This week saw former First Minister Peter Robinson writing for the Newsletter. He chose as his topic the need for unionists to prepare for a border poll and in doing so set out a strategy I believe will fail. Like many unionists his focus on such a poll misses the fundamental context under which such a poll would be called. The Belfast Agreement states
2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
If we arrive at the situation where a border poll is called it will be because society is not broad enough or flexible enough to meet the needs of those who live here. That for Unionism will represent a political failure and quite likely a moral failure too. Talking with ourselves and delivering those things that we like and enjoy to the exclusion of others will ultimately lead to our own exclusion.
Those who favour a united Ireland do not need to convince one Unionist to change their allegiance, they need only to focus on the centre ground, those whose priorities are not based on national identity but on the type of society they live in and raise their children in.
For Unionism one challenge will be that any campaign will be undermined by the fact the Union we seek to uphold is defined by those who hold power in London.
Those in power did not think of Northern Ireland during Brexit, the implications for us could not be summed up in a three-word slogan. The Withdrawal Agreement was quick fix, deeply flawed and again ignoring the consequences for Northern Ireland in the protocol. The Internal Markets Bill, another quick fix, deeply flawed, to try and limit the damage arising from the Withdrawal Agreement. Before anyone thinks the Internal Markets Bill had anything to do with Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom think again. The much vaunted free-trade agreement with the US would result in US agri-food produce entering the UK, under the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol this would be prevented from entering Northern Ireland. Would this matter to the UK government or the United States, probably not but imagine the reaction in Scotland if under the Internal Markets Bill they were required to take whatever produce London decided while Northern Ireland didn't. Losing Northern Ireland will not concern London in the slightest losing Scotland on the other hand is a failure too far.
Of course there are those unionists and Peter may be one who believe that a border poll will be based on a simple question placed simultaneously to the electorate north and south much in the same way as the Brexit question was put. I doubt very much whether a major constitutional issue will ever be put in such a format again, no government, and certainly not an Irish government, will seek to ask the question and on the basis of the answer start negotiations with a future British Government. Instead I envisage a situation where if Unionism is incapable of creating a society which meets the needs of the majority of our citizens both governments will start a process of drafting a clear understanding of what happens should such a poll deliver a United Ireland. All the questions people may have will be answered, pensions and healthcare, citizenship and rights, a financial settlement figure over many years and a clear explicit message that London has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in maintaining this union. London will call a border poll should it serve their purpose, when they are certain of the outcome and will do everything in their power, openly or surreptitiously, to deliver a United Ireland.
So what can Unionism do to maintain the union, first we must set aside the idea that we build a Northern Ireland for ourselves, we must build a Northern Ireland for the majority of citizens and that means moderating our views, we must recognise the issues that concern people today issues like climate change and the green economy and we must give answers that address those concerns. Holding onto the past cannot be the basis upon which we lose our country, we must be open and responsive to new ways of delivering for a greater number of people. We must recognise that allegiance to the United Kingdom means being a critical friend, we cannot accept that just because a party is in power they have the moral authority to ignore issues like poverty and deprivation. Our future will be found in a United Kingdom based on the centre ground and to preserve that union our voices must be heard in the corridors of power arguing for a union for all based on a society for all. Peter’s think tank cannot change the outcome of a border poll, but with an inclusive vision of the future it can change the need for one and to do that it must change unionism.