Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Modernisation is unionism's best insurance against reunification, but is it willing to act?

Peter Robinson's call to unionists to be prepared for a united Ireland made awkward reading for some within the DUP.

It was not that the former First Minister's utterances at the MacGill Summer School were a surprise. Robinson made similar noises in his professorial inaugural lecture at Queen's University last month. Objectively, the former DUP leader's warning makes sense.

Robinson highlighted the chaos of current Brexit arrangements. Massive change without a plan equals trouble. It can arrive suddenly and unexpectedly.

Had anyone said a decade ago that the UK would be out of the EU by spring 2019 they would have had few takers.

And unionists should be discussing what a united Ireland would look like. Nationalists should be doing likewise. Both ought to give much greater thought to new institutional and political structures - and what powers might be devolved to the North in a unified country - if serious about the recognition of different identities.

But how can the DUP possibly respond to Robinson's call?

A party that has prided itself as the stoutest defender of the Union can hardly start issuing discussion documents on its dissolution. 'Preparing for Irish Unity' and 'Unionism In A United Ireland' would make interesting DUP pamphlets, for sure.

Likewise, a DUP call for an all-island constitutional convention to discuss the structures of a new Ireland would be fascinating. It's what Sinn Fein used to demand to help organise the terms of unification.

Without wishing away the precious summer, we'll soon be in the unionist autumn conference season. Imagine a DUP conference panel on 'Options For Irish Unification', replete with Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein guest speakers to helpfully discuss scenarios.

The first sound you would hear is that of the UUP's Robin Swann and the TUV's Jim Allister licking their lips. For the DUP - having built its support on accusing other unionists of treachery - would be involved in organising the deeds of transfer from the Union.

There is a unionist hardcore for whom any talk of unity, any concession, any gesture, is too much.

For that section, Arlene Foster embarking on her series of outreach guest appearances caused spluttering indignation. Whatever next for the DUP leader? A quick meet and greet at the Wolfe Tones gig at next month's Feile an Phobail? Cynics might suggest that Robinson is talking up the threat to Northern Ireland's position in the UK to rally unionists to the DUP flag in the time-honoured tribal fashion. But, as we are not in an election campaign, that claim makes little sense.

Nor should siren warnings over unity be seen simply as a distraction from the lowering sky of the RHI Inquiry, pressure on the DUP over social issues and the refusal of sections of the party to concede an Irish Language Act. Robinson was instead urging serious precautionary action against the possibility of a united Ireland. This involves modernising unionism, preventing the further disaffection of nationalists already outraged by Brexit, and restoring devolved power-sharing.

Reviving Stormont as a credible institution might be a bulwark against unification.

Robinson referred to insurance premiums. And they are affected by whether the house is regularly inhabited and in good order - which Stormont palpably is not.

The former DUP leader is perhaps the most successful First Minister of Northern Ireland.

That might seem the ultimate in damning with faint praise. But at least under Robinson the institutions did not collapse, further powers were transferred to Stormont, and, according to the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, at least Catholic support for devolved power-sharing in the UK exceeded that for a united Ireland. So he deserves a hearing.

How real is the prospect of a united Ireland for unionists?

Greater than a house burning down, for sure, although the evidence that unification is close is slim. The percentages in Northern Ireland stating they would vote for a united Ireland have remained low in most surveys in the last year or so.

A Queen's University study offered a figure of only 21%; the Life and Times survey suggested 22%. Our University of Liverpool 2017 Westminster election study found 27%, with most unionists unconcerned over the impact of Brexit upon support for unity. LucidTalk's recent survey, however, suggests a hard Brexit would greatly increase takers for a united Ireland.

It may be that the unionist house is not yet burning down. But Peter Robinson may have started a fire within, and it might take some dousing.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.

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