East Belfast MP’s comments about a unity referendum sound like a bid to replace Arlene Foster, says Alex Kane
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback on Monday, Gavin Robinson said he had never mentioned a border poll during a recent newspaper interview, adding, “I do not see it as an inevitability at all.”
But he was supporting comments Peter Robinson had made a couple of years earlier and which he had expanded on in an article last October, when he made the case for a pro-Union working group to “prepare an evidence-based case for the Union in the event of a border poll”.
Both Robinsons are right. While a border poll is not inevitable, it is more likely than not within the next decade. Sinn Fein, which may be in an Irish government fairly soon, will continue to press for one. Micheal Martin has said he doesn’t want one in the next five years, but in a recent speech he upped the ante with the announcement of a series of all-island dialogues. Most of nationalism in Northern Ireland, party-political and civic, has raised the issue to the top of their agendas.
So, it would be stupid — although reckless is a better term — for unionism to bury its head and pretend the issue will just go away. Even more stupid is the view of those unionists who insist that no Secretary of State will call one, so why prepare for one.
Hmmm. After Boris Johnson’s confetti of broken pledges it strikes me as monumentally rash to assume he, or a successor, could be trusted not to call a poll.
And while I accept that opinion polls may have different figures on levels of support for Irish unity, I’m not sure that building a strategy around the figures you like most is the best way to approach the issue.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s remove a border poll from the conversation and look at what Gavin Robinson said: “Peter is absolutely right, not only about how we should think about these things, but how we should engage in wider discussions within unionism; how we strategise for ourselves; how we position ourselves; and how fundamentally we advance the cause of the union through thought and argument.”
What unionist could object to that? He is not calling for open, public discussions. He’s not advocating any sort of engagement with nationalism about how unionism and unionists would be accommodated within an “inevitable” united Ireland. He is not proposing setting a date for a border poll. He is not setting down the conditions he would find acceptable in a united Ireland. He is not preparing for a united Ireland.
What he is proposing is wider discussions within unionism about strategy and positioning. As I say, what unionist could object to that?
Well, judging by social media (although I always caution about judging anything by what appears on Twitter or Facebook accounts), some unionists do object.
They believe that talking about, or preparing for, a border poll is tantamount to clearing the path for a poll and assisting nationalism, particularly Sinn Fein. It’s not. It really isn’t. It is being prepared for any and every challenge, rather than — as has often been the case with unionism — caught on the hop, or wrong-footed by supposed allies.
What is interesting, though, is that Gavin Robinson has already attracted the support of his colleagues Gregory Campbell and Carla Lockhart. I have spoken to others in the DUP who believe he is right to encourage “internal debate across unionism”. One DUP MLA told me, “Sure, (Ian Paisley) Jnr was on similar ground a few weeks ago.”
He’s right. Taking part in an online debate in November, organised by the Fianna Fail Society at University College Cork, Ian Paisley said: “There’s nothing to stop us from having a good dialogue and a good debate and to provoke each other to see do our arguments hold water, is there room for change, is there opportunity for change and for betterment, and I think that is all part of the art of politics.”
Okay, that’s not quite “similar ground” to what Gavin Robinson is talking about, but it is an indication that a growing number of people within the DUP — and within unionism more generally — are not averse to discussing the challenges raised by those supporting various unity projects on both sides of the border. Those discussions are essential, fitting in with the “challenge-and-response” theory of politics.
Another question being asked — and it was inevitable — is whether Gavin Robinson is on a solo run, or flying a kite for others?
He’s not a high-profile member of the party and he’s not known for rattling cages, or issuing statements which make life difficult for Arlene Foster. He says the original interview was done in December and he had no control over the publication date.
Fair enough. But he must have known his comments would attract interest, particularly since others — including Foster — will be asked for a response. And let’s not forget he’s an MP very publicly supporting the views of Foster’s predecessor: views which were not endorsed by any party representative at the time.
The other thing — which was also inevitable — is that Gavin Robinson would be asked about leadership ambitions and intentions. Was he firing over Foster’s bows? Was he testing the water for himself and a potential support group? Or is he raising a voice and letting it be known that it isn’t just Poots, Donaldson, or even Christopher Stalford who should be considered as Foster’s eventual successor?
What he said sounded remarkably like a thought-through policy and strategy, something that has already been discussed with others. Indeed, in his interview on Talkback, he hinted that he had been having conversations with others.
In my experience, that’s the sort of thing a politician does when he is thinking about his own role and future within the party.
Interestingly, when asked by William Crawley about a leadership bid, his answer was a simple “Why would I?”
That’s not a no. It’s far from it, in fact.