Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: What unionist response should be in wake of Robinson’s Ireland border poll intervention

Peter Robinson speaking at the McGill Summer School in Donegal last month
Peter Robinson speaking at the McGill Summer School in Donegal last month
A border back road where the only sign of changing jurisdictions is a speed restriction sign in kilometres per hour

By Ed Curran

The DUP's former chief hornet has stirred others inside the nest with his views on a border poll and unionist complacency about the future.

Peter Robinson can be accused with some justification of raising the profile of a poll on a united Ireland, which has led the new Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, to confuse herself. Even she seems unconvinced about a border poll, while the other main parties in Dublin are running a mile from the idea.

Nonetheless undeterred by criticism from his old sparring partner Sammy Wilson, the former First Minister doesn't miss any wall as he never did when in office, accusing unionists of sleep-walking towards a referendum on Irish unity.

Where are the contingency plans to meet any threat to the constitutional link with Britain, he asks. And, quoting an old saying, he warns: 'You can't start to fatten a pig on market day.' Too late indeed, when never mind the pig, there is an elephant representing the united Irelanders not only in the room but sitting on unionist laps!

Mr Robinson wants to ensure that the case for staying in the UK is sold convincingly to the electorate beforehand. He is warning that the unionist case is in danger of going by default, that the battle for the union is under way, and that nationalists and republicans are already fully engaged in the propaganda war.

He laments the fact that those who signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 agreed to the possibility of a referendum on Irish unity being at the behest of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Given what has happened over Brexit, the very idea of a referendum on such a potentially explosive subject as a united Ireland hardly bears thinking about. The divisions which have occurred over Brexit would likely be nothing to those in this country over our very constitutional future.

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Imagine if the vote was close one way or the other. What consequences might unfold for this island to the cost and possibly the lives of many, many people?

A referendum on Irish unity is a frightening prospect, all the more so in the current climate of no political consensus. We remain a long way off a united Northern Ireland, never mind a united Ireland.

Mr Robinson argues that, under current rules, the decision to call a referendum is outside unionist - or indeed Northern Ireland's - control. It would be determined by a British Secretary of State, almost certainly in consultation and agreement with the Irish government. But, is the DUP, is unionism in general, today prepared for, ready and able, to face that challenge and to win the battle for the Union?

Mr Robinson can be accused of premature scaremongering by elements in the DUP and by the Ulster Unionists but there is plenty of evidence today to suggest his warning is timely and should not be ignored.

First, Brexit has accelerated the debate on Irish unity. When even unionists start applying for Irish passports, is it any wonder nationalists and republicans are encouraged to believe attitudes are changing.

A recent election whittled away the unionists' overall majority for the first time. Opinion polls that hover around the 50:50 split are hardly a good advertisement for the current breed of DUP and UUP leaders, more a reflection on how poorly they are managing to convince people of the benefits of UK membership.

Mr Robinson alludes to a speech by Arlene Foster to the Policy Exchange in London in which she set out the virtues of unionism and the Union. What he did not say was that too much of her leadership to date has been clouded in controversy, uncertainty and divisiveness, hardly the message of a confident positive unionism which presumably he would wish to see.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein is unforgiving and remorseless in its pursuit of all things anti-British. If a prize were ever offered for the last time anyone heard a positive remark from republicans about the current British government, it would be a long time without a winner.

The SDLP, too, seemingly conscious that it must play the Irish card to withstand the tidal wave of Sinn Fein, has latched onto Brexit. And down south, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney vie with one another for sound bite comments that are unsettling unionists.

Criticism of Britain's role in Brexit and Northern Ireland is played out on a daily basis across broadcast media, often going uncontested because unionism does not appear to have either the communication skills or, even more damning, the will to counter it. The result is an unending anti-British government barrage on the ears of the general public which may raise doubts into even the minds of some pro-union voters.

As Peter Robinson asserted in his article in this newspaper: 'Inertia aids the enemy'.

So too does the failure of the current DUP to live up to the pro-union ideals delivered by Prime Minister Theresa May during her recent visit to Belfast. She said: "We are absolutely committed to parity of esteem and just and equal treatment irrespective of aspiration or identity. We want to build a stronger, more inclusive and more prosperous Northern Ireland that truly works for everyone."

Peter Robinson has come out of his political retirement to deliver a wake-up call to the current crop of unionist leaders and representatives. Stop the siege mentality. Get out there and tell the people why being part of the United Kingdom is still worthwhile. Confront those who increasingly advocate a united Ireland referendum with the obvious question of who can afford and who will pay for the united Ireland to which they aspire.

The media too has a responsibility to challenge simplistic calls for border polls. Where are the investigative programmes on the true cost of Irish unity? Why is the question rarely asked of nationalist and republican spokespersons? If the debate on the Brexit referendum has taught us anything, it is that the public deserve accurate information before being required to vote Yes or No on the future.

The challenge for those who aspire towards a united Ireland is to produce any economic justification for their case and for abandoning the current link with what is the fifth largest economy on Earth.

What Peter Robinson's old party and its new leader also have to do is set about governing Northern Ireland in a truly inclusive, fair-minded, even-handed way that brings the people closer to the rest of the UK and not further away.

These are defining days for unionism and the Union, only three years short of the centenary of partition. The battle lost by the IRA to break the UK link is now being engaged on a wider, more subtle political front from Brussels to Belfast and from Dublin to London. Northern Ireland has become a focus of international attention not through its civil conflict as was for so long the case but through the Brexit border deadlock.

The future of the Union has been internationalised beyond these shores and those like Sinn Fein see a once in a lifetime opportunity to capitalise on the interest around the world. That is why Peter Robinson's comments are timely, even if a border poll is unlikely, and has the potential to literally blow this island apart again after so many years of relative peace and stability.

Decisions in the weeks and months ahead will determine the future of us all, north and south. As of now everything is in a melting pot. The moulds are unset. No one can be sure what shape they will take for unionist and nationalist alike as the Brexit debate reaches its climax and the battle for the Union is engaged in earnest.

Belfast Telegraph


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