Peter Robinson was Right: Unionism Needs a Plan B…

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson warned Unionists in 2018 that they should be preparing for a United Ireland. He used the analogy of one’s house burning and having insurance in place in case it does, commenting “I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen”. Indeed, he doesn’t want his house to burn down, but prepares for the possibility of doing so, and is therefore prepared if it does.

Peter Robinson’s analogy is telling because it demonstrates the fear that Unionists have for the concept of a United Ireland. Its emergence would be, for many unionists across the North, like their house burning down. As Republicans, we must acknowledge this sensitivity.

Unionist people are totally opposed to a United Ireland, and want to, at all costs, remain within the United Kingdom. To then be incorporated into an Irish state, no longer under the jurisdiction of the British Government and Crown, is a prospect almost unimaginable.

But the fact that it is unimaginable is why it is so pertinent that Unionists do plan and prepare for the possibility of their nightmare becoming a lived reality.

Planning for a United Ireland does not equate to supporting or advocating for it. Rather, it is an insurance plan, as Peter Robinson aptly demonstrated.

The Unionist Plan A is to remain an integral part of the UK. That is fine, and it is their democratic right to campaign for this. However, what I am proposing is that Unionists have a Plan B in place, just in case Plan A does not work out.

The possibility of a border poll is made more likely day by day as the Brexit fiasco continues to unravel, and it was the Brexit vote in March of 2016 that brought the concept of a United Ireland from the sidelines to a key player in the game, and has grabbed the attention of world leaders.

Furthermore, Unionism lost its Stormont majority for the first time in the Northern state’s history in 2017. In this year’s European Parliament elections, 54.39% of the electorate voted for the non-Unionist candidates of Naomi Long, Martina Anderson and Colum Eastwood, while 40.26% cast their first preference for the Unionist candidates of Diane Dodds, Jim Allister and Danny Kennedy.

And while demographics don’t equate to political support or allegiance,  academic Dr  Paul Nolan claimed in 2018 that there will be a majority of Catholics in the North by 2021. This does not mean at all that there will be a majority of voters in favour of Irish unity, but is a cogent indication of the changing landscape across the North and the implications this has for its future within the UK, and illustrates why Unionists must be preparing for the possible change arising from all of this.

If a border poll is held, and the vote is in favour of Irish unity, it will set in motion significant and serious constitutional change across Ireland, a set of events that will have ramifications for the legal system, education, infrastructure, health and all vital public and private sectors across Ireland.

Unionists must be prepared for when this change happens. Unionists have the ability to help shape what will be not just be a United Ireland, but a New Ireland, where they will be just as integral as any other group or sector across the country.

This will require major leadership from within political and civic unionism. Arlene Foster once said she would leave Ireland in the event of Unity. This won’t do.  Peter Robinson’s words become relevant once more – “As soon as that decision is taken, every democrat will have to accept that decision”.

The British Government and Boris Johnson have abandoned Unionism. Westminster never had Unionist concerns at their heart, and this is becoming apparent in how the Johnson administration has thrown the DUP under the bus. The DUP were but pawns in the Tory party’s political game for power, the same game that ensnared Edward Carson a century ago.

It is time for Unionism to question why it was abandoned, and to start looking towards Dublin and not London; southward and not eastward. Their place in a New Ireland hinges upon this fundamental shift in focus.

Indeed, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recently suggested that he wants to see a United Ireland in his lifetime, but that “we have to make sure that unionists in Northern Ireland and British people in Northern Ireland feel that a united Ireland is a warm place for them”.

The desire exists within Dublin and the Irish Government for a New Ireland that accommodates Unionism. It is time for Unionism to recognise this sincerity and plan for a time when they can, and should, be working hand-in-hand with Dublin to ensure that the New Ireland is, indeed, a warm place for them.

Unionist leaders must become their community’s number one advocates in a New Ireland. When elected to the Dáil and Seanad, within local government and perhaps some form of Northern Parliament, the DUP and other Unionist parties will have a sizeable minority, and could wield influence.

In the event of Unity, this influence must be used to stand up for their community, look out for their best interests, and make sure they also become an important part of the New Ireland. And it will be a New Ireland, one where Unionist concerns and needs are respected and catered for.  

In parallel with this must be a strong and concerted effort from Nationalists and Republicans to show Unionists that we are genuine when we say we want them to play a pivotal role in the building of a New Ireland. This requires change not only in the event of Unity, but now. Tangible change that can prove to the Unionist community that Nationalists and Republicans are genuine about placing Unionists at the heart of a New Ireland, alongside the rest of the country.

The tectonic political plates on this island are shifting. It is time Unionism plan and adapt to this change. It has the potential to flourish in a New Ireland if it does.

Sunset in Howth” by uwe_neuber is licensed under CC BY-ND

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