A debate on our constitutional future is not just the Border. It’s about re-imagining the State…

In 2018 Unionist Commentator Alex Kane travelled to Dublin to speak at a conference on Irish Unity. His message to the nationalist audience? Discussing a United Ireland was not a topic on which Unionism would engage.

Kane has a keen mind and I am sure the irony of his message was not lost. But he subsequently went on to say that trying to persuade him about the merits of a United Ireland was futile, while the premise of talks based on the assumption the Union is doomed would be a “psychological victory for Sinn Fein.”

Most Unionist politicians have delivered a similar, more stony-faced message. Only last month Steve Aiken re-iterated that nobody from the UUP would engage in political conversations about a United Ireland “not now, not ever.” The DUP have an equally dismissive approach.

This is less inclusive than Alliance, whose priority is local reconciliation but are also prepared to “engage in rational discussions on a without prejudice basis”. And less statesmanlike than former Unionist leader Peter Robinson, whose nuanced appeal to insure the house was labelled “dangerous and demoralising” and “an invitation for Republican arsonists to burn the house down.”

Yet it is almost certain that Unionists own strategic interests would best be served by changing this approach. The rigidity of their position may seem like strength but in reality it is a brittle defence that could suddenly crack under the pressure of the social, economic, and cultural trends now swirling against it. Change is far from inevitable, but it could come much quicker than many people think.

Politics is a numbers game, so let’s look at this first. As I set out in a previous post, the SoS will be unable to resist the logic of a positive vote in the Assembly and would therefore be legally obliged to call a border poll under the GFA (a refusal to do so in these circumstances could certainly be challenged in the Courts). As it stands it would only take the combined votes of Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance to secure a majority. This is not something that the rigidity of Unionism can necessarily prevent – indeed failure to engage could even make it more likely.

In current circumstances neither SDLP nor Alliance are going to vote this way, but increased demand among the electorate could help them change their minds. It is very unlikely that Republican agitation or any form of triumphalism is going to deliver change. Rather it will come through respectful engagement, conversation, and debate. The Irish Government’s recent announcement of a united island unit “working with all traditions on the island, to build consensus around a shared future” is exactly what is required.

This type of activity could completely by-pass Unionist politicians (especially if they refuse to participate) and simply go directly to the people themselves. This could potentially come through a Citizen’s Assembly; with people invited to nominate themselves as potential candidates and the actual Assembly selected from this pool in a way that is politically and demographically balanced. Within a population of 1 million people it is quite likely that appropriate unionist representation could be found.

However, the bulk of the conversation would come through channels that are open to all, such as “Town Hall” debates, local press, and social media platforms. The current lock down has shown how effective the latter now is for engagement and distributed leadership, and how effective it can be for mass decision making and debate.

Unionist politicians will take comfort that their party members are on the same page and in some case even more zealous in their refusal to engage. However, they could easily discover that the wider group of unionist voters are much more willing to debate. This willingness will, in part, be driven by extreme frustration caused by 20 years of dysfunctional leadership and failed reform in Northern Ireland. In part it will be driven by an increasing awareness at just how far the North has fallen behind, the greater reliance on Ireland following Brexit, and a desire to improve connections with the social, economic and cultural powerhouse that Dublin has become.

Sinn Fein, a party with finely honed political instincts, has recognised this shift and (with a few high-profile setbacks along the way) has sought to project a more inclusive language and tone. They deserve credit for this, along with recent policy documents and events that have tried to encourage debate. But despite progress Sinn Fein have not gone far enough.

Quite simply any conversation about Ireland’s future must be a two-way discussion. The continued position of Northern Ireland within the UK also needs to be part of the debate. However, this is not about maintaining the status quo. If Northern Ireland is to stay in the UK, then it too must change. Big decisions such as health service reform, shared education, appropriate revenue raising, building more effective institutions, and promoting social and cultural tolerance all need to be on the table. All this needs to be wrapped up with more appropriate cross border relationships – partnerships that are driven by the social and economic benefits they deliver for our people, not resisted because of irrational fear and contempt. One way or another we need to embrace reform, support the difficult decisions, and create new opportunities that transform our shared island, North and South.

And even within this revised framework, what if Unionists still refuse to engage? Then the debate will happen around them. The discussions between citizens North and South, Unionist and Nationalist will take place. New institutions and models for the way we want to live will be considered. The leakage of liberal unionists and young voters to non-unionist parties will continue. And maybe at some point these non-unionist parties will combine to vote through a border poll that forces the SoS to comply with the democratic will of the people. And so, beyond the faded cries of “not now, not ever” the future of Ireland will be agreed.

Photo by Steven Hylands is licensed under CC0

Photo by papagnoc is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA