Mike Nesbitt has released a response to Peter Robinson’s comments on a border poll;
“A couple of months ago, Peter Robinson said he was pulling the pin out of the grenade – a curious analogy for a man making his inaugural speech as an Honorary Professor of Peace Studies. He was referring to the manner in which a Border Poll might be called and conducted, an issue he returned to in great detail last week. It is time to explore some his more outrageous assertions.
“But let me begin by taking the opportunity to be positive and supportive. The former First Minister cautions against a Border Poll being run in the same manner as the 2016 Brexit Referendum. In so far as he means we need certainty about the consequences should a vote be called, I agree. As Leader of the Ulster Unionists, I argued we should take the position that Northern Ireland was better off staying within the EU, but I also said I was prepared to be persuaded to support Leave, if anyone could describe what Brexit would look like. No one did and 774 days later, confusion and uncertainty are the bywords. Mrs May assures us “Brexit means Brexit” but that has no more depth of meaning than “lunch means lunch” – you have no idea if I am taking you to a Michelin starred restaurant or the local filling station for an egg and cress sarny, but they are both lunch.
“Peter Robinson’s concerns appear to be more about what we used to call the modalities of conducting a border poll and here he re-writes history with gusto. In 2007, his party sought the electoral mandate that would propel them into government with Sinn Féin, based on an election manifesto that opened with this stirring claim: “We have achieved what many of our opponents said was impossible. We have successfully renegotiated the Belfast Agreement”.
“Yet in 2018, he rails against the provisions for a Border Poll: it should not have been negotiated in the first place; it should not be left to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to decide to call one; it should not be possible to hold one every seven years after the first; there should be a role for locally elected representatives in the event of a negative outcome. That’s a long list of failures by Mr Robinson and the DUP negotiating team who claimed they fixed all the Good Friday “failures” at St Andrews. It also ignores the fact that the DUP walked away from the 1998 negotiations, preferring instead to stand outside the gates, screaming “Lundy”, “Traitor” and “Sell-out” at those doing their best for the unionist community. You cannot argue against the assertion the Belfast Agreement would have been better for unionism if the DUP had been at the table, because if you do, you are arguing the DUP are without influence!
“Frankly, to bemoan that a Border Poll could be called under what he calls “the existing precarious rules and procedures” is to admit a gross failure to address the matter when he could – and he had two chances, in 1998 and 2006. Further, to caution against a Border Poll that invites a “yes” or “no” answer to a simple single choice question is to admit the 2016 Brexit Referendum was a rank bad idea; yet his party spent several hundred thousand pounds promoting a response to that simple single choice question. And to warn against a 50% plus 1 formula for change not only attempts to redefine the consent principle that is the jewel in the crown of the Belfast Agreement, it ignores the fact he has very little wriggle room, given the DUP accept 52% is good enough for Brexit.
“While I understand how the Brexit vote has put the constitutional question back on the political agenda for the first time in two decades, unionism’s role is as a persuader for the status quo, retaining membership of the United Kingdom. Here, there are two arguments we must make relentlessly. The first is prosperity. Often, I hear people blithely talk of the £10 billion annual subvention from London called the Block Grant. That isn’t half the story. On the 2nd of August, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance told me the Block Grant is currently just short of £12 billion at £11,947,000,000, while the other pot of money called AME (Annual Managed Expenditure) that covers pensions and benefits sits at just short of £10 billion (£10,116,600,000). So, that’s £22 billion a year. Where’s that coming from if there is no United Kingdom?
“The other argument is about identity. In 1920, Edward Carson spoke in the House of Commons, encouraging his peers who were about to populate the new Northern Ireland Government to “forget faction and section …… If Ulster does what I ask her to do, and what I hope and believe she will do, in setting up an example and a precedent of good government, fair government, honest government, and a government not for sections or factions, but for all, her example may be followed”.
“A century on, we have yet to deliver a government that is warmly acknowledged as a government for all and the focus should be on a new, United Northern Ireland which delivers on the commitment of 1998 to make a fresh start to our troubled relations, based on tolerance, reconciliation, trust and respect. While Peter Robinson missed many opportunities in St Andrews, what that agreement did was to embed sectarian voting into Assembly elections, by separating out the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which was previously a joint ticket. From 2007, the big issue on the unionist doorstep is the fear of “themuns” emerging as the biggest party and seizing the Office of the First Minister, something only possible because St Andrews corrupted an agreement endorsed by the public in the 1998 Referendum.
“Rather than Carson’s dream of a government for all, we are hurtling into the record books for the length of time we have had no government for anyone. Peter Robinson boasted that the Assembly and Executive of 2007 was the first Stormont administration to go full term since the 1960s. He spoke for the DUP in those days and who knows, maybe he will speak for the party again. Peter Robinson denies he sees himself as the white knight to put the political pieces back together again, but he is a politician who knows you never say never. Arlene Foster is publicly supportive of her former boss. She might exercise caution in her praise. After all, she might be feeding a crocodile.”
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs