Irish Unity and TCDSU: Starting a constructive conversation

Why we shouldn’t take a direct stance on supporting a United Ireland, and how there is a better way forward for the Union on this question

At the meeting of the Students’ Union Council on 31 January 2023, there was a motion to hold a referendum on whether or not TCDSU should support a United Ireland. I spoke and voted against the motion and I’d like to better explain why. I support a United Ireland, yet I opposed this motion, both personally and in my capacity as a Class Representative with support from my class (after consultation). 

I want to note this topic is a very complicated one, and I only had 30 seconds to speak in Council, hence my contribution being summarised with the quote that the barrier to students from Northern Ireland attending College “isn’t the border, it’s f***ing housing”. I regret that I put that way, as soundbites can throw nuance out the window. It was late, I was stressed, and I had to rush through my points, but I don’t regret the substance. Maybe you’ll agree with me, maybe you won’t but a lot of us on both sides of that council debate spoke about wanting constructive conversation on a United Ireland, so I’m starting one now.

To begin with the motion itself, I’d like to specifically focus on the last two sections:

“Council recognises: that the reunification of Ireland will allow for better access to Trinity for Northern students, and will open up new opportunities for all the people of this island.

Council, therefore, resolves to put forward the following for the Long Term Policy referendum: TCDSU expresses its support for the reunification of Ireland, and will actively and inclusively campaign for Irish unity with recognition for all communities on this Island.”

In council, I made two points to respond to this. First, there was the soundbite mentioned previously. Personally, I know students from the North who wanted to go to Trinity and the problem wasn’t the border, it was housing and transport. Both the Irish and UK governments have made active efforts to minimise the barriers to education for their students studying in the other country. But the fact is that we don’t have sufficient accommodation for students here and limited public transport links with and within Northern Ireland only makes commuting feasible from a few areas. Obviously there is a valid point that having the same education system and the college application process could make it a smoother process for students from the North, but this still ignores something very important. If we are proposing that we support unification on the grounds that the border is an educational barrier, we are ignoring students from the North that want to go to University in Britain, which will be harder if borders are the barrier this motion makes them out to be. We would simply be proposing to move the problem based on our own ideology. That is inherently wrong and not what we should be doing as a Union. The proposing speaker asked “who are we to decide who is less entitled” to attend Trinity, but I saw this motion as suggesting we do exactly that but for other colleges by its own logic and have since found no reassurance otherwise.

“If the question of a United Ireland is as important as we all agree it is, we shouldn’t be passing motions with flimsy stated rationale.”

In response to criticisms from myself and others, it was argued that in the end, the previous lines weren’t as important as the actual mandate coming from the motion, and we should vote based on that. While I sympathise with this point of view, I couldn’t agree with it. If the question of a United Ireland is as important as we all agree it is, we shouldn’t be passing motions with flimsy stated rationale, because at the end of the day this Union’s main decision-making body passed it. The language we use matters, and if we do this, we need to get it right. Regardless, it was a fair point to make, so, why do I think passing or holding such a referendum would be problematic in and of itself? There are two main strands to my thought on this; the undefined nature of the proposal and why this issue is different to others.

There was reference made to other issues TCDSU has taken stances on, such as supporting Marriage Equality and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel, it was argued that these stances gave precedent for this motion to fit what the Union already does. I argue otherwise. I think the political issues that the union takes stances on do and should satisfy at least one of two criteria. They may be objectively student-related, such as issues like housing, the cost of living, and various long-term policies. These are clearly student issues because we are affected in a particular way as students, with a clear and direct remedy of the issue for students. A United Ireland obviously has implications for students, but there is no guarantee of which side will be better for students. More on that later.

Stances that don’t meet this criteria are moral issues, with clear outlines of what the union is campaigning for. TCDSU’s support of BDS was brought up as an example of a very political issue the Union has taken a stance on. You may disagree with me, but I argue these are very different. They’re both related to complex political conflicts, but with BDS, we are taking action against a state that attacks innocent civilians as well as pushing our college to divest from companies complicit in this violence. The College held shares in arms companies that supply Israel until very recently. The question of a United Ireland is about a fundamental change on this island, both for those who support it and those who vehemently oppose it as well, and students have many other ways they can campaign for this should they choose to do so. We could play example chess all day on what the Union should/should not take a stance on, so what’s my other point?  

“I believe that the SU should engage in discussion on what a United Ireland might and should look like if it happens, but this doesn’t and shouldn’t have to involve us signing up to it from the outset.”

We do not know what a United Ireland will entail, we just don’t. There have been no negotiations, no agreements, no guarantee of any progress on the horizon. This isn’t to say that there won’t be movement on this or that it’s irrelevant, but it is not clear yet in any way what a United Ireland will look like. So, when we ask the student body to support a United Ireland, what are we asking them to support? I don’t think it’s right to ask students to sign blank cheque mandates. There is a valid argument that there will never be clarity if we don’t engage in discussion; I agree. I believe that the SU should engage in discussion on what a United Ireland might and should look like if it happens, but this doesn’t and shouldn’t have to involve us signing up to it from the outset. If you think it does, then you don’t think a unionist can engage in these discussions.

Let’s not forget Unionists and the undecided in this discussion. If you want to achieve a United Ireland, you need to convince them. How would passing this motion achieve this? It will look to them like southerners blindly supporting a United Ireland, which threatens their identity. We should be focusing on getting details, that’s the only way you convince anyone.

I would enthusiastically support any motion mandating TCDSU to engage in constructive dialogue about what a United Ireland can look like from a neutral student-oriented perspective. The motion said to campaign “inclusively… with recognition for all communities on this Island,” surely this would be a better way to go about that, and when we do get more clarity on what this will look like for students, which I do sincerely hope we get, I would welcome a referendum. While soundbites and headlines are fun, when it comes to issues this complex and important, the devil is in the details.