Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Peter Robinson is right about one thing, there is now only everything to play for or nothing

Former First Minister's cerebral Queen's University lecture was the most significant intervention by a politician here since the Hume-Adams dialogue kick-started the peace process, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Peter Robinson's Professorial Lecture at Queen's University Belfast last week was greeted with cynicism and disdain. Several academics at the university argued that he should not have been given the honour of a platform to make it.

Some pointed to his own past record in politics and questioned whether this was a man we would expect great new thinking from.

And he has mistakes to answer for.

He says now that parties should not have the option of pulling down the Assembly in the heat of political arguments, but he used that threat himself, over the On-The-Run letters controversy.

He had seemed for a time to be much more magnanimous to the Catholic community as First Minister but then, faced with the flags protest, he reverted to identifying more strongly with loyalist interests.

He has hit the wrong note at least as many times as he has hit the right one. When coming to the defence of Pastor James McConnell and his attack on Islam, Robinson said he would trust a Muslim to go to the shop for him.

But he put that right by visiting the mosque in Belfast and mending relations with the people who mattered.

He has a plan now.

It is to negotiate the outstanding divisions between our communities here.

He wants to "place on the agenda any crucial items discarded from past discussions because they were thought to be too difficult or because there was a fear that introducing the subject would upset the level of agreement that had already been reached".

Faced with an Assembly deadlocked by disagreement over an Irish Language Act, the approach he suggests would bring in all the other contentious issues - flags, parades, the past, everything. Even the border poll, which he describes as a grenade he has just pulled the pin out of.

He holds in prospect an end to 'processing', what he himself foresaw as a battle a day, and an arrival at reconciliation.

This makes sense, because at this stage of crisis in the process there is no point in simply patching it up to face another crash. There is now only everything to play for, or nothing.

Obviously, his aspiration is to secure the Union and he says that to do so unionism will have to make concessions which will be difficult to sell.

The problem currently for the DUP is that it does not seem to realise that it has major incompatible projects to deal with. The Union comes under greater threat as the demographic shift against Protestants continues, as it will. And a united Ireland becomes more attractive as the DUP presents itself as the chief obstacle to social reform, new legislation on abortion, same-sex marriage and the Irish language.

If the DUP insists on consolidating itself around its founding evangelical vision, then it jeopardises the Union by painting it as drab, religious and illiberal. If it focuses on the future challenge of a border poll it has to move in the other direction, towards enlarging its vision and making the Union more attractive and amenable to people in other communities, particularly the 'moderate nationalists'.

Robinson sees this.

He wants a settled Northern Ireland which everyone will have a stake in and want to preserve.

Without that, there will always be a large section of the population whose commitment to the state will change with the economic and political wind.

Currently, unionists from the Protestant community identify with Britain. They speak of their culture and their loyalty. They expect no such identification with Britain from nationalist neighbours. They trust that a sufficient number of them will vote to stay in a UK they don't identify with, because they will be materially better off or because they don't want any bother.

That is no basis for a secure Union in a future in which only a minority here identifies as British. Unionists have to give something to nationalists to secure their longer term identification with Northern Ireland.

Robinson gets that, too.

Obviously, as a unionist, he would concede as little as possible; that's his job. But unionism has to give something.

This is the kind of thinking that takes us back to 'big vision' stuff. There has been nothing like it in our politics since the Hume/Adams dialogue started the peace process.

He is not saying that talks on patching up Stormont couldn't go on anyway, but that ultimately there has to be a new agreement.

And he is saying that 'community designations, mutual vetoes and petitions of concern are not the only ways of taking decisions in a divided society while still protecting the interests of our two main traditions'.

So he is talking about major reform.

Of course, Sinn Fein can reject all of this and insist on the Irish Language Act as the price of its return, but it has problems too.

For many people now, social reform on abortion and gay rights are much more important than an Irish Language Act and Sinn Fein cannot continue to obstruct a return to Stormont and legislating for those reforms for the sake of a minority interest.

If the DUP offered conscience votes on abortion and same-sex marriage and promised not to use the petition of concern to block them, as it blocked a majority vote for same-sex marriage before, it would be very hard for Sinn Fein to explain why that was not worth going back in for.

But Robinson's suggestion of enlarging the negotiations offers the prospect that nationalists could gain much more to secure their Irish identity in Northern Ireland if everything is on the table and if unionists can get a big prize, too.

That prize, clearly, would be an agreement on the parameters of a border poll so that it would not be like the Brexit poll, requiring only a 'yes' or a 'no'.

The idea was raised of a poll requiring more than 50% for unity. That implies unionists getting more rights out of their minority status than were allowed to nationalists, a hard one to swallow, but in Robinson's vision that may just mean it is a concession unionists would have to be ready to pay dearly for.

Special status for Northern Ireland inside the EU?

Maybe it's time nationalists discussed what they would concede for that?

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