Tom Kelly: If Sinn Fein is serious about working with unionists, it should forget about a border poll until 2031
DUP acquiescing to a withdrawal agreement containing a backstop in exchange for republicans delaying a vote on unity could be a get-out-of-jail card all-round, argues Tom Kelly.
Standing on the terrace of the House of Commons on Tuesday, an ominous downpour dampened the enthusiasm of the parliamentarians gathered to celebrate the annual St Patrick’s Day ‘champ’ reception.
Even the presence of a gaily dressed Sue Pollard couldn’t lift spirits. The mood seemed aptly captured at the end of the reception with a beautiful rendition of the ballad The Parting Glass.
Someone should give the Prime Minister the lyrics of the song, as she reflects on her pork-barrel politics: Of all the money that e’er I spent/I spent it in good company/And all the harm that e’er I’ve done/Alas, it was to none but me/And all I’ve done for want of wit/To memory now I can’t recall/So fill to me the parting glass/Good night and joy be with you all.
It’s hard not to admire the sheer resilience of the Prime Minister; her voice croaked, her face haggard, with the look of sleeplessness etched on her brow and under her eyes. And yet she went on, even though humiliated again.
The DUP deal is a Faustian pact, which allows it to choose the survival of the Government over Mrs May.
May’s “bung” to the DUP was not spent “in good company”, as the ballad says, but the rest of the song is apt, because of all the harm that she has done, the worst has been to her. And it was all done for the want of wit. Political wit, that is.
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Instead of reaching out to the centre-ground to find consensus, Mrs May lurched to the Right and tried to placate the ERG and the DUP. Brexit is an existential (but self-inflicted) threat for which there was no planning.
Just like war, it required the talents of all parliamentarians willing to work in the national interest. Mrs May scorned that approach and opted for a foot-bath with piranhas.
These days DUP MPs strut the corridors of Westminster like the cock of the walk.
To think these hallowed halls, which once echoed to the strides of great Anglo-Irish parliamentarians such as Burke, Grattan and even Carson, are now reduced to the foot-stomping of Campbell, Wilson and Paisley.
On Monday evening the Labour Party Irish Society held its annual St Patrick’s Day celebration. This writer was among the speakers.
I reminded the audience that the Good Friday Agreement was not an end, but a work in progress. Proof of that is the sheer number of paramilitary punishment beatings, shootings and nefarious activities which still persist. Well over 100 per year.
The facts are that loyalist paramilitaries have killed over 35 people and that dissident republicans remain an active threat to prison officers and the police.
Northern Ireland is immeasurably better off since the Good Friday Agreement, but the sheer scale of what went before has immunised us to the extent of violence that still persists.
We are still a place apart, still fragile. Migrant communities are under significant threats and pressures from paramilitaries.
Those most in denial over these facts are unionist politicians. They ignore the warnings from the police and Chief Constable.
They share platforms with those close to paramilitaries, who are still carrying out illegal activity. They scorn anyone who suggests that a hard border would lead to a return to violence, though are equally supportive of border checks being taken away from the border areas to the relative safety of unionist areas.
The political instability is self-evident. Stormont is moribund over equality issues that Scottish or Welsh Conservatives and unionists wouldn’t blink over.
Of course, no unionists were present to hear any of this — just Labour MPs, their supporters, expat Irish and some Sinn Fein MPs.
Yes, in the midst of the current political turmoil, Sinn Fein MPs do attend fringe events, drinks receptions and watch House of Commons proceedings from the TV screens in their Westminster offices.
It’s easy to understand why Joe Brolly castigated them for not taking their seats. After all, it’s like togging out in your Manchester United top with tickets for Old Trafford, only to opt for watching the match in the nearest pub to the stadium.
Sinn Fein’s partial presence at Westminster adds to the theatrical nature of the political shenanigans, because it is in the audience, not the auditorium.
Much of the political debate on the withdrawal agreement has focused on the backstop, which the DUP has attempted to turn into a new shibboleth. It’s nothing of the sort, but the DUP, like Sinn Fein, needs to steer its electorate deeper into the respective silos.
Now that Parliament has voted to reject a no-deal scenario and today is likely to back an extension of Article 50, the grip of the DUP and ERG loosens on this Government. The password is now compromise.
Parliament will seek to assert consensus and, by doing so, asserts its own sovereignty over a Government that has lost authority.
By and large, Sinn Fein has stood in the wings, enjoying the chaos.
The referendum results of 2016 had hardly been counted when the Sinn Fein leadership claimed the vote was proof that the time had come for a border poll.
This wasn’t just a contentious claim; it was also untrue. Unionists, like the majority of those who voted Remain, voted to stay in the EU. No more, no less. It was wrong to misappropriate the votes for a question not asked.
From there on, the referendum result here was used to bludgeon the DUP for its failure to recognise equality issues. The backstop remains the focus of debate in Parliament, because it makes some political unionists queasy.
Yet the same backstop actually delivers the key ask from the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland: ie that things stay the same, or nearly the same.
As Sinn Fein doesn’t take its seats, it has no leverage at Westminster. But given that it invested so much in the call for the border poll, it should consider taking the high ground and rule out a border poll for 10 years after withdrawal from the EU.
This would mean that the earliest a border poll could be called would be 2031; by then, those arguing for it would have properly developed their arguments for a united Ireland and, if the predicted changes in the demographic profile of Northern Ireland occurs, then the demand could not be reasonably refused by any future Secretary of State.
The Good Friday Agreement only provides for a border poll if such evidence suggests it’s required and no one in the lifetime of this current Government (2022) is going to grant such a request.
Furthermore, a second border poll would be even further away, because — again — the Good Friday Agreement states another poll can’t take place for at least seven years (not every seven years, as is being claimed by some).
Sinn Fein, therefore, should unilaterally offer to remove the threat of a border poll in exchange for an acceptance by unionists of a withdrawal agreement that includes the backstop.
This may be the get-out-of-jail card needed for all.
It may also provide the catalyst for talks and the return of Stormont.
The EU would almost certainly welcome such a home-grown initiative as a positive sign from local parties towards the maintenance of peace.
After all, the EU is, first and foremost, an institution for and of peace.
Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator