Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Unionism would do well to heed wake-up call from Robinson

Editor's Viewpoint

Former First Minister Peter Robinson was a formidable politician. How else could he have lasted more than 40 years in the cockpit of Northern Ireland politics, helping to build a party from a voice of protest to the leading voice of unionism. Now that he has retired from front line politics he is freer to speak his mind and put out ideas which may be seen as contentious by some, but which make a lot of sense.

Last week in Donegal he said unionists should prepare for a border poll and the possibility of a united Ireland. That brought the expected criticism from Sammy Wilson and Jim Allister. But, undaunted, Mr Robinson has now mounted a strong, logical defence of his position.

Given his background, it would have been remarkable if he had done otherwise. He certainly is a strong defender of the Union and believes that a united Ireland is not imminent. But he makes a valid point that too many unionists fail to articulate - the granting or withholding of a border poll is not within their gift.

Which logically leads to the hub of his argument today. Unionism needs to be awake to the threats to the Union which exist. It is no good adopting the King Canute attitude, vainly hoping to staunch the flowing tide of nationalist demography in Northern Ireland.

Mr Robinson doesn't mince his words when it comes to putting down his critics within unionism, describing their accusation that by acknowledging the threat of a united Ireland, he is giving momentum to those who want such an outcome. Such criticism, he argues, is "claptrap", and he pointedly remarks that no amount of grandstanding will change reality.

This is the sort of pragmatic political debate entirely missing from the public discourse in recent times, with politics consisting chiefly of toxic insults hurled carelessly between conflicting ideologies.

The former First Minister is developing, in even clearer language, the ideas he put forward in a speech at Queen's University in June.

Unionism, by its very nature, has developed a seige mentality, defending something that it knows is not shared by the majority of people on this island.

But it does not have to placate those living in the Republic; the agitation for reunification comes from within Northern Ireland. Instead of simply defending the Union, unionists should attempt by word and deed to show the benefits of the Union and the desire to embrace all citizens of this place.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has attempted to paint unionism as an inclusive and broad political ideology, but she has failed to articulate its benefits with the clarity and passion of Mr Robinson.

Others, to unionism's detriment, have simply buried their heads in the sand - as Mr Robinson says, "with only the soles of their feet visible" - and that inertia is a greater threat to the Union than articulating the reality.

Unionism has no need to constantly feel that its back is to the wall. It is a legitimate political ideology, and unionists should be keen to widen its appeal. It is by regarding fellow citizens as potential enemies, rather than potential friends, that unionists will hasten the day when reunification will become a reality.

Even if Irish unity is inevitable in the longer term, unionists have a vital role to play in determining the conditions of that unity. It is not something that can happen overnight, and if unionists heed Mr Robinson's wake-up call, the Union can be preserved for much longer than even its opponents imagine. That surely makes his argument vital reading.

Belfast Telegraph

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