Why unionists should discuss Irish unity now from a position of strength and not weakness
A nationalist majority is likely within the next 20 years and the pro-Union parties need to respond, says Alban Maginness
In the wake of the shock result in the last Stormont election, which put unionist representation into a minority in the Assembly for the first time, the recent suggestion by Sophie Long, the former Press officer of the PUP, that unionists should "prepare for the possibility of a united Ireland" caused surprisingly little stir among unionist politicians or supporters.
Indeed, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP quite gently rebuffed her, saying that they should, in effect, be selling the Union to Catholics.
He did admit, however, that she was an "important voice" within unionism, which suggests that perhaps she is publicly saying what others may be quietly thinking.
Nonetheless, she has performed a timely service to unionists at large by publicly raising the need for them to think through their position on a united Ireland, in that it is a serious possibility in the not-so-distant future.
Given current demographic trends, it is clear that there will be a Catholic electoral majority in the medium-term. This is an unavoidable event, and to be in denial is simply being blindly stupid.
The achievement of a Catholic electoral majority does not necessarily mean that there will be an electoral majority in favour of a united Ireland in any referendum that is subsequently called.
That cannot be assumed, but equally it cannot be disregarded.
But the likelihood is that there will be a nationalist majority some day in the next 15 to 20 years, or even sooner, and it will mean that unionists will have to come to terms with a completely new political situation, with them being in a permanent minority.
As Ms Long says, unionists can either batten down the hatches, or start making some preparation for that likelihood. "Never, never, never" and "No surrender" are useless slogans, which do nothing for thoughtful unionism.
Unionists, she says, should outline their positive vision for a united Ireland's relationship with Britain and the Commonwealth. She herself would be anxious to preserve the welfare state and, in particular, universal healthcare.
These are all reasonable and important points for unionists and, indeed, non-unionists to be concerned about.
There are some interesting and practical questions which come to mind: what happens to the Good Friday Agreement within a united Ireland? Does it become redundant? Or will it simply mean Dublin substituting for London as the sovereign power, with all the rights and protections of the Agreement kept in place?
Mark Durkan MP, the former SDLP leader, has suggested that the Agreement should continue on, with Dail Eireann taking the place of the Westminster Parliament.
The role of the UK Government would, however, continue as the guarantor for the unionist community.
Will this mean that there will be a quasi-federal arrangement in Ireland, with a devolved regional Assembly at Stormont? Or will it be the sort of federal Ireland as discussed in 1976 by DUP founder and celebrated barrister Desmond Boal, and Sean McBride, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former IRA leader. They contemplated two parliaments in their newly amalgamated Ireland.
Will reunification be a 'Big Bang' transfer, or a steady, incremental transfer over a number of years, as outlined by Labour leader Harold Wilson in 1971 when he was leader of the Opposition at Westminster?
He advocated the creation of a united Ireland by consent, winning unionist support over a period of 15 years.
This may have seemed crazy then, but perhaps more sensible now.
Such a gradual process would cause least pain and allow for greater political acceptance to a new situation by unionists.
In such circumstances, unionist community rights should be protected.
This means issues such as access to British citizenship and passports.
The relationship with the British monarchy - so dear to unionists - would need to be accommodated. The display and flying of the Union flag would also have to be addressed.
All these extremely sensitive issues relating to political identity would be up for discussion. Equally, the phasing out of the substantial British financial subvention would be a problematical area of discussion. This would require financial support from Europe and the US during the transitional period to a new State.
Unionists cannot expect the constitutional status quo to remain fixed forever, so now is the right time for them to decide for themselves that it is better to discuss reunification from a position of relative strength, rather than from a position of weakness, thus guaranteeing an acceptable and beneficial deal for the unionist people.
The fact that this issue has now been opened up for discussion by a thinking unionist like Ms Long is an important development in itself, and can go a long way towards creating a mature and positive debate on a new agreed Ireland.
Only unionists themselves can decide that outcome.