Why is Colum Eastwood pulling his punches on a border poll?

There is no point in denying the appeal of a united Ireland within the EU, even if the threat of a hard border turns out to be exaggerated for its malign effects on trade, integrated agriculture and ease of movement and Theresa May’s team returns from Brussels in triumph. It transcends narrow nationalism and reflects the Remain verdict in the EU referendum which put nationalism on the winning side, courtesy of quite a few on the unionist side.

For the SDLP, Colum Eastwood  stretches a point  to claim that a “border poll is no longer solely the project of Irish nationalism but of pro-European internationalism,”  adding  that  “ unionists were part of his vision for the future of a “reconciled Ireland..  The kind of united Ireland he wanted “was not where we have some sort of scorched earth policy”.

“We’ve a vision for a united Ireland – it’s not about beating anybody, it’s not about one more push and we’ll get there… we’re thinking about building relationships and reconciling.”

I’m sure he’s perfectly sincere about that.

But keen readers owe thanks to John Manley of the Irish News for pointing out that  “there is no pledge to hold a border poll in the SDLP manifesto. Nevertheless, during questioning from journalists, Mr Eastwood said his party supported a referendum – but not until after the Brexit negotiations have concluded.

It is extremely odd for a party leader to toss out in an aside such an important matter as support for a border poll. Although it was hardly a new thought it was bound to steal such headlines as he got. His handling of the topic suggests that Eastwood is caught  in an immediate dilemma between preventing Sinn Fein from outflanking him on the nationalist side and antagonising unionist voters he might need to hold seats like south Down and even Foyle. It’s not as  if he didn’t have a viable  alternative. He could have  postponed serious consideration on a border poll until the drift  of the Brexit negotiations becomes clear.

Unionists will react cynically to the pro-EU, internationalist spin Eastwood is putting on the referendum call, as he pretends that the appeal of a unity in the EU is stronger than the pull of fashioned nationalism. That said, supporting a post- Brexit referendum is  entirely  rational. There’s a great debate to be held that unionists shouldn’t fear and can’t eventually avoid.
The  immediate test  for the SDLP is whether they’re now in a position to encourage greater unionist- nationalist and north-south cooperation to mitigate Brexit or administer its alleged benefits. They might consider that unionist cooperation, although I agree it’s a matter of self interest, would be better facilitated without being identified with eventual unity. Which if it comes to it, will the SDLP choose? How does he relate all this debate to  the resumption of the Assembly?

Interestingly while Eastwood had a lot to say about the EU there’s barely a word here about the economic advantages and social structures of the UK which objectively have to be taken into account and are indispensable to today’s Northern Ireland. Indispensable and foreseeably irreplaceable.

The SDLP make much of taking their Westminster seats by contrast with SF, a case I don’t recall ever having been stressed so much before. Their participation in Westminster might have led them to take  greater account of the awkward economic arguments that need to be addressed if unity is to be debated with integrity.

Otherwise UI  is still largely conceived of  in an old fashioned, purely numbers game on a nationalist identity theme which refuses to recognise that constitutional referendums are inherently divisive. If it continues to be debated on those terms, we could face disaster. It will only stiffen unionist resistance just like the resistance of nationalists to partition. .

If the Brexit referendum was a bad thing, why are UI referendums a good thing?

There must be a better way. We have it and it’s expressed in the GFA.

Arlene Foster’s comment that she will not see a border poll in her lifetime (“I’m confident about that”) smacks of her first kneejerk  dismissal of an Irish Language Act. Almost certainly she is wrong and almost certainly she knows it. Breathing defiance against a future reality is a sign of weakness not strength. The point to make is the flip side of the point that can be made to Colum Eastwood or Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill for that matter.

Will unionists refuse to engage with nationalists to mitigate the effects of Brexit because it might seem like stringing along with a united Ireland agenda?  That would be just as foolish as nationalists  refusing to acknowledge the lack of a substitute for Northern Ireland’s dependency on the British economy and the likelihood of unionist resistance.

If nationalists are so concerned about the threat to the peace process of a physical border, why do they so casually dismiss (in public at least) the far greater threat from removing the border altogether?

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