The importance of this week’s preferendum on whether Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) should officially support a united Ireland has the potential to be overlooked. After all, students’ unions can often be a bit of an echo chamber and don’t have a huge ability to influence high political issues like Irish unity, so students wouldn’t be blamed for viewing the preferendum with an air of futility. That said, if the union was mandated to support a united Ireland, it would do little more than serve to alienate a significant proportion of Trinity’s Northern Irish students and stymie discussion on the issue. Therefore, it is a significant poll for the student community.
For the last week, campaigners have been visible throughout campus, stopping students to discuss the preferendum and handing out leaflets. Reading through the different literature, it is clear that the campaigning strategies of the “Neutral for Trinity” and “TCD for Unity” groups is significantly different. The pro-neutrality group’s message is simple, albeit a bit boring: do not give TCDSU a mandate to support Irish reunification in order to “ensure that all students from Northern Ireland can feel represented by their Students’ Union” and to maintain an environment where everyone feels comfortable to express their view on this divisive issue.
If the union was mandated to support a united Ireland, it would do little more than serve to alienate a significant proportion of Trinity’s Northern Irish students and stymie discussion on the issue
The pro-unity campaign, on the other hand, has been making broader and more emotive arguments in favour of a united Ireland. They have persistently cited a survey conducted by director of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia, Dr Kurt Hübner, which suggests that, “under ideal political conditions”, the island of Ireland could stand to gain €36.5 billion in eight years as a result of reunification. The prevailing economic consensus, however, is that Irish unity would bring with it major economic consequences. At present, the Northern Irish economy is supported by a €6 billion annual subvention from Westminster. If reunification was to become a reality, someone would still have to foot this bill. Yes, the EU might cover some of it, but it would be the Irish taxpayer who would end up with major tax increases as a result.
The pro-unity campaign also claims that Irish unity would end the sectarian culture of “them” and “us”. This is about as accurate as Boris Johnson saying that Brexit will see £350 million per week invested in the NHS. The Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence, was signed less than 20 years ago and the situation in the North remains volatile. To suggest that some unionist groups would accept a united Ireland lying down is to have little or no understanding of the context or history of the situation. It is not too much to suggest that reunification in the current climate has the potential to return the North to violence.
Despite the wider arguments for and against Irish unity at the present time, this preferendum boils down to whether or not TCDSU should take a stance on the issue. The union predominantly takes stances on issues that directly affect students and sometimes on broader political issues where students are central to campaigns like repealing the eighth amendment. The links between Irish unity and the student movement are, at best, tenuous.
The complexities of reunification should also not be overlooked. Under the Good Friday Agreement, calling a border poll lies solely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – a member of the British government. When it comes to repeal the eighth, for example, it is clear what TCDSU’s mandate means: it will campaign and lobby the government to call a referendum on repealing the 1983 amendment. The actions that the union would take if mandated to support a united Ireland, though, are extremely unclear. For example, will it lobby the Northern Irish Secretary, James Brokenshire, a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party – the only person with the power of calling a referendum? Unlikely. Therefore, even if you support a united Ireland further down the line (as I suspect many in Trinity do), ask yourself whether your students’ union should be mandated to support it and whether or not it’s the best vehicle to forward that agenda.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, calling a border poll lies solely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – a member of the British government
Although some may feel that voting “neutral” is a bit of a cop-out and not in line with their wider ambitions to see a united Ireland in the future, the vote is about whether or not we want an inclusive campus where a divergence of views on Northern Ireland can be openly expressed and accepted. Even though the majority of Trinity’s students support extending abortion rights in Ireland, the union’s stance on repealing the eighth amendment has alienated a minority of students and has contributed to a stifling of debate on the issue. By taking a stance on this equally (if not more) divisive issue, those from backgrounds that don’t support Irish unity will undoubtedly feel alienated within their own college community.
When you vote this week, vote to maintain open dialogue in Trinity on Irish unity. TCDSU has limited resources and limited political clout and should, therefore, be focusing on issues that directly affect its students and those it can make the biggest difference on. The impact it could have on this issue is negligible. After talking to pro-unity campaigners, it is clear their intentions are genuine. If they want to pursue their agenda, however, they should do so independently of a union that should strive to represent all of its mandatory members.