Belfast Telegraph

Robinson: fixed generational polls on Irish unity would stabilise politics in NI

Peter Robinson with, from left, Professor Richard English, Professor James McElnay, acting president and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor John Brewer
Peter Robinson with, from left, Professor Richard English, Professor James McElnay, acting president and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor John Brewer

By David Young, PA

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson has suggested holding fixed generational polls on Irish unification as a way to stabilise politics in Northern Ireland.

The ex-first minister said the approach would help make the constitutional question less disruptive to local politics and the prospect of a referendum less threatening.

Delivering a lecture at Queen's University in Belfast, veteran unionist Mr Robinson stressed he would be very confident that citizens would choose to stay within the UK.

But reflecting on the discordant aftermath of the Brexit vote, he said the prospect of a simple yes/no poll to deal with a "colossal constitutional change", and which could be carried with a majority of just one vote, was a "recipe for chaos" on the island.

As such, he said there was a need for processes and timescales to be agreed in advance, rather than having to "tackle the issue on the fly" if unification was ever backed.

"In this I am not, of course, talking about the nature and shape of the new state that would emerge if there ever was a vote to exit the UK," said Mr Robinson.

"I am alluding to the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement.

"With those details settled, my own view, for what it's worth, is that fixed generational border polls would be less divisive and disruptive of our local political process."

Mr Robinson acknowledged he had "pulled the pin out of the grenade" with his remarks.

The main focus of his lecture at Queen's was his reflections on how to restore a stable power-sharing administration. Mr Robinson, who was recently appointed an honorary professor of peace studies at the institution, warned that community division in the region was "accelerating" and suggested violence could reignite if the political stagnation continued.

"We are at risk of awaking the slumbering hostilities that we had all hoped would never again be aroused," he said.

The former MP suggested that widening the range of issues in the negotiations between the rowing parties could actually help, rather than hinder, efforts to secure a deal to resurrect devolution.

"As I see it, simply applying a sticking plaster, or attempting to patch-up the existing process, will not provide a durable result," he said.

He said by broadening the agenda to take in other unsettled issues could provide more scope for trade-offs and identify areas where common ground could be found.

"I am talking about those matters that impact upon the smooth operation, permanence, continuity and stability of the institutions," he said.

"I say this because I feel sure a new Assembly tripping over the debris of unresolved, critical problems will collapse and because I believe another collapse would be fatal for devolution and harmful to the future of Northern Ireland."

He called for reforms to Assembly structures so that one party alone could not wield the power to collapse the institutions by walking out.

"Whatever future problems may arise, the parties, in agreeing a new deal, should, at the very minimum, sign a solemn declaration to work on any problem that surfaces while still operating the agreed institutions," he said.

Mr Robinson said there was a need to move from the politics of "process" to create a sense of permanence around the institutions.

"Being processed brings with it that unsettled feeling that produces uncertainty and, at times, fear," he said.

"That's why I counsel against a nip and tuck solution and favour major reconstructive surgery.

"The outcome of the next set of negotiations must have the feel of the parties having reached a settlement rather than the continuation of a process."

Mr Robinson said current structures that enable parties to veto decisions needed reform, insisting it was possible to design other community protective devices.

Addressing an audience that included current DUP leader Arlene Foster, he said the most recent set of failed negotiations to resurrect Stormont ended in a "train crash".

"Where the blame game reached fever-pitch, angry words were exchanged, documents leaked, confidences broken, and trust shattered," he added.

Afterwards, Mr Robinson's successor Mrs Foster was asked if she felt she was being criticised in the speech.

But she told the BBC: "I think he was actually reflecting what happened in February.

"It was the very first time that there wasn't a soft landing, and in fact papers were released to the media, commentary was made on those papers - and he's right about that - it makes it a lot more difficult to put back together again and to build trust up again when something like that happens."

Belfast Telegraph


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