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Alex Kane: Only a fool would dismiss the idea that British Government won't spring another surprise


Former First Minister Peter Robinson

Former First Minister Peter Robinson

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Former First Minister Peter Robinson

At the heart of Peter Robinson's article in the Belfast Telegraph is his concern about a complacency within and across unionism about the future of the Union.

It is a concern I share: indeed, it is a concern I have expressed many times since the mid-1980s, including the period when Robinson was First Minister and DUP leader. Irrespective of how strong an argument or position, maybe it is always wrong to assume that circumstances cannot or will not change. My view remains that the Union will survive. But it will not survive because Robinson, Sammy Wilson and I say so.

It will only survive if unionism, collectively and individually, makes a strong case, sells the message, expands the support base and prepares for all eventualities. That is all Robinson is saying.

When I suggested in an article a couple of weeks before the 2017 Assembly election that there was a possibility - albeit a slim one - unionists could lose their overall majority, a leading DUP MLA told me, "Don't be silly, Alex, that's not going to happen.

"Why would you even write something like that?"

Well, they lost that majority. Unionists don't have a majority of either Council or Assembly seats across Belfast (24/60 BCC and 6/20 NIA). The overall vote for candidates who declared themselves as pro-Union/unionist at the last few elections has hovered uncomfortably close to or slightly lower than the 50% barrier.

While recent opinion polls haven't given a consistent trend on support for Irish unity, they do suggest that what happens regarding the final Brexit deal could have a significant impact on two or three key demographics.

Given that sort of background, it would be a very sanguine or very stupid unionist who would argue that unionists shouldn't give serious consideration to a number of possibilities. The primary one, as Robinson says, is that a border poll is possible, particularly under a Labour government. It is the Secretary of State who makes the call - not unionists, not the DUP, not even Sammy Wilson. I would prefer that the leaders of unionism had given some thought to the possibility and made some sort of preparation for the campaign rather, than as Robinson says, burying their heads in the sand until "only the soles of their feet are visible above the surface".

Robinson, Wilson and the rest of us from that generation will remember the body blow dealt to unionism by the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. They will remember the despair. They will remember how close we came to a tipping point. They will remember that something dismissed as an impossibility by the leadership of unionism at the time happened: happened over their heads and without any consultation.

Only a fool, a blinkered, irresponsible, thoroughly delusional fool would believe that a British government would not, again, spring another monumental shock upon unionism. And only a unionist of monumental stupidity would refuse to discuss, let alone prepare for that eventuality. "Contingency planning is a judicious safety-net. Better by far to plan for adverse possibilities, no matter how remote, than be left clueless and unprepared if our hopes and evaluations are wrong". Robinson is right. He wrote something similar in the joint UUP/DUP response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement published in June 1987 (The Task Force Report: An End To Drift):

"The temptation in such circumstances might be to do nothing. However we would consider this the ultimate abdication of responsibility."

To be honest, not much was done. Unionism paid the price of that ongoing abdication of responsibility by the leadership of both parties. Robinson, perhaps mindful of how the report he co-authored was never given the consideration it deserved, is right to remind unionists, all of us, of the continuing perils of not being prepared.

Belfast Telegraph