Alex Kane: Unionism is facing its biggest challenge in almost a century, but there is nothing inevitable about a united Ireland
Three years from Northern Ireland's centenary, the current debate at least allows pro-Union supporters to emerge from the divisive mess they've been in since Stormont fell in 1972, writes Alex Kane
In the last two years, a coming together of six separate factors has presented unionism with an enormous challenge.
Brexit has raised new and complicated questions about the nature of the relationship between Belfast/Dublin and Dublin/London; the loss of their majority in the Assembly (40-50) has spooked unionism; the collapse of the Assembly has focused attention on whether or not political stability is possible; the increasing polarisation (Sinn Fein/DUP taking two-thirds of the total vote) makes consensual, genuine power-sharing seem an unlikely prospect; in the last two elections the overall unionist/pro-Union vote hasn't represented a majority; and the narrowing of the Protestant/Catholic demographic means that Protestants (overwhelmingly unionist) won't represent the majority community within a few years.
So, it's not really surprising that the issue of Irish unity is now something that is discussed in pubs, offices, across dining tables and within political parties and Government circles. Unity has become a water-cooler conversation.
- Alban Maginness: Unionists need to wake up... Irish unification is no longer a question of 'if', rather it is one of 'how soon'
The very fact that leading unionists - Arlene Foster, Christopher Stalford, Robin Swann and Lord Kilclooney - are prepared to talk about what they would do in the event of Irish unity strikes me as extraordinary.
Economists have been commissioned to write reports about Irish unity; Sinn Fein has hosted a series of unity conferences; I get phone calls every other day from unionist politicians about it; and a joint committee of the Dail and Senate published a report last August - Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland and Its People in Peace and Prosperity.
Sinn Fein, which hadn't anticipated the Brexit result, now seem to have sidelined an internal settlement in Northern Ireland in favour of an all-out push for unity. They never expected to be in this position, of course; yet they know that, if they don't achieve unity in the next two to five years (and a soft-landing north-south arrangement as part of the final Brexit deal could still scupper their chances), then it could be another generation before an opportunity as seemingly good as this one comes along again. So, they'll wear their friendliest, most approachable, smile.
What Sinn Fein wants - what it needs - is a border poll. That requires a judgment from the Secretary of State that it "appears likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland". The key words here are "appears likely": so, a mixture of election results (the 2019 local government elections will be important if "unionists", for the third time in a row, don't represent a majority) and firmer evidence on demographics will play a crucial role in that judgment.
The Irish government will also have an input to the decision - albeit a discreet one - because the possibility of unification will bring enormous consequences for them, too.
But even without an earlier-than-expected border poll, the unity debate is not going away any time soon - particularly if Brexit doesn't work out well. Unionists need to embrace that debate. They have nothing to fear; yet much to gain.
For a start, they really do need to pin down the existence of that demographic sometimes described as "Catholic unicorns" - Catholics who support the Union. The electoral evidence is mixed at best.
They also need to look at those demographics known as "small-n nationalists" and "small-u unionists": there is evidence of their existence, but not much hard information, so far, on whether their perceived concerns about the UK leaving the EU outweigh what was assumed to be their previous support for the constitutional status quo.
Two other demographics are worth looking at. I don't know the exact figures, but there are tens of thousands of people who have moved into Northern Ireland over the past 30 years and who would be entitled to vote in a border poll.
How would they vote? What are their priorities?
Which arguments are most likely to persuade them one way or the other?
Can unionism reach them?
In 1998, in the Good Friday Agreement referendum, around 100,000 or so from a pro-Union background - who hadn't voted for years - came out to support the Agreement. But most of them didn't come out a few weeks later for the Assembly election. Are they still about? What is their view on the unity debate and constitutional question? Why don't they vote?
All in all, there is a pretty broad pool of potential voters for unionism to tap into. It needs to do that now. It should have started the process decades ago.
Most important of all, though, they need to reach into their own grassroots. Here are two emails I received in response to a recent interview I gave on The Nolan Show on the issue of unionism reaching out to its non-traditional bases: "What about the need for them to engage Protestants? I wonder how representative my peer group is. Largely middle-aged, university-educated and very critical of DUP attitudes, behaviour and dogma. We all virtually have Irish passports and in our circles there is an increasing view that a united Ireland would not be so bad. Certainly, Convey et al appear so much more statesman-like than some of the other folks up on the hill. You might consider tapping into that audience for a view."; "As ever, the working-class unionists and loyalists are ignored in all of this. What should be a proper internal debate about the economic impact of Brexit on us has been twisted into a pointless battle between the DUP and the Irish government about the constitutional question. The DUP backed Brexit, but they're not really telling us what the specific benefits will be. I agreed with your recent interview in which you talked about unionist outreach being important. Maybe they should focus on their own backyard first?"
I get dozens of emails every week from pro-Union supporters: some of them public figures and businesspeople who want their opinions heard and passed on; others from ordinary, grassroots unionists who just want me to know that they feel let down and neglected by "our own side".
And, irrespective of their background, there is one thing these people have in common: they are not stupid. They are not blind to the challenges facing unionism. They are not afraid to face those challenges. What they want, most of all, is a unionism which makes sense to them and which looks attractive, coherent and non-threatening to others.
They want a positive, pro-active campaign for the Union, rather than the usual defensive, slightly dismissive one. And they are right. There is nothing inevitable about Irish unity - even with Brexit - and unionism is not solely the property of Protestants, the Orange Order and the unionist parties.
I believe unionism is facing its biggest challenge in almost a century. But I also believe that the pro-Irish unity argument remains a long, long way from success. The present debate is the most important one in my lifetime. I welcome it.
Ironically - and three years from Northern Ireland's centenary - it provides unionism with the opportunity to finally emerge from the divisive mess it has been in since the collapse of Stormont in March 1972.
Put bluntly, guys, talk to anyone and everyone.
Rise to the challenge.