Faux outrage at Seamus Mallon exposes key weakness in the Unity movement

The furore in response to Seamus Mallon’s comments amongst those claiming to lead the conversation within “civic nationalism” (I’m still unsure of what that actually means) already exposes significant fault lines in the case for unity. Despite all our rhetoric about having conversations and preparing our case, we’ve somehow managed to fall at the first hurdle.

This hurdle has a number of components, but the primary problem (a common one in politics) is that we talk a good game about “having conversations”, but we don’t actually listen (or often care) about what is said if it doesn’t align with our worldview. We only give weight to those who agree with us, and that leads to an inability to see the wood for the trees.

If some within nationalism could get off their high horse for just a moment, they’ll realise this is actually what Seamus Mallon is alluding to.

The first mistake is to assume all nationalists agree on the prospectus and the process – a costly mistake the SNP is now trying to rectify. Yet, we seemed to have skipped the step whereby we actually attempt to reach consensus among ourselves.

There are, in my view, two principle reasons why we should take what Seamus Mallon has said very seriously. The first is higher level point about the reasons for constitutional change in the first place.

A major flaw in the initial campaign for Scotland to become independent was the imbalance between the “what” and “how” rather than the “why”. This touches on what Mallon was referring to as a more nuanced consideration of “victory” in a border poll.

I’m an Irish nationalist because I believe in a new Ireland as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. I believe a new Ireland is a better vehicle to deliver the type of society for me and my family. I’m far less concerned about righting some sense of historical injustice, nor do I think that’s a particularly persuasive argument for those currently not in favour.

In this context, I don’t believe that society will be delivered by a process that could bring it about by a marginal victory in a binary referendum. I don’t want to live in a dis-united Ireland, and risk repeating the mistakes of the past. In other words, as an Irish nationalist (and I’m as Irish as anyone else), if the type of society I want to live in won’t be achieved by winning 50%+1 then I’d rather wait.

The second substantive point is more a direct response to some of the criticisms levelled at Mallon.

The most common is that the current provisions for a border poll are in the Good Friday Agreement, of which he was a key architect. More than twenty years on, he and others thought that we would be significantly further on in the relationships between our two communities.

Perhaps had we made that progress through sustainable institutions and working Government, those relationships would be sufficiently mature to withstand a narrow margin in a Border Poll.

But if you take a step back and look around, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that things aren’t going terribly well in this regard.This points to a further shallowness in the nationalist “we want Unionists to be part of the conversation” line, as if any of those people would participate in a similar discussion on the future of the Union.

Stronger relationships between our two communities are essential to having this conversation in a way that will result in a sustainable outcome. Not only are we clearly not there yet, but we must recognise that we risk undermining that progress with premature border poll rhetoric.

The other common criticism of the last few days is that unionists agreed to the principle of consent, and if 50%+1 is good enough for the Union then it should be good enough for a Border Poll. Do we really want to take a lowest common denominator approach to our future?

Again, even a basic understanding of the history of Northern Ireland and alertness to the events of the last few years suggests this approach hasn’t gone very well.

Rather than “civic nationalists” jumping to rubbish the thoughts of one of its most accomplished and respected thinkers, perhaps a more fruitful approach would be to get its own house in order.

Nobody doubts that a significant democratic event is required to make a decision on our future. It is also clearly not a question of some votes having more weight than others, despite some of the frankly ludicrous claims to the contrary.

At the end of it all, surely a more consensual approach, although it may take longer to achieve, would be more successful in sustainably satisfying the “why” of our nationalism.

Gareth Brown is a third generation SDLP member, former SDLP staffer and currently works in politics in Scotland.