The distracting haze of our daily media sideshow – such as a severed wheel clamp, Jamie Bryson’s travel plans or a loaf of bread – brings with it the side-effect of obscuring an otherwise glaring point about our political tug-of-war.
As sure as a new day brings with it a new ‘issue’ just divisive enough to keep the airwaves full of noise and drama without the effort of digging too deeply, it will also bring more and more material in support of two basic facts: 1, The Union isn’t going to stay the same for the DUP forever and, 2; a United Ireland isn’t going to happen for Sinn Féin in anything close to its desired form or under sole Sinn Féin ownership.
These two factors lead to one overarching and all-encompassing question. We’ll get to that in a second.
Meanwhile, with constitutional change inevitable in the decades to come, we have one major party in a position of ‘defence…and hope it lasts forever’ and the other basing its existence on eyeing a prize it cannot win.
In this environment, supported politically by a see-saw of voting that, too, cannot last much longer, every effort to govern Northern Ireland locally is doomed to failure without asking this of ourselves: Northern Ireland WILL see a constitutional crisis soon enough due to changes in views held by the population (and not the red herring of demographic shift re religious groups) as well as outside factors such as Brexit, ScotRef 2 and a border referendum, so why not stop everything until we tackle our constitutional and identity questions right now?
The alternative? We’ll face the same debate in the future, with possible violent and/ or economy-destroying consequences, and today’s political parties will have achieved nothing except to be able to say “at least it didn’t happen on my watch”.
There’ll never be a good time to face this down. But we will have to confront it.
Why not now?
The problem with a defensive position is that, to borrow an unfortunate old Troubles analogy, those who oppose you only need to be lucky once. Meanwhile, the person defending needs to be lucky all the time.
And outside the bunker? The world keeps changing. And changing fast.
In recent times, recent days even, the DUP have managed to:-
- Drive a Brexit line between themselves and more liberal Unionists
- Humiliate the Tories (again, and will not be forgotten for this in the future)
- Abandon the airwaves to the far-right
- Cause soft-Unionists and ‘neithers’ to talk about a United Ireland in new ways
- Move further away from future more secular voters
- Curry my yoghurted their way into a corner of their own making; and
- Be broadly seen as responsible for closing down countless jobs dependant on Stormont
Meanwhile, we’re all suddenly carrying Irish passports, Corbyn stands in waiting, the DUP ’s Gerry-shaped bogeyman begins to fade into the mist, Ireland begins to show its Brexit-provoked teeth and Sinn Féin have been helped to prove that NI is ungovernable locally.
Most of all, the words ‘joint authority’ and ‘border poll’ return to the fore, with new supporters within Nationalism and beyond, bringing the inevitable constitutional debate closer and closer.
But if it happens now, that debate doesn’t need to be a United Ireland debate. It can ask one question: the Union won’t stay the same forever and a United Ireland as described by Sinn Féin won’t happen either. Therefore, what are the options instead?
Also, what does the DUP want instead? The party will never see a better time to own that discussion and to show it can lead its voters, rather than running scared of its own base.
An increasing number of people beyond the traditional Nationalist and Republican groupings have, post-Brexit vote, begun to look at a United Ireland in a new way.
But here’s the twist: Sinn Féin need their support to make it happen, yet Sinn Féin themselves are the barrier between their promised land and the ‘neithers’ recently disenfranchised by Brexit and eyeing up the less-theocratic EU territory to our South.
Sinn Féin’s past, and the party’s selective narrative on the Troubles, creates an ask beyond the ability of many of those who are now talking about some type of completely different future for the first time. Oh, and their (like the DUP) tendency to concentrate their time and efforts mainly on issues with a flag attached is a problem too; see Sinn Féin’s absence from the Cathedral Quarter/ Belfast redevelopment debate…until it came too close to their voters at Sirocco and the Markets.
Even aside from these considerations, selling a United Ireland as opposed to a completely new constitutional change, with wide appeal, still feels like a reach too far and – even when a border referendum becomes inevitable – those ‘others’, and even many Nationalists, could be hard to win over in the voting booth if the product and the group delivering the product isn’t right.
So, what would a constitutional change with broader acceptance look like instead? Who – plural – will own that project? Would Sinn Féin prefer no United Ireland or a solution they may not get to call their own but gives our children a peaceful future and growing economy instead?
We’ve seen the damage caused to the UK by sleep-walking into a pre-Brexit fiasco. The stakes when we drift into a constitutional crisis here in NI are even higher. We need to do better.
Simple: not another penny for Stormont until a Constitutional Convention searches for our options right now, instead of waiting until the Orange versus Green train runs to the end of the tracks. A Convention that pulls apart the very structures of the Assembly itself, not to mention the big questions about identity and symbols along the way.
We’re long, long past the point of pretending we could deliver so much as Day One of this ourselves. Instead, outside assistance (beyond, even, London and Dublin) could help take us on this very long but very much unavoidable journey.
After all, the way we use symbols in NI is often born of insecurity, of fear for the future, about uncertainty over what ‘the other’ could do.
Change this and we change the entire conversation and the entire future. Once and for all.
As it stands, we’re rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We need to stop doing this. We need a new ship. We need a whole new shipyard.
ALL sides are taking in water and – without a sweeping change some time soon – we’re leaving it for our kids to figure out once the seawater reaches their feet.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net