Talking over the heads of unionists has been tried and found wanting for nearly a hundred years…

Speculating about a border poll when no one is attending to business in the here and now is a bit like eating your packed lunch at 9.30. It leaves you nothing to eat at lunchtime.

It may be helpful for a talented (and in my experience, diligent) economist like Paul Gosling to point out that with the right deal Northern Ireland could be economically better off in a united Ireland.

But it is quite another thing to create the conditions where such an outcome is possible. Thus far, most focus has been on the past, whilst talking up a dream future that may never happen.

Giving the illusion of UI coming round the corner puts off some of the very stretching decisions in the here and now that might eventually allow the two parts of the island to align sufficiently to get it anywhere near the Overton Window.

The result is an easy dispatch to the boundary of Gosling’s hypothetical scenario for the DUP’s Simon Hamilton:

“…the report does not dwell too long on its view that 50,000 public sector workers in Northern Ireland would have to be made redundant. However even in this area it expects the United Kingdom Exchequer to bear all the costs,” he said.

“All these highlight the lack of substance behind many of those who claim a united-Ireland is some kind of inevitability. We cannot be complacent however and must continue putting forward a positive case for the Union.”

Whilst post Agreement Nationalism has been keen on outlining ideal endgame scenarios, it has been tardy in mapping out and meeting the challenge of the near term material blocks to unity, many of which are highly emotionally charged.

Eoghan Harris recently put a hammer to head of the nail recently when he highlighted the need for empathy first and foremost particular in respect of the mixed reaction Peter Robinson got for his recent speech in Glenties:

The best help we can give Robinson is to empathise with unionist fears and do our best by difficult deeds or good authority words, to show they can trust us.

Empathising means trying to enter the mind of a Protestant family isolated on its farm in West Cork in 1921, or Fermanagh in 1981.

Multiply that by a million and you get a glimpse of what might be going on in the mind of the Protestant minority on the island.

Why should they trust us in a united Ireland? After the border campaign of 1956 and the Provisional campaign of recent years?

In this week’s Sunday Independent, Ruth Dudley Edwards points out that that lack of empathy starts and ends with the fact that even when unionist leaders are being generous and expansive, too few are even listening.

She cites Arlene’s comments recently at the Policy Exchange think tank in central London as a good example:

Significantly, she spoke of how strained could be the relationship between her people and the rest of the United Kingdom, as Northern Ireland unionists could be “hard to understand or relate to”, for they “felt little loved and saw dangers at every turn.

Everyone seemed out to get them,” some in their home towns and villages and in the Irish Republic and Irish-America. More upsetting still were when multiple Westminster governments “acted against our interests and over our heads”.

Such frankness matters, and so did her constructive remarks about Brexit, with an emphasis on her opposition to a hard border, her pride in a British culture, heritage and identity to which Northern Ireland unionists contributed so much, and her enthusiasm for a post-Brexit world where the UK reasserts itself on the global stage.

There was little media coverage, but Sinn Fein, predictably, found something to complain about – her belief that unionism stands for “pluralism and multi-culturalism” while nationalism is “by its nature narrow and exclusive”.

In the zero-sum atmosphere which has come to dominate politics since the long slow collapse of the Stormont institutions, it’s only too easy to point out the downside of your opponent’s remarks, whilst ignoring the alternative routes available.

It’s a matter of choice, as Malachi O’Doherty pointed out that the Feile last week when challenged about the IRA’s violent legacy. He was asked what else could people have done. His response: “do whatever will improve the situation”.

It’s a reminder that we are all acting out our politics through a series of binary choices. Do we choose to make things better (and make our own long-term preferences closer to the window of possibility)? Or make things worse.

Too much focus over the last twenty years, as Micheal Martin pointed out in his presentation at Glenties, has been on institutions and process, and too few on tackling the poor outcomes for the good folk of Northern Ireland.

By these lights, the present politics by extortion is a tactical avoidance of developing a necessarily empathetic strategy that is required to embrace the interdependence which is fundamental to the operation of the Belfast Agreement.

Nationalism’s capacity to persuade depends on broadening its ambitions beyond those already bought into its agenda for constitutional change. The conceit that only a few defectors ar needed does not stand reasonable scrutiny.

With a strategy which is pragmatic and commitment to new, adaptive relationships, a united Ireland is possible. Our sportsmen and women in Soccer, Rugby, Cricket, Hockey and most lately gymnastics demonstrate it every day.

But that requires a near to long-term commitment to governing NI: something which cannot even begin until the shanghaied institutions of the Belfast Agreement are returned from political limbo.

Far from the getalongerist stereotype, an empathetic approach requires an unsentimental hard-headedness and a politics which is committed to actions rather than threats or hollow promises of jam tomorrow.

We don’t need to wait for unification to show that economic co-operation across the island can deliver benefits north and south. People will understand the proposition better if it delivers material benefits in the here and now.

Talking behind the backs or over the heads of unionists, has been tried and found wanting for nearly a hundred years. Partnership with unionism is the only way forward, and the only way back to the binding agreement of 1998.