Alban Maginness: A border poll at this time could well be divisive, but you cannot tell nationalists No indefinitely
A stipulated timetable for a plebiscite on unity would address an issue left unresolved by GFA, says Alban Maginness
The recent walkout by the Scottish nationalist MPs in Westminster was a dramatic reminder that the Scottish question has not gone away. Stunt or no stunt, spontaneous or prearranged, the dramatic television spectacle of the large Scottish nationalist representation leaving parliament has highlighted the fact that the UK, as a body politic, is not only struggling with Brexit, but also with the existential threat of Scottish independence to the very stability, unity and integrity of the United Kingdom as a political entity. The two issues may appear separate, but, in reality, they are intimately connected.
Depending on whether there is a hard or soft Brexit, the political mood in Scotland could change to a swing in support of a renewed attempt for Scottish independence. All of this awaits the result of the EU-UK negotiations over Brexit. Whatever deal is reached - that presupposes that there will, in fact, be a deal - will strongly influence Scottish public opinion.
If the deal is bad - and the current omens are far from reassuring - then the Scottish nationalists will undoubtedly exploit the bad deal in order to bring about another poll on independence.
However, unlike here, this would be a poll based on the carefully constructed and impressively detailed blueprint of the SNP. They will present not simply the idea of independence to the Scottish people, but a realistic outline of what independence would actually mean in practice.
Nationalist parties in Ireland could learn a lot from what the SNP have done to persuade and prepare the electorate in respect of independence. This is something neither SDLP nor Sinn Fein have done. Nor, indeed, has any southern party, or government, presented a blueprint for a future unified Irish state.
If people here are even notionally expected to vote in the medium-term about Irish unity - and that is not an unreasonable assumption - then there is a responsibility on the part of both the Irish and British governments to give the matter at least hypothetical consideration as a guide to the electorate. The experience of the Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall is something we could learn from.
Much has been said lately about border polls and both Peter Robinson and Leo Varadkar have expressed views on the dangers of having such a poll in the near future. In addition, Varadkar does not like the idea of a simple majority of one to effect such a big constitutional change in Ireland.
But the Good Friday Agreement, the genesis of a potential border poll, does not qualify such a majority. A sudden change to a "qualified" majority would incense nationalist opinion. Such a belated change would be seen as pandering to a unionist agenda.
But more important is the question as to the timing of a border poll. The GFA says the Secretary of State should call a poll if he/she thinks a majority for change to a united Ireland appears likely.
Peter Robinson has suggested a "generational" poll and, although that is clearly unacceptable to many nationalists and unionists (judging by the reaction of Sinn Fein and the DUP alike), it does have some merit in that it is not confined simply to the arbitrary decision of a British Secretary of State. As Seamus Mallon remarked, Peter Robinson's comments have shown "foresight" and that he was "thinking beyond the box".
It is now regrettable that the agreement did not stipulate, time-wise, when a border poll should be held. But it was felt at the time of the agreement that a timetable would, in itself, undermine the stability of the agreement.
At the heart of the delicately calibrated agreement was the notion that power-sharing should take precedence. The border poll, as a democratic option, was regarded as something to be activated vaguely in the distant future.
There has been an inherent tension between the agreement and the idea of Irish unity. While unionists felt that the Union was secured through the agreement, nationalists saw the agreement as ultimately leading to Irish unity through reconciliation. That tension has always been there and needs to be carefully managed.
So, when Varadkar says that a border poll at this time might be divisive and a bad idea, he is probably correct. But the question then arises: if Stormont is restored and the political system is rebooted, when would it be the right time to have a border poll?
You can't simply keep saying to nationalists that, although a peaceful democratic mechanism exists to change things constitutionally, it can't be used to test political opinion here, because it might upset the process.
That being so, it is hard to resist the idea that there should be a stipulated timetable for a border poll.