Belfast Telegraph

Seamus Mallon: Why a simple majority in favour of united Ireland will not deliver future we deserve

Bridging divides: from left, David Trimble, George Bush and Seamus Mallon
Bridging divides: from left, David Trimble, George Bush and Seamus Mallon

By Seamus Mallon

The fact that the political parties are talking again about how to get devolution and power-sharing back is to be welcomed. However, there is still something vitally important which is missing. That missing ingredient is generosity.

Generosity is something that has been absent from British-Irish relations for centuries. For 120 years, Irish Catholics and nationalists found that the United Kingdom into which their country had been incorporated by the Act of Union was a 'cold house', with little welcome, equality or generosity.

The formation of an independent Irish state in 1918-1922 caused unionists to demand their own state, fearful that the new state would be a cold house for them. David Trimble, who first used the phrase in his 1998 Nobel Peace Prize speech, admitted that Northern Ireland, with its inbuilt unionist majority, was a cold house for nationalists.

Generosity has been in short supply in any of the attempts to deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles over the past 50 years, notably in the relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein in recent years.

In my new book, A Shared Home Place, I make what I hope is a generous new offer to unionism as a former constitutional nationalist leader.

I have come increasingly to the view that the Good Friday Agreement measurement of a bare majority (effectively 50%+1) for unity will not give us the kind of agreed and peaceful Ireland we seek.

The SDLP put a variation of this principle, calling it "parallel consent", into the section of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement dealing with the working of the Northern Ireland Assembly, requiring that key decisions in that Assembly would need the support of parties representing both traditions.

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This was to protect nationalists from an inbuilt unionist majority, which might vote as a bloc to undermine their rights in a future Northern Ireland.

My question in this book is whether this clause of the Good Friday Agreement could be extended across into the constitutional space, and thus be used to protect unionists if a future border poll were to result in a narrow overall majority for a united Ireland, but without the consent of both traditions.

My concern is that a very narrow vote for unity would lead to more division, instability and probably violence. Look at the chaos caused by the narrow vote for Brexit in the UK and by the lack of preparation, reasoned debate and public education before that referendum.

As the former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt says in the book: "If we go for a hasty border poll, we are going to repeat the mistakes of Brexit. If people vote with their hearts without a proper debate, they will not understand the implications of that monumental change ... we all know it would be an utter disaster."

Nesbitt welcomes my parallel consent proposal as "practical, based on a precedent laid down in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and a very generous offer from a leader with impeccable nationalist credentials. If Arlene Foster, or I, were to propose this, it would be shot down - and rightly so.

"Nationalists would say we were being undemocratic; the rules have been set by the Belfast and subsequent agreements, which you signed up to, so you'll just have to suck it up. But the important thing about this proposal is that it is a challenge to nationalism from an icon of nationalism."

In the book, I warn that my proposal will also require a generous response from significant sectors of unionism. That community has to accept that the only way for Northern Ireland to work as a peaceful and consensual society is for unionists and their leaders - notably the DUP - to work alongside nationalists and their leaders - notably Sinn Fein - in a spirit of equality, respect and parity of esteem. That did not happen in the final years of the 2007-17 Executive.

If that spirit of equality and generosity is not shown by the unionists, both in the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland and in their responses to generous proposals like parallel consent, nationalists will simply ignore proposals like mine and let the demographic clock run down to Irish unity, if necessary by the narrowest of margins.

My belief is that, in the long run, only some form of Irish unity - perhaps a confederal Ireland, since I cannot ever see unionists pledging loyalty to a unitary Irish state - can resolve the deep historical divisions that have blighted the north.

But, equally, I believe that my unionist friends and neighbours around my home village of Markethill, personified by the farmer and police reservist I call "Jack Adams", who was murdered by the IRA while out ploughing his fields, have as much right to live in peace and without fear in Ireland as any nationalist.

The dehumanising of individuals, of a community, so they could be killed just for wearing a police or a UDR uniform - that is what I will never support. That man and his family had their home in Co Armagh for 400 years, but he had to be killed because the IRA's Little Green Book said so. The awfulness and nihilism of that is what I am fundamentally opposed to.

My nationalist community, now they are moving into the ascendant, must show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during 50 years of one-party rule.

We need a nationalism that is the opposite of Sinn Fein's: a philosophy that allows unionists the space and time to put forward their arguments for the continuing Union with Britain in a safe and respectful atmosphere.

Having said that, I see the British eventually leaving Northern Ireland. Their mindset will be that it is no use to them any more.

Given that probability, it must surely become clear to the majority of Irish people that the main obstacle to overcoming the deep and ancient divisions on the island is the unionist fear of Irish nationalism.

To persuade a significant part of the unionist community that their fears are groundless, and there is no need for them to live apart from the rest of the island, is now the only meaningful programme for nationalism.

That is the real search for peace, justice and stability in Ireland.

  • Seamus Mallon is the former SDLP deputy leader and former deputy First Minister (1999-2001). A Shared Home Place (co-authored with Andy Pollak) is published by Lilliput Press, priced £18

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