Peter Robinson's cunning plan to save Union could fall victim to generation game
Former First Minister's proposal for generational referendums is light on detail ... and its subversion of the Good Friday Agreement leaves its author open to the charge of flouting democracy, says Rick Wilford
Peter Robinson's speech at Queen's University last week has certainly set several hares running, if not quite stirred a hornets' nest. Some of his ideas have not found favour among a number of leading figures in the DUP, not least the proposal to hold generational referendums on Northern Ireland's place in the Union - although I suspect the corresponding notion that a simple majority is insufficient to usher in a united Ireland is, for them, less controversial.
The latter aspect of the speech has, however, incurred the wrath of prominent figures in Sinn Fein, including Declan Kearney, the party's national chairperson. "At its core," he tweeted, "Peter Robinson's speech is a proxy for (the) unchanged DUP agenda of dismantling the Good Friday Agreement and redefining democracy."
Mr Kearney has something of a point, which I'll come back to.
Mr Robinson's speech was structured around three key themes: the referendum process; the need for Assembly reform; and political leadership/negotiation. I want to dwell on the first of these.
There are two key observations he made in respect of referendum "processology", each of which is highly problematic. First, there is the idea of generational referendums which, he suggests, would be less divisive and disruptive than the current provision, enabling the Secretary of State to call a border poll if she/he is, on the basis of evidence derived from election results and polling, persuaded that there is public desire for change in Northern Ireland's constitutional status - such a poll cannot be held with the intention of confirming the status quo.
How, though, does one define a generation? It is an elastic concept which, perhaps, explains the former DUP leader's reluctance to specify the number of years it spans: is it 15? 20? 25? 30? Whichever it may be, even at the lower end of the spectrum, much can and no doubt will happen during the relevant period: a series of events may well unfold that conspire to stimulate public demand for a poll well before the generational clock ticks down.
Should such public clamour be ignored, because the scheduled due date for a referendum has not elapsed? That, surely, would create the "chaos" that Mr Robinson seems anxious to avoid under the Good Friday Agreement's current arrangements.
Here is the nub: provision for generational referendums would subvert the agreement's basis for a border poll - a fact that Mr Kearney's tweet captures.
And, lest we forget, such a profound change in the terms on which a poll could be held, including its timing, will require the active support of the Irish Government as a co-guarantor of the 1998 accord. Change could not come about through unilateral action by the UK, not least because the Good Friday Agreement provides for concurrent referendums, north and south, on Northern Ireland's constitutional status.
Would Dublin consent to periodic polls, fixing its agenda in advance, a change which in itself carries significant implications for the Irish constitution?
The second problematic aspect of Mr Robinson's focus on process is the proposal that a border poll should not be decided on the basis of a simple majority. Although he does not specify his preferred alternative, one infers either that there should be some sort of weighted majority (say, 60% of voters), or else what is termed a "double majority" (a majority of both voters and of the electorate) to effect change.
The motive here is that there should be a threshold above and beyond a simple majority that would have to be met in order for constitutional change to be made. As things stand, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a simple majority is sufficient: hence, Mr Kearney's charge that Peter Robinson is seeking to redefine democracy.
Devising a double majority provision for referendums on constitutional change is not, however, uncommon, although it is not the norm.
In Australia, both a majority of voters and a majority (four out of six) of states is required to effect change; in Denmark, a majority of voters is required and at least 40% of the electorate must turn out to vote; in Italy, a majority of voters and 50% of the electorate must turn out in order to legitimise change.
And there is precedent in the UK for a double majority: at the Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums of 1979, a majority of voters and at least 40% of the electorate were required to vote for devolution in order to introduce sub-regional government.
Neither test was met in Wales and, while a simple majority of Scottish voters endorsed devolution, less than 40% of the electorate did so, thus the-then attempt to introduce a measure of self-government north of that border failed.
If some sort of double majority was proposed for a Northern Ireland border poll, then consider the inherent problems that could arise.
There might be a simple majority for change in Northern Ireland's constitutional status, but not necessarily a majority of the electorate (though I think that unlikely, given the existential nature of such a vote).
But that isn't the only possible complication. In Ireland, constitutional change requires a simple majority of voters alone: imagine the outcry if, at the concurrent referendum in Northern Ireland, a double majority was required: that is, the bar would be set higher in the north than the south.
Such a proposal seems untenable: a double majority would, in effect, be perceived as a double standard.
Turning to Assembly reform, Mr Robinson implied the introduction of weighted majority voting by removing the provision for mutual vetoes on contentious issues, the abandonment of community designations and relinquishing petitions of concern - or at least amending the basis on which they can be triggered, a proposal that would garner considerable support.
But abandoning the mutual veto, a cornerstone of the Assembly's (and the Executive's) operating procedures, will find much less favour - especially among nationalists.
On leadership, Peter Robinson was blunt. What is required - Mrs Foster, take note - is to be prepared to compromise and be confident in evangelising a deal: if you are willing to buy what is on offer, then get out and sell it - half a loaf is better than none.
And be receptive to widening a talks agenda in order to secure agreement: at the least it offers the opportunity to extend the range of trade-offs that may be required to restore devolution.
There is much to be picked over in his speech, but its most remarkable feature is that Mr Robinson is, in effect, urging unionism to marshal its arguments well in advance of a border poll, because change in Northern Ireland's constitutional status is now thinkable.
Brexit negotiations have demonstrated that the English habit of muddling, even bumbling, through is not working and certainly is no way to rise to the enormity of the challenge posed by a potential vote for Irish unification.
His admonition to unionism is to be prepared to see off that potential by becoming a broad and inclusive church: in that respect at least, he and Arlene Foster are at one.
Whether Mrs Foster is the right person to engage in that mission is another matter.
Rick Wilford is professor of politics at Queen's University Belfast