Sinn Fein’s very reason for existing requires that they will call for a border poll during the life time of the 2015-19 Assembly. The tactic is about more than bravado. SF can afford to lose one poll and yet do well enough for another to be called within the prescribed seven years. It might be thought that here is another example of a party refusing to accept the sectarian consequences of their politics. But do not doubt that Sinn Fein will reject the criticism that now is not the time to call for a poll, albeit one to be held several years ahead. The time is always right to challenge loyalist blackmail by means of the ballot box and they will disavow any suggestion that they are playing a sectarian card.
Might a referendum cue in greater instability suggested by the flags dispute or clear the air as some suggest? In the run-up, would the blocs try to kill off the opposition by kindness? Would they be drawn inexorably into a new zero sum numbers game where each would have to decide whether to play an aggressively sectarian hand or recognise that each of them might need numbers drawn from the other side to win?
The pessimistic view is that the parties’ fumbling and stumbling over the flags dispute within and without the unionist bloc is a trailer for further fragmentation which a referendum call can only exacerbate. The optimistic line is that the dispute will yet be a wakeup call to the parties to begin tackling the intercommunal issues on which to date they have only created uneasy truces that still allow for skirmishes on the side.
It amazes me that while we have hints about the agendas of the forums and talks being held, there has been so little public discussion of the substance and only news of disagreements. This suggests to me that little has been worth leaking. And yet as the flags dispute grinds on, those agendas seem to be spontaneously lengthening without any sign of direction, a sad sight that says little for a spirit of coalition government. Figuring now are new flags and parades rules, the “one sided justice” arguments over dealing with the past, the “gerrymandered” boundaries of Greater Belfast. Small wonder then agreement hasn’t been reached.
What has surely happened is that wider unionist insecurity over numbers has been exposed as the not quite acknowledged backdrop to the protests.
The two governments have at last dipped their toes into the troubled waters to discover how they might help, but with no clear answer. Here I come back to the border poll question.
However the protests may be wound down, a debate is now inevitable on the conditions for a border poll. Although the verdict itself is a matter for both parts of Ireland alone, both governments have crucial interests in the terms of debate and should participate once the present dust has settled and its legacy becomes clear.
Should a referendum be triggered simply if more nationalists than unionists vote in an Assembly election, or as I believe, if nationalists were to win an overall simple majority in the Assembly, terms which I suspect would require Westminster legislation? Either would present the people and the parties with a fundmental choice, whether to adopt benign criteria of positive politics or continue playing the old zero sum game. One referendum lost in the 2015 Assembly and a second called after another seven years?
Would you welcome the prospect? Can it be resisted or played to general advantage? Is the choice too serious to be left to the parties alone? Experience elsewhere offers very complicated scenarios indeed. The political calculations would be closer to Quebec’s than Scotland’s but the climate whether sunny or stormy would be uniquely Northern Irish.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London