Did Peter Robinson blunder into the border poll debate too early?

Coming late to the Peter Robinson speech at Glenties and its aftermath, I’m struck by two elements of it, one of which has been hardly picked up. In the text I was offered, the discussion of a border poll which overshadowed the rest of it didn’t appear at all. Tommie Gorman of RTE has explained.

I chaired the Friday evening session (27 July) in the Glenties Highlands Hotel where Peter Robinson was the guest speaker. The references to a united Ireland were in response to one of many questions from an audience of around 200 people.

In his prepared remarks Peter stopped well short of the border poll issue but allowed himself to be distracted (deliberately or not) from his main theme of the immediate impact of Brexit on our politics. As the border poll question logically followed,  it’s surprising that Peter didn’t incorporate it into his text to give himself greater control of the theme, or  agree to be drawn as far as he was.

What Peter did say in his text was entirely obvious, that Brexit in whatever form was bound to distance the UK from the Republic. The gap would best be narrowed by the revival of the GFA institutions north- south and east- west, with the Assembly as the essential lynchpin.  The Assembly should be restored immediately and a negotiation should take place in parallel according to a strict timetable to resolve outstanding issues. “What is needs is an injection of urgency to get the process moving”.   If the timetable wasn’t met, the Assembly should be wound up, in form unspecified.

Without hammering the point, Peter made it clear that the cooperative working of the  institutions was the best, perhaps the only, long term defence  for maintaining the Union.  In Glenties this was a stage of logic too far for him, but it’s hard to see how he can avoid it for much longer. Consequently the gap between the DUP and its former leader will widen, the second time in succession that this has happened,unless this time, a DUP leadership  can discover the circumstances  to change tack or steel its nerve. Only a better than expected Brexit and a lot of British nudging can do that. Neither lies on the near horizon.

So in response to Peter’s ad libs,  Arlene Foster declares full agreement with him  yet slaps down any notion of an Irish Language Act, thus  appearing to write off negotiations straight away. This can hardly be what Peter hoped for.

But of course his border poll remarks attracted all the attention. Mary-Lou McDonald does her U turn on a border poll and has repeated the new, or is it the old, direction.

In response to DUP criticisms  Peter rather riskily issues a “clarification” of his Glenties comments using the Ulster Unionists largely as proxy to  hit out  at his DUP critics. This reveals rather more of the old rough and tumble of old  the  than the loftiness of the  retired statesman of today.

 Some people have suggested such matters should not even be discussed as it may provide momentum towards the very outcome we seek to avoid. Such claptrap. Where are they living?”

“This battle started long ago. Let us be very clear, contrary to what these shrill voices are saying – whether a border poll is called or not isn’t in their gift.”

The issue of a border poll is especially volatile because unlike every other aspect of the GFA, it is just beyond the control of the politicians. It is one for us the people, North and South not for Stormont directly nor for GB, except as referee to judge the state of opinion gathered by anyone who feels like commissioning a continuing series of opinion polls on the issue. I have always assumed that it was left out the Assembly brief because it would have  threatened the prospects of building effective power sharing. Call it idealism, or hope. Peter laments this decision.

Amazing, because it was they ( the UUP) 9who in 1998 not only talked about the issue but negotiated upon it. Moreover, they then signed an agreement which included a most unsatisfactory process that, among other things, placed the power to call the referendum in the hands of any future Secretary of State exercising their own judgment on what might be the possible outcome. Worse, the UUP agreed to exclude any of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives from a role in shaping what happens if there was a negative outcome.

In such circumstances the proposals for the future governance of Northern Ireland, under the deal the UUP negotiated, are to be agreed by London and Dublin alone, with no rights provided to our elected representatives to be involved, nor is there any requirement for protections to be put in place for our community. So, don’t tell me not to talk about these matters – the UUP have already done so and left us with a mess to sort out.

What I said was: “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, time scales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement.”

In addition, I cautioned against holding a border poll which seeks a “yes” or “no” answer to a simple single choice question when we are dealing with such a significant and extremely complex issue, and I warned against adopting the existing simplistic, majority of one mechanism to deal with colossal constitutional change.

I also suggested rather than maintaining the seven-year cycle for border polls, when the process begins, as agreed by the UUP, that a longer generational gap would be less divisive and disruptive of our local political process.

Inevitably Mike Nesbitt replies  effectively enough for the UUP. And so it will go on. The government of Northern Ireland will remain in limbo  until at least some clarification is reached on the Brexit outcome.

What therefore of the prospects for the “precious, precious Union”  whose stability remains one of Theresa May’s key goals?  A picture opportunity at the Belleek pottery accompanied by Arlene Foster will hardly cut it. The Guardian columnist Martin Kettle has been on a rare voyage of discovery that  displays  the lively imagination he believes the prime minister lacks.

 Though the countries of these islands are very different in many ways, and all are assertive about their identities, we are all used to the boundaries between them being more cultural than political. Only Scotland had even erected a road sign that announced that here was a different place from the one we had just been. The others simply merged into one another. I increasingly came to suspect that this is because, in spite of their differences and their histories, all five countries of these islands still have at least as much in common as they do that separates and divides them.

Will this survive? The United Kingdom is not as united as it was in my boyhood.

Travelling to WB Yeats country on the Irish west coast, reading Roy Foster’s biography of the poet as I did, then stopping at the National Famine Museum at Strokestown, the Anglo-Irish dimension loomed very large.

Yet the Irish Republic really is a different country. Men and women have fought, died and suffered for it to be so. Any suggestion from an Englishman that we share a single geographic or social space with Ireland can still provoke accusations of colonialist sympathies..

But these islands are our shared business, or they should be. In Sligo, as the Yeats summer school gathered next door to discuss Yeats and Asia, the woman in the tourist office asked me: “Do you know who Constance Markiewicz was?” I certainly did, but it was striking that she asked.

Does Theresa May know who Markiewicz was? I have no idea. May was in Belfast the day before I arrived there. She said, as she always does, how precious the union with the north is to her. Yet her view of the union is as rigid as a flagpole. It is a home counties English Conservative view that has little feel for the human and cultural suppleness of the UK union, or of the European one either. She gives no inkling that she possesses the emotional or imaginative space for the complexity of these islands or their history. You would never know from her Belfast speech that Northern Ireland voted 56%-44% against Brexit, let alone that support for remain in Northern Ireland has risen to over 70% in a recent poll – still less that her government is propped up by the DUP, which she never mentioned.

Returning across the Irish Sea to Holyhead, we detoured south to Llanystumdwy in north Wales to visit the grave and museum dedicated to David Lloyd George. Britain has never had a prime minister who more confidently combined the particular with the shared identities on which these islands rest, nor one who believed so firmly, or so early, in the devolutionary “home rule all round” approach that the Liberals came so close to embracing in 1912. Nor one who spoke two British languages fluently and with such brilliance. Nor one who had more feel for the islands’ personalities. And yet, Lloyd George’s feel never extended to Ireland, which he only visited once and of whose modern divisions he is one of the prime authors.

At the risk of employing national stereotypes, all the UK countries have much to learn from the Irish Republic, which seems in many ways to be more at ease with itself than Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England – England above all. If even Lloyd George, with his enormous leadership talents, failed to keep these islands together at a time of crisis, when Irelandrevolted during and after the first world war, it is difficult to imagine that May, who is much less gifted, can do so. All I know is that the solution, if there is one, lies in mutual respect, historical humility, and an open and curious mind about the extraordinary part of Europe we all inhabit.

 

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