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United Ireland Referendum Needs to Involve Minority Groups as ‘Balance of Power Sits with Those Left Out of the Conversation’

Migrant communities could be the hidden kingmakers in a border poll, but to engage they must feel safe

Sign on the Ireland/Northern Ireland border, from the 1916 Societies who are in favour of a United Ireland, warning that there can be no border. Photo: Stephen Barnes/Northern Ireland News / Alamy
Sign on the Ireland and Northern Ireland border, from the 1916 Societies who are in favour of a United Ireland, warning that there can be no border. Photo: Stephen Barnes/Northern Ireland News / Alamy

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The island of Ireland is home to hundreds of thousands of citizens who were not born in the United Kingdom or Ireland. This growing community of migrants – many of whom have naturalised as Irish or British – could potentially have a deciding vote in a future border poll; after all, it’s their future too.

Since 2011, over 175,000 people have naturalised as Irish citizens. In the Republic of Ireland one in five people were born outside the UK or Ireland, and the 2021 census in Northern Ireland recognised the highest number of migrant populations normally resident on record at 150,000. Whilst it remains unknown whether or not the right to vote in a border poll will be extended to long-term residents or commonwealth citizens, what is certain is that those who have made Ireland their home and have become dual Irish or British citizens will have a vote. So just what are their views?

Martin Mendes Passarim moved to Ireland from Spain, gaining his Irish citizenship in 2019. For the 36-year-old, a united Ireland is a “decolonisation process” and he will be voting “yes” in any referendum to reunify the island of Ireland.

“Ireland has a lottery ticket that hasn’t been claimed …  a border poll is a great opportunity, I see it as a way of creating a better, more just and progressive country. 

The partitioning of Ireland was a historic mistake that has only brought trouble and division to the island – I don’t think Irish people got anything good out of partition

Martin Mendes Passarim

New York native Debra Savage – a retired former government staffer at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) – said Brexit was “the tectonic plates drifting … being shackled to the rest of the UK is becoming less attractive the more we go on”. Savage adds that if she was asked which way she would have voted in a border poll ten years ago, her response would have been “it depends”. Now she is “minded” to say yes.

Zimbabwean Human rights activist Sipho Sibanda contends that there are “a lot of positive things we can inherit from a united Ireland” but says that “When it comes to a united Ireland, migrants are not being asked that question, very few are being asked.”

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At present the debate surrounding a united Ireland is largely relegated to unionist and nationalist aspirations. Pro-united Ireland campaign groups are strides ahead of their pro-union counterparts in organising large-scale conferences and events, however there is an over-egged emphasis on the participation of unionists while minority groups – some of whom number much larger demographically – have been left largely outside of the conversation. Savage says a border poll will be “won and lost in the middle”. 

Traditional unionists will largely vote to remain in the UK whilst most nationalists are likely to vote for a united Ireland, the balance of power will rest with those who sit outside the traditional two communities of Northern Ireland, and migrant communities will form a considerable percentage of this cohort.

Many of those who have made Ireland their new home hail from countries that have experienced some form of historical oppression – some regions may even still be suffering its effects. Passarim posits this will benefit the pro-unity campaign, suggesting that “people who have been historically oppressed normally have a tendency to relate to each other”. Savage also believes that transitioning to a new “country” would not be as difficult for migrant communities; “we have already moved countries, what’s the difference?”

That doesn’t mean that migrant communities don’t have concerns. Sibanda suggests that there would be “worry and the fear of the unknown”, citing inequalities in the Republic of Ireland and socioeconomic issues such as the housing crisis, “but people do want to embrace the fact that we will be part of the EU.”

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Sibanda raises the threat posed by the far right and the topic of inclusion in a united Ireland, “Would it embrace us? Or will we always be the outcasts that get pulled out when things go wrong?” Ireland has a small but increasingly violent far right movement with frequent attacks on facilities earmarked for refugee housing. Over the course of the past 18 months there has been an alarming spike in racially motivated arson, assaults, and riots.

SDLP Councillor Lilian Seenoi-Barr made history in June when she became Northern Ireland’s first black mayor, but she has reportedly received death threats and sustained racist abuse and harassment since the news broke. This bigotry poses a particularly daunting challenge for nationalism and those advocating for a united Ireland; migrant communities could be the hidden kingmakers in a border poll, but to engage they must feel safe.

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In looking to the future, Sibanda would like to see a vote on a united Ireland. She says, “it’s been long enough”, and suggests work should begin now to include the voices of migrant communities in key areas of discussion; “Health is one of the biggest questions, and a lot of healthcare workers are migrants”. Passarim would like to see citizens’ assemblies tackling the work of a new constitution with a focus on social rights, while Savage believes, “any border poll has to have a white paper, there has to be a road map”. 

Yet eight years after Brexit that road map still doesn’t exist. While that disastrous decision may have brought the potential for a border poll forward by decades, a lack of vision, ambition, and political leadership is stunting the progress toward an effective campaign strategy. 

Too often, debates on a new Ireland are weighted by older white men and whilst their voice is a valued component of the broader chorus of public opinion, how much more might we glean about both ourselves and the sort of society we want to build if we broadened the tent to include migrant voices, LGBTQI+ voices, disabled views, Travellers, more women, and the young people who will be left to take this new society forward? The longer the diversity of wider society is left out of the conversation, the more difficult it will be to plot an inclusive way forward.


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