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Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin's cavalier attempts at electioneering suit unionism very nicely

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are boneheaded and ham-fisted in trying to play green card for their narrow party-political advantage, says Alex Kane

Published 21/07/2016

The exterior of Leinster House in Dublin, home to the Dail
The exterior of Leinster House in Dublin, home to the Dail

On the afternoon of June 27 - four days after the EU referendum - a Fianna Fail friend rang me from Dublin to discuss the result. He knew that I would dismiss Sinn Fein's call for a border poll as entirely predictable, but wondered if the size of the Remain vote and the reported rush for Irish passports from unionists spooked me - even a little. He said: "Come on, Alex, even you must be a little bit worried about the future of the Union?"

To be honest, I wasn't worried about it; and I'm still not worried. What did strike me at the time, though, was the fact that he had called me after reading Mike Nesbitt's reaction to the result.

"I think an unexpected consequence of the referendum result is to reopen the constitutional question and we now have people who were content in Northern Ireland last week thinking again about a united Ireland. Quite a number of nationalists were relaxed with the constitutional arrangements, but they will be reviewing this in terms of protecting their European identity - what they need as a reassurance is certainty, but there is none."

My assumption was that the initial panic and brouhaha would die down pretty quickly. Once people realised that no one would know what was happening for a couple of years at least (the UUP's position now is that border poll talk is "much ado about nothing") and when it dawned on most of them that London/Dublin/Belfast would reach an "arrangement" that would be given an imprimatur from Brussels.

I also assumed that Micheal Martin and Enda Kenny would have the good sense to keep their noses out of it and resist any temptation to play the "England's misfortune is Ireland's opportunity" card.

But no. Martin decided to celebrate an opinion poll that put his party ahead of Fine Gael for the first time in years - as well as showing a three-point slip for Sinn Fein - by suggesting that a referendum on Irish unity might be possible in the near future. The same poll indicated enormous pressure on Enda Kenny to stand down as Taoiseach and the subsequent likelihood of an early general election.

So, Martin made what was, for all intents and purposes, an election speech. He tried to outflank Kenny and Adams on the "unity issue" with what was an exploitative contribution aimed entirely at his own heartlands.

It was a very stupid thing to do - particularly since he had told me, in an interview in 2014: "When I hear talk of border polls and that sort of thing, I just say, 'Oh my God, this is just trying to threaten and intimidate people even when you know it isn't going to happen anyway'... reducing the whole thing to numbers is just so infantile, in my view."

He's also ignoring the significant fact that very large numbers of people in Northern Ireland - unionists and small-n nationalists - will not be won over to Irish unity by the leader of a party that almost bankrupt the part of Ireland it was responsible for a few years ago.

And nor did he bother filling out his speech with details of what a newly united Ireland would look like. Oh, that's right, his party hasn't actually done any work on that yet.

One would have thought that Kenny, hanging on by the skin of his teeth and coasting towards Jeremy Corbyn figures in terms of popularity with his parliamentary party, would have slapped Martin down and told him to stop playing electoral politics with the Northern Ireland result. But he was, if anything, even worse.

One expects a bit of bare-faced opportunism from Fianna Fail, particularly when it sniffs blood in Fine Gael's waters, but not from the usually-measured and reasonably sensible Kenny.

Yet, he managed to drag in the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall. He said: "You would have Northern Ireland wishing to leave the United Kingdom, not being a member of the EU and joining the Republic, which will be a member of the EU. So, in the same way as East Germany was dealt with when the wall came down, was able to be absorbed into West Germany, and not have to go through a torturous and long process of applying for membership of the EU... I am just making the point that these are the kinds of things that should be looked at in the broadest of ways in discussions that take place."

Well, Northern Ireland is not East Germany, the Republic is not a strong, vibrant nation at the heart of the EU project and unionism is not going to be simply "absorbed" into some sort of new state. Actually, Kenny's speech, which was also bereft of costed analysis and the political/electoral consequences of unity, read and sounded like a hastily put-together response to Martin's speech; which, itself, was a cobbled-together piece of mischief aimed at wrong-footing his internal political opponents.

Both men seem oblivious to the realities which would be thrown up by a border poll that delivered a majority in favour of Northern Ireland withdrawing from the United Kingdom.

Such a result would, to be blunt about it, merely the start of a very, very long political journey.

A united Ireland would not be created overnight, particularly if upwards of half of the population remained unionist in outlook, identity and culture.

The political establishment in the Republic has done nothing in terms of setting out the mechanics of possible unity. Polls indicate little enthusiasm for it, there is no economic game plan available anywhere and I have yet to hear anyone - including Sinn Fein - set out a strategy for accommodating unionists (hundreds of thousands of them, I reckon) who did not want to be part of a united Ireland.

As it happens, I don't believe that a majority vote for remaining in the EU would translate into a majority vote for a united Ireland. They are not the same thing. I can, of course, understand why people, some of them unionists, would take an Irish passport and hope to enjoy the best of both worlds. But I think that, if asked to choose between the EU and the UK, a significant majority would still choose the UK.

That's partly because of a residual antipathy to Sinn Fein and a reluctance to rock any boats in what passes for stability here. But it's probably mostly to do with the ongoing inability of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to make a serious, costed case for unity.

Kenny and Martin have played to their own electoral bases in the last few days. Indeed, their ham-fisted, self-serving interventions were cavalier, stupid, insulting and ill-thought through.

Which, all in all, suits unionism very nicely, thank you very much.

Belfast Telegraph

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