I need hardly dwell on the beating unionists have taken at the polls. In comment, the most severe on the DUP came from a critical friend well into his own voyage of discovery, Sam McBride of the Bel Tel. The message is Sinn Fein are always on a roll while the DUP are still circling the wagons against the inexorable pressure of demography, but able to survive if they adopt a survival strategy. (Come to think of it the native American parallel is entirely apt).
Sinn Féin has become the biggest party — and comfortably so — by securing new voters as well as by eating further into the SDLP’s vote. Thus, the total support for nationalism has risen, and that is highly significant because in the 102 years since partition nationalism has never before been in this position.
The meagre crumb of comfort for the DUP comes as glass half full evidence that implacable opponent of Sinn Fein writing in the Irish Times, Michael McDowell
Broadly speaking, nationalist parties got 39.6 per cent, unionist parties got 38.1 per cent, and Alliance received more than 13 per cent of the vote. Opinion polls still suggest that a border poll for unity would be opposed by more than 60 per cent of Northern voters.
McBride in his twitter feed clearly felt bowled over by the veteran academic Brendan O’Leary whom he introduced giving a detailed route map to a united Ireland in a speech in UC Cork the other day. While insisting he was non partisan O’Leary described “the twilight of the Union. It doesn’t mean the Union is fated to end… but the prospect is more likely than at any time since the 1920s”.
Again, the demographics needn’t detain us long. Cultural Catholics are now in a majority as voters, not just in overall numbers and the fate of Northern Ireland is in their hands. Why then aren’t they all voting for Unity? The fact is Prods are more militant for the Union than Catholics are for unity. Catholics have got used to living under partition and, he might have added, now that institutional discrimination has ended and the democratic system gives them full weight – when both sides allow it to function. Moreover as so many are employed in the massive public sector they are nervous at being exposed to the rigours of southern capitalism.
So to the referendums. Required to be concurrent should they be simultaneous or sequential?
Unlike the simultaneous GFA referendums, the northern referendum aka the border poll should be held first, when the threshold for holding it had been reached. (he didn’t discuss here how it should be judged) – to avoid the south making changes to the state which mightn’t be necessary
O’Leary will probably be remembered for coining the phrase “loser’s consent” applied to unionists after losing a border poll. It sounds like a slightly sinister oxymoron to me but it’s well meant. He takes current opinion in the south at its word in favour of unity. How can they persuade unionists and the uncommitted in the north to sign up to the project?
First, to create the ideal model of the character and structure of a united Ireland that would inform unity referendums north and south well before the vote, and circulate it widely to give everyone the chance to debate it properly . Avoid the fatal error of Brexit, when David Cameron barred the civil service from analysing what leaving the EU would mean in the expectation that Remain would win, with disastrous results.
The model must be accommodating to unionists while not alienating the nationalist core. To test elements for squaring the circle his ARINS group of academics ran surveys among Catholics north and south, Unionists who would find unity unbearable, and the undecided. Among findings capable of being reconciled:
Nationalists would prefer a unitary state but would live with the northern Assembly in some form, which unionists would want to retain. Nationalist would not allow a unionist veto but would accept unionists in the cabinet. Nationalists would allow unionists to retain British only citizenship. All sides in the north strongly support the NHS although it performs less well than Slainte care. The southern government should devise a form of socialised medicine to match it. On education the trend is for secular governance north and south. Perhaps surprisingly unionists are indifferent to the flag and the anthem which nationalists are militant to retain, therefore apparently eliminating the problem of symbols that can be so toxic in the north. The south should consider rejoining the Commonwealth (no longer “British” since 1949, as a sop (my term) to unionists while all Ireland, although a new state, would enjoy the substance of EU membership.
How might it all come about? O’Leary describes “the valley of transition”. The period of fear which he says is also marked by ignorance in the North of the Republic’s economic success, which produces an average income 65% higher than the UK’s. The Republics budget surplus – what it raises in taxes more than it spends – stands at 10 billion euros, rising to 20bn by 2026. Some part of that sovereign wealth fund should be set aside to help the north level up. As Catholics now register preferences for a socially liberal prosperous state, why would they chose to remain with the Conservative- dominated UK, compared with the transformed modern Ireland? O’Leary rather glides over a “threat of insurrection” which would have to be dealt with somehow, but hoping not.
How should unionists respond to the evolution of a unity strategy? His answer blew me away. Against so much current advice: “If I was their adviser I would say you should not engage in terms of surrender before you’ve actually lost.” My own view . Here the veil of accommodations to encourage “consent” is torn away to expose the brutal truth of “loser,” inevitable in such referendums. There has to be a winner.
The whole exercise of course begs the existential question of the all round desirability of unity. It is more like an arranged marriage than love. O’Leary and ARINS generally tend to discount the British link.as a profound expression of identity that transcends transient problems and charges of British betrayal. This attachment is often discounted as a false consciousness because its archaic form is so out of touch with a much more diverse Britain. Yet the British dimension can’t be ignored even if GB has no direct say in the decision.
Today especially with youth, it would be wrong to exaggerate the pull of narrowly ” Ulster ” loyalist nationalism, just as it can’t be ignored. Indeed, this generation may even be up for grabs by either national alternative if the right appeal is made.
As things stand, Nationalism’s best tactic is to ramp up the sense of inevitability while the academics provide the sweetness and light. Unionists have never been so vulnerable to the whispers of defeat, stuck in a long term kamikaze mentality.
But now, badly needing to display some signs of initiative the DUP have upped the terms for returning to the Assembly. They’re presenting as demands what they may receive anyway, in the shape of higher funding and “support for the Union” The latter would be a guarantee of free trade for NI products subject to EU rules within GB . Hardly the most unwinnable of concessions. If they can turn these measures from “ blackmail “ into victory I don’t suppose anyone will crow too much if they slink back to Stormont in the autumn, when the Assembly will overshadow euphoric talk of a border poll – for the moment.
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