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DUP outflanks Sinn Fein in border poll sideshow

Sinn Fein has to try to look pleased, but it wasn't in the plan for the DUP to bite their hand off on the issue of a border poll.

Sinn Fein's proposals envisage the poll being held sometime in the lifetime of the next Assembly, not this one. That is during the four or five years after 2015.

The demand effectively replaces its old aim of Irish unity by the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Sinn Fein is reshaping its aspirations to include a discussion, followed by a referendum in the period after 2016, rather than actual delivery of unity by that date.

That deadline could slip, just like the last one. In the meantime, the party is re-imagining what a united Ireland would mean.

It has already floated the idea that Stormont could remain as a strong regional assembly under Dublin, instead of London, that all citizens of the new state who wish to do so could hold British passports and that there could be strong east/west, or British/Irish, links.

Republicans once made absolute demands at gunpoint and based them on what they saw as historic destiny.

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As the Easter Proclamation put it, they maintained they were striking for Ireland "in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood".

Now they talk of opening a conversation, or a process, in which they hope to persuade people.

In the meantime, they will accept the constitutional status quo, as Mitchel McLaughlin told the Assembly only last week.

The prospects for a Yes vote on a united Ireland are pretty bleak just now.

Polls and the census all indicate it wouldn't pass and both the British and Irish government believe the time isn't right to hold one. In any case, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, there would have to be simultaneous referenda on both sides of the border.

The agreement states: "It is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, north and south, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish."

The Irish constitution, which once claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, now reflects this. So, if that is ever to happen, there would be a lot to be worked out.

Republicans are nowadays happy with the idea of process, kicking ideas about and trying to steer them in a direction that suits. Unionists think more in terms of ending debates and drawing a line under issues.

That is why the DUP is tempted by a quick referendum to settle the issue while the odds are still in its favour. Holding one on election day might even solve its problem about motivating voters.

Unfortunately, the flag protests show us the sort of panic that might ensue. It would, as Arlene Foster said, be divisive.

Whatever their long-term aspirations, all our politicians face the immediate challenge of building economic stability and social cohesion. That should, as Theresa Villiers pointed out, be their main priority.