes separated unity from neutrality, 1.5% of the student population. Low turnout is a common problem across all universities, whether it’s for referenda or SU elections, but the noticeable apathy towards Irish unity needs to be challenged in the event of another vote on the issue.
Having lived only a couple of miles north of the border for most of my life, I will always support a united Ireland and engage with people on the issues that surround it. Many of these issues are student issues, like fees and travel. Many are issues that directly concern students, such as abortion and marriage equality. They are important issues and for that reason I believe that the question of Irish unity remains relevant and should be revisited by Trinity in the near future.
It must be remembered that a border poll in the North will require a concurrent referendum in the South. For Ireland to be united, a majority in both jurisdictions will need to vote for unity. Citizens south of the border have the same right as citizens north of the border to vote on the future of our island. We should not abdicate that responsibility.