Belfast Telegraph

Barry White: Is it too late to stop the rot at Stormont?

As controversy continues over a border poll, Barry White argues that the debate needs to be more informed than that on Brexit

On the morning after that referendum I decided to renew my hitherto unused green Irish passport. I'd got it as a gesture when I travelled with a party of Irish journalists to one of the aspiring EC countries, Spain or Portugal, but kept using my dark blue UK one.

After the Brexit result, however, I felt instantly less British. The UK was where I paid my taxes, and where I felt most at home, but if a majority of my fellow citizens wanted out of Europe, I didn't. Renewing my Irish passport was a natural reaction.

I still haven't used it, out of habit as much as anything, but the whole tone of the Brexit debate, here and in Britain, is deeply alienating. The leavers are quite happy to turn their backs on their continental neighbours, in pursuit of some imperialist go-it-alone dream, but if this means a future under any of the current crop of British politicians, almost any alternative is worth considering.

The number one option for nationalists is, as always, Irish unity, which unionists naturally reject but which Peter Robinson has boldly placed at the centre of political debate.

By warning that it could happen before unionists had prepared their defence, he was admitting that Brexit has transformed the political atmosphere, so that relying on a largely sectarian pro-union vote was no longer enough.

The demographics dictate that there will be a nationalist majority within most people's lifetime, voting for unity unless Irish culture can be fully accommodated within a Northern Ireland that is comfortable with light-touch British oversight and support.

That would be the ideal, from a unionist perspective, but the chances of it coming about are minimal, with Sinn Fein in the ascendant.

Far more likely is that unionism will circle the wagons, resisting change until either it produces a more pragmatic leadership or is forced into reform by a new government in Westminster, Conservative or Labour, which will emulate Margaret Thatcher and her unexpected Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985.

Before then, there are the little matters of Brexit and the likelihood of a border poll to enforce division and paralyse politics for years to come.

Regardless of whether the break with Europe is hard or soft, it destroys the growing sense of all-Ireland commonality which royal visits to the Republic have helped to reinforce.

The two halves of the island are going their separate ways, against the wishes of a voting majority and virtually 100% of Irish nationalists.

Against this background, the DUP's support for Brexit, and its "stand and deliver" agreement with the Tory government, rubs salt into the wounds that have opened with the row over language rights, the RHI scandal and marriage equality.

Clashing red lines have kept Stormont empty for a record period and the chance of any resumption before - or perhaps even after - Brexit is remote.

To fill the vacuum, and enable nationalists unrepresented at Westminster to exploit Brexit worries, Sinn Fein will continue to push for a border poll, despite the Government's reluctance to increase division in these febrile times.

Even talking about a united Ireland, when there is no certainty about long-term relations between Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic, stirs old animosities.

Dublin clearly wants no part of it, having no desire to shoulder the economic and political burden, but may be unable to withstand northern pressure.

All these swirling tides help to underline the anxiety expressed by Peter Robinson over unionism's lack of a strategy to deal with nationalism's new sense of confidence.

Is it already too late to stop the rot in Stormont? Or is there still time to steer a different course, involving a greater degree of compromise than ever before?

Concentrating on essentials and discarding outdated attitudes would be a start.

So, what would such compromise amount to, could it get devolved government up and running again and how would it impact the traditional nationalist and unionist policies?

We all know how Sinn Fein's demand for an Irish Language Act ostensibly brought the whole show down, despite reports that the DUP were close to agreement, but we've never seen a detailed explanation of the terms under consideration, or a professional estimate of the cost.

Personally, I have never met a unionist, big or small 'U', who is unequivocally against a language act. What kind of act, they say, does it mean dual language signs, translation services everywhere and discrimination against non-Irish speakers? So far, republicans have provided few uncontested answers, adding to fears that a little act might mean a lot.

The one thing unionists tell me they don't want to see is an equivalence between Irish, fully recognised in Europe, and Ulster Scots. It's good that a light has been shone on a traditional way of speaking and making music in many parts of the country, but that's enough, well short of legislation.

As for the equality agenda, that can surely be easily sorted.

The UUP has belatedly decided to leave the wrong side of history, by leading members endorsing the Gay Pride parade, and the DUP cannot be far behind, if it wants the votes of open-minded young people.

Theresa May needs DUP support so badly that she is afraid to raise the subject, but how long can any Westminster government tolerate a part of the UK where same sex marriage is invalid?

Already the abortion ban is being attacked on all sides, harming Northern Ireland's image.

When it comes to a border poll, all these factors will pale against the effect of Brexit in determining how the 'soft' unionist vote may go.

The prospect of severing sentimental and family ties with Britain would deter most, although some might be assuaged by guarantees towards pensions and NHS standards.

No one votes to be poorer, unionist or nationalist, so the debate over a border poll needs to start soon, and be much more fully informed than the referendum.

Barry White is a political commentator

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