If they let it drift too long, we could be back to 1969

I was very struck by the passion and eloquence of  comments on my post calling on the governments to make firm proposals to get the Assembly back. Most of it came from Sinn Fein supporters insisting that moment has passed because the  DUP  failed to honour their agreements and  still behave like a majority without realising (“the fools, the fools”) that those days are over. They’re set on believing that the DUP will never change so  the time has come  in some unspecified way  for the new nationalist majority to take the gloves off.  So far, so familiar and slightly alarming.

I presumptuously laid out a programme which addressed the Sinn Fein agenda  (why not? somebody’s got to). I wasn’t surprised  that this was brushed aside or ignored altogether. It’s  never the policy it’s the politics that counts. Now you may say this is what you get in blogs. But no, I think these were authentic voices of millennials mainly, who are fed up with being stuck with the old IRA tag. What I  saw was something uncannily familiar from a past they could not know, that  they’re looking for recognition and respect  with an impatience  that reminds me strongly of  my civil rights contemporaries of a generation  ago.

Are we any the wiser today?  Come on, discrimination is dead, there are no baton-wielding cops weighing into demos at the whim of a minister and hey we’ve got power sharing. You can’t argue that the unionists have nothing left except the border and at the same time claim  you’re still unequal . You’re still at the old game, your one aim and object… you’ll never  give up  until you‘ve achieved it… how  can we ever trust you… etc etc. Well indeed!

Both sides may be miscalculating, just as the old unionist government did when they accused the civil rights movement of being IRA puppets and the CR movement lost control of itself  in the drift to disaster.  You may say again that the big difference is that today, these people really do believe  they can “overthrow the state” by peaceful means.

The alternative view – which was certainly the case in 1969 – is what they  really want is proper acknowledgement within the system and they must be taken seriously because they sincerely  believe it. It isn’t good enough  or politic enough to  protest with facts. There is a big difference  between these  two interpretations. A lot hangs on choosing the right one. It could mean the  difference between a better or worse peace.

A programme of reform is not enough  just as it was too little, too late in 1969-70. On the legacy you could throw open all the state archives like East Berlin 1989 and it would make no difference. People will believe what they want to believe from the very considerable evidence  now available. The state – now or in any different future form – will never accept  equivalence between  state forces and insurgents. You can enact all the equality laws you can think of and some people will remain alienated.

This perhaps is why the parties are talking past each other in a dialogue of the deaf the British government  do not understand.  Unionist behaviour has changed more than angry republicans give it credit for but nowhere near enough.   Sinn Fein’s  low cunning is as great as ever.

My lesson is this: In power sharing it is not enough to look after your own side within a framework that regulates equality. Cold equality  is not enough either and can never be symmetrical.  A reform agenda is essential but it will need a genuine  commitment from unionists this time  to make it work. It’s commitment more than the detail – admissions that yes, we got it wrong and we will  give our necessary approval for some things for the very reason you want them and they don’t hurt us.  That just might  make the difference and produce the “sea change.”

The  proper response from republicans would be  just as demanding  after the surge. They must stop pressing for a border poll and look ahead to developments without trying to control them at every stage. This is exactly what unionism got so terribly wrong for half a century of single party government. The prospect is tantalising of a second election that comes near to touching 50% for nationalism, so how could a border poll be denied? It takes mighty judgement to accept that mirror image triumphalism is not appropriate for nationalism even  in this atmosphere of elation and  anticipation.  Monopoly government will never be an option for Sinn Fein  north or south or both. They should remember they will always need partners.

I’m resigned to the charge  that asking for yet more republican patience  as they see it,will seem like the  request a unionist  pleading for mercy and desperate to avoid the inevitable.  But it’s  bigger than that. It’s asking them calmly to consider that although it may seem to them that the republican ducks are lining up nicely  in a row, now is not the time and this is not the way, because unity, if it is to be the  settled will of the people, will not be a happy outcome unless it has a significant margin of appreciation among those who think profoundly differently from them. In short, unionists in the sharpest contrast to nationalists a century ago must be persuaded and that will take time and with no guarantee of success.

This is the hardest of bullets to bite but it is surely the big lesson of history. However if the point is reached when the numbers for unity really are decisive, it will be time to think again. A border poll now, imagined as the beginning of a climactic seven year countdown to unity, would serve only to alienate unionists more, without any real prospect of the result. It is a windup, not a strategy.

It may take more time for this penny to drop among the the eager and impatient but the  pragmatists of the leadership must  realise that is overreach today.   Sinn Fein must do that difficult thing and  urge restraint from the very  grass roots  who created the surge in order to settle, later perhaps than sooner. Unionists  in turn must realise that  any republican forbearance must be matched by adopting a reasonable version of an agenda  which in no way threatens their position, unless the very fact of last ditch resistance makes it so. It ought to come as a blessed relief to unionists to drop the burden of pretending that it is “our” state any more, when it manifestly has to be shared.

Then from each side we the people who are excluded from this encounter will  need to see the shape of things to come. That is only possible in debate and action in government in the resumed Assembly. On Brexit whatever your outlook,  it is surely obvious that all the institutions of the GFA should be up and running and ready to work together, to exert maximum impact on the outcome. It may well be that the advantages of placing the economic border in the Irish sea outweigh the national symbolism of shifting it.  Unionists should have the self confidence and maturity to support it.

The people can probably navigate the cultural streams better than the politcians whose unfortunate instinct is to weaponise them.

The future is unpredictable and it could be dangerous.  Hopefully  the elation of the Sinn Fein  “victory” will not turn to ugly disillusion and provoke a matching unionist response Or unionist insecurity provokes etc etc.. .  But if they all let it drift too long we may be back to 1969. And we know what happened then.

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