Alex Kane: Why must every debate on social or moral issues be reduced to unionist v nationalist?
If there is a perception that 'one side' supports something, then you can bet that the 'other side' will oppose it, writes Alex Kane
A few days ago, I tweeted this: "As someone who supports abortion law reform, I still think a campaign hung on 'The north is next' is ill-advised and unnecessarily aggressive." I was accused by some people of "tone policing"; in other words, daring to lecture them on how they should "campaign for basic human rights". What I was trying to say - apparently, not very well - was that I was worried that the abortion debate, like the same-sex-marriage debate, was going to end up the same-old, same-old Orange vs Green debate. Or, more specifically, the DUP vs Sinn Fein.
The debate in the run-up to the Republic's referendum was not a "political" debate as such, even though it involved a change to the constitution. Yes, parties had to give careful consideration to their policy (particularly the impact it could have on existing, or potential, voters), but, generally speaking, it was a broad-based debate about a key moral issue; with people from different parties finding themselves on the same side of the debate.
That is the nature of referendums. And that's why a referendum is a very important means of gauging opinion on very specific issues. It's why the Republic has used them so often: 1983, 8th amendment on the right to life of the unborn; 1986, 10th amendment on divorce; 1995, 15th amendment on divorce; 2015, 34th amendment on marriage equality; and last month's 36th amendment on repealing the 8th. It also means that no decision is set in stone, or unchangeable.
Sinn Fein's response to the referendum result was very telling. Michelle O'Neill, echoing earlier comments from Mary Lou McDonald, said: "I think in terms of the conversation at home now it's very much about a Union referendum. It's very much about the constitutional future. The big decision yesterday in Dublin was a constitutional issue that is now to the fore. People who, particularly from a unionist background, who traditionally in the past wouldn't have had this conversation about where they see themselves in the future, are now having that conversation and it's a very healthy and live debate."
That's why I was concerned about 'The north is next' approach. It struck me - and I think it struck many from the pro-Union community - as moving, or trying to move, the abortion issue from a moral debate to a very specific political debate about Northern Ireland's constitutional future.
Indeed, O'Neill went further in her response to the referendum and made the case for a border poll: "I think the fact that if you look at a number of things, the northern state was built on a unionist majority and that unionist majority is now gone." Again, those comments were interpreted by unionists as Sinn Fein finding "just another excuse" for a border poll.
Arlene Foster's response to the referendum was equally telling. She argued that republicans and nationalists (by which she meant Sinn Fein and the SDLP, I presume) had been contacting her to say that they would be voting for the DUP, because it was the only party which supported the protection of the unborn. Ian Paisley said that a parish priest had written to him to say that he would be "urging" his parishioners to vote DUP.
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And there you have it: Sinn Fein seeing one political/electoral opportunity in the referendum result; while the DUP saw another. Neither O'Neill nor Foster mentioned the possibility that there couldn't possibly be unanimity among their voters: or, putting it more starkly, it's a nonsense to believe that almost every DUP voter at the last election (292,316), or Sinn Fein voter (238,915), thought exactly the same way on issues like abortion and same-sex-marriage.
Yet, because their leaderships don't seem prepared to dwell on the topic (and don't want the hassle of dealing with competing internal camps on difficult issues), we've ended up in the absurd position in which unionism generally (and the DUP particularly) is viewed as mostly anti-progressive on socio/moral issues, while nationalism generally (and Sinn Fein particularly) is viewed as mostly pro. And, as someone who is generally "liberal" on these issues, I think this damages unionism in Northern Ireland and the perception of local unionism outside Northern Ireland.
The journalist Pat Leahy wrote: "The (referendum) vote will not change our society; it signals society has already changed." He is right. The 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement was a signal that a very substantial majority - albeit for different reasons - had already concluded that they wanted politics to be done differently. A raft of polling evidence over the past decade suggests that the majority here - including a sizeable chunk of DUP voters - are fairly relaxed on socio/moral change.
And, yes, I can hear the cries that the polls can't be trusted. Well, for those who've forgotten, or never knew, Hilary Clinton got almost three million more votes than Trump; and Leave just about won in 2016, with little clarity about what "Leave" actually meant. In most cases the polls are comfortably in the ballpark.
What all of this suggests is that we probably have much more in common than we realise; or could be concluded from how we vote. Unionists are not preternatural small-c conservatives. Just because we have a collective, particular view on the constitutional question, it doesn't and shouldn't follow that we have a collective and particular view on abortion, same-sex-marriage, secularism, licensing reform et al.
And we shouldn't allow ourselves to be herded into a perceived stance on these issues because of how we vote on the constitutional issue.
So, when it comes to dealing with these socio/moral issues, I think we have to find a way of, for want of a better term, de-party-politicising them. I would like to see the sort of debate in which people from different parties and from broader civic society were able to organise and promote the debate.
I've actually come round to the idea of rebooting the Civic Forum (although keeping the membership small and changing it for each new debate) and allowing it to research, consult, compile evidence and present a final report to either the Assembly, or the Secretary of State.
The problem with Northern Ireland is that we're not the same as either the Republic or Great Britain.
And that's not a good thing. Every socio/moral debate - almost every kind of debate, in fact - gets bogged down in "dreary steeples" territory. If there is a perception that "one side" supports something, then it's usual for the "other side" to oppose it.
I know, it doesn't make sense. The task now is how we begin to deploy sense in making these very difficult decisions and reach the point at which we collectively accept that human rights must never be subject to veto by any party.