Peter Robinson was talking about much more than a border poll. The Assembly must become boycott proof

It was Peter Robinson “pulling the pin out of the grenade” and proposing  “generational” border polls that attracted most attention. But he had a good deal more to say at Queen’s that was  more important or at least more urgent.  He kept it lofty, generalised and above all brief, to avoid getting drawn into detail or appearing to lecture his successors. But his meaning is pretty clear .

While he had to say he was optimistic about the future, he felt that now might be make or break time for the Assembly.  Although it had a fair run since St Andrews it always seemed to him impermanent and  obviously  vulnerable. Now he is looking for permanence and stability. That is what future negotiations should be about, rather than keep trying to apply “sticking plaster”, like the abortive draft agreement with Sinn Fein. Interestingly,  he does not assume that Sinn Fein are strategic wreckers.

I firmly believe that seeking to find agreement based on the issues contained in the published working draft alone will just not work. When, as is here and now the case, progress is gridlocked, and parties have taken and publicly cemented themselves into fixed positions, the likelihood of a deal within the confines of that existing agenda would be virtually impossible.

I believe there are strong reasons to go beyond balancing the party wish lists and confront more fundamental issues.

I return to the subject of negotiating a broader deal, I can almost hear the deep intake of breath in some quarters. If agreement cannot be reached on the present agenda or even by carefully adding some balance to it, surely, some will say, it will never be achieved if it is stuffed with unresolved issues from past talks.

Let me make something clear. I am not talking about every party pushing its own agenda, obsession, or hobby-horse. I am talking about those matters that impact upon the smooth operation, permanence, continuity and stability of the institutions. I say this because I feel sure a new Assembly tripping over the debris of unresolved, critical problems will collapse and because I believe another collapse would be fatal for devolution and harmful to the future of Northern Ireland. Each collapse drains public confidence and I am not convinced the Assembly could survive a further one.

So he  returns to what defeated him as First Minister, Assembly reform.

Some of the existing arrangements almost invite disruption. The facility for a leading party to terminate the Assembly’s term duration either for electoral advantage, or at the height of a political storm, inevitably upsets the existence of arrangements that have been slowly and painfully built up and which cannot be easily replaced. That such a “weapon of dissolution” exists, and can be unilaterally deployed, places pressure on parties that will surge at a time of agitation if their support base – which often takes a more short-term stance on political matters – is baying for blood and vengeance.

A fixed term Assembly, with sensible mechanisms in place, to allow a party – even one of the largest ones – to opt out of the Executive (if they choose) or to be put out if circumstances warrant it, could easily be put in place (in a manner that would work) and would give greater hope of maintaining stable working institutions. 

He means here keeping the Executive going with measures  they can still agree on requiring only a simple majority if they hit a stumbling block, rather than resorting to pullout like Sinn Fein last year or his own farcical  “in and out ” merry-go-round of ministers to try to hold Sinn Fein responsible for renewed IRA activity.   Although worth proposing and even more so if it could be sealed in a deal,  this surely would only be a temporary expedient.  He doesn’t extend his argument, but  the logic of  putting a larger party out of the Executive  would require  his old  idea of  a  voluntary coalition and therefore a fundamental re-negotiation of the power sharing arrangements. Not as easy to put into place as all that.  But a simple opting out of the Executive by one of the main partners  instead of a withdrawal that freezes the Assembly would hardly be a recipe for stability.

What else “almost invites disruption”?  Why the petition of concern which he hints should at last be restricted to its intended use, to protect minorities.  So  the reformed  Peter Robinson throws out  some big questions  he refused to answer in his time, that his successors should tackle now.

The outcome of the next set of negotiations must have the feel of the parties having reached a settlement rather than the continuation of a process. Some say that republicans want a process towards a United Ireland and would therefore resist any move to provide stable political structures here. I don’t accept that.

Then he faces up to a border poll.

 I do accept that the life of our Union with Great Britain is subject to the principle of consent and therefore it will be argued by some that we can only talk about a generational settlement.

The outcome of the Brexit referendum should also have taught us another lesson – one clearly not learned by everyone – that if a single choice “yes” or “no” answer to a simple question on ending an economic partnership can stir such passion, division and disruption then those who see a Northern Ireland plebiscite as an aid to peace and stability understand little about human behaviour. The existing simplistic – majority of one – mechanism to deal with colossal constitutional change would be a recipe for chaos if it were ever to be activated. It is better to deal with the process that would be involved, when there is no reason to anticipate an outcome that obliges change, rather than having to tackle the issue on the fly if it was ever to be triggered in the future. In this I am not, of course, talking about the nature and shape of the new state that would emerge if there ever was a vote to exit the UK. I am alluding to the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement. With those details settled, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that fixed generational Border Polls would be less divisive and disruptive of our local political process.

Peter will win a lot of supporters in his belief that the constitutional future should not be  at the mercy of commissioners of Lucidtalk and the judgement of a here today, gone tomorrow secretary of state  – Leo Varadkar for one.

While his notion of repeat referendums once a generation is open to objection – what isn’t? – his advice – inevitably directed more to unionists than nationalists – to face up to the issues should be heeded.   Sinn Fein too have an interest. They  need a  hedge against complacency if the DUP were seriously  to engage in a genuine two-way process  which would inevitably include proposals for a border poll. A great part of the hedge would be investment in the Assembly, so runs the argument.

You never know where it all might lead after a period of Assembly stability: to the DUP  adopting more recognisably British values acceptable to nationalists after a tolerable Brexit outcome; or a relatively painless  transition to a united Ireland on the basis of individual choice.

You can see why Peter didn’t want to extend his thoughts too far. Why didn’t he behave more in keeping with them as DUP leader? There’s quite a lot in the speech about the scars of leadership, and opponents in his own party. But that is  history.   Today,he deserves thanks for trying to revive a moribund debate. We await the response.

 

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