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Bernadette McAliskey: 'Sinn Fein's talk of border poll is game-play, it doesn't want united Ireland it can't control'

Bernadette McAliskey believes the future for island is to scrap north and south and start again

By Ivan Little

Former MP Bernadette McAliskey, who earlier this week branded political leaders in both parts of Ireland 'idiots' and said she wouldn't want to be part of a united Ireland run by them, has claimed that a border poll isn't on the cards and that Sinn Fein knows it's a non-starter.

And the civil rights veteran from Co Tyrone said Sinn Fein didn't want a united Ireland that the party couldn't control.

Mrs McAliskey, who was one of the first public figures to predict - long before the Good Friday Agreement - that Sinn Fein would accept a partitionist settlement here, said the party made its call for a referendum on Irish unity 'in the comfort that it won't happen'

The 69-year-old socialist, who in 1969 became Westminster's youngest MP at the time, at the age of 21, said Sinn Fein didn't want a poll that it would lose.

"It's a deliberate distraction away from the realities we are facing today," she said. "The raising of the profile of the border poll is just part of the game-playing. There isn't going to be one."

Mrs McAliskey who witnessed the Bloody Sunday shootings by the Parachute Regiment in the Bogside in 1972, said the party's leaders had called for a poll in the belief that there wouldn't be a referendum.

She added: "In the outside chance that there was one, they're assured that they would be safe enough because it wouldn't be carried this time. It would improve the position and would set them up for the next time.

"But Sinn Fein has no intention of moving forward to a united Ireland that it doesn't control."

The former Bernadette Devlin said she wanted to see Irish unity, but not with the present-day administrations in charge.

"Do I think all the people on this minute island would be better off if we had a coherent, single, unitary strategic plan for the economic, social benefit of everyone? Yes I do," she added.

But she said that objective couldn't be achieved by absorbing the existing north into the existing south.

"Do I think the people who are in the current mainstream of political ideology - whether that's from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail right through Sinn Fein, on into the SDLP and on over to the Unionists and the DUP - should be let out to run a country? No."

Paraphrasing a quote from Brendan Behan, Mrs McAliskey is on record as saying: "I can think of no state of human misery, either north or south of the border, at this juncture, that would not be made immeasurably worse by putting the idiots that are running the two sides together in the one state."

Yesterday, Mrs McAliskey said: "Would I like to see the people having a democratic decision on the context and infrastructure of their government and would I like that to be independent of the British government? Yes, I would.

"But is that the same thing as having a border poll on 'Would you like to join the Republic?' No it's not.

"Would I like to dismantle the Irish Republic? Yes. Would I like to dismantle the northern state? Yes."

Mrs McAliskey said: "I would like to start again and have a constitutional conference, a series of clear discussions and debates and a democratic process for building a new independent republic in which everybody could feel they belonged."

But she insisted she didn't believe the way to achieve that was as simple as voting in a border poll with a question that didn't relate to the real issues.

The Coalisland woman, who was shot and wounded along with her husband Michael in a UDA murder bid at their home on the shores of Lough Neagh in 1981, said she didn't know if a border poll would come down - as many people have suggested - to a sectarian head count, but it would be very difficult to call, she added.

"Where you have such a finely balanced sectarian headcount - if that's the way you want to look at it - then what makes the crucial difference is not how many sectarian heads you have on either side, but on the complexities of the misfits in the middle.

"Many European Union citizens in the north of Ireland with the right to vote would probably opt for a united Ireland to stay in the EU, though some of them might say it had nothing to do with them and abstain."

Mrs McAliskey said another factor could be the small but growing 'radical and progressive voice of young people.'

"Where would young people who see themselves mostly in terms of the environment and the planet, where would they sit?"

She added that there were small groups of people throughout the north whose votes in the Assembly elections showed they didn't subscribe to the way Stormont works.

"And then there are the people who don't vote at all. I know that some of them came out to vote for Sinn Fein, but there are still lots of people who aren't registered to vote at all and we have no idea what they think.

"To ascribe apathy to them isn't what I see on the ground among some people who don't vote because they think there's nothing to vote for. They are in a different conversation.

"These are all very small numbers of people, but where you are sitting with your sectarian seesaw needing to know just which small weight on one or other side is going to tip the balance - you have no way of knowing what way a border poll would come out."

Observers have also said that many middle-class Catholics who have an 'I'm alright Jack' attitude to life in Northern Ireland would not vote for unity.

And Mrs McAliskey said it would no longer be possible to look at a border poll 'through the old-fashioned lenses of the past.'

She added: "It would be a mistake for either of the two blocs here to think that in this finely balanced position that either of them, could with any degree of comfort, think their line would be held. She added: "I think what we should do is learn the lesson of Brexit. People were asked a question that actually didn't relate to the complexities of their lives.

"They voted yes or no for a whole myriad of reasons that still have to be sorted. So the lesson is to stop asking people simplistic questions on complex issues.

Unionist politicians have rejected calls for a border poll, but Mrs McAliskey said: "They're on the wrong side of history.

"What they really need to do is to stop running scared and to start shaping a changed future, whatever it is."

Mrs McAliskey is the co-ordinator of the ground-breaking South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP), a cross community organisation who say their aim over the past 20 years has been to build a rights-based, participative, peaceful and prosperous society providing equality of opportunity, embraces diversity and respects difference.

"I'm not saying STEP is any great phenomenon beyond anything else," she said.

"But there are oases in the country where people are able to relate to one another as people; where the mindset is in a different place or at least in a space for that to happen. Those spaces shouldn't be downplayed. They are small dots that aren't joined up, but nobody knows what the impact of those might be."

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