Belfast Telegraph

Until Northern Ireland's silenced centre can talk about what sort of future they want, a border poll will remain ultimate polarising catastrophe

Why can't we civilly ask our friends and colleagues from the 'other side' what they think of life in Northern Ireland and what we might do in the long-term, writes John Wilson Foster

My friend Liam Kennedy is right to see our political polarisation as having accelerated in recent years. His two "big beasts" - Sinn Fein and the DUP - have, during a famine, divided the kill, consigning other creatures to starvation.

They are easy to blame, but we must all take some responsibility, if only because we have not spoken out sufficiently to deny them their exclusive representative status.

It seems as if Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism are becoming one and the same, when this has not historically been the case.

The electors, too, are apparently polarising. Many unionists vote for a party that does not represent their views on how citizens should be allowed to conduct their lives.

There are signs a gulf is also opening up between our educated classes, where once it was smugly identified with warring working-class neighbourhoods.

What can be done? Liam identifies 40% of the electorate as voting for moderation and progress. And if there are those who vote DUP or Sinn Fein exclusively out of concern over their citizenship, that percentage could surely be even higher.

Either way there is a harmful disconnect between many electors' expressed or unexpressed views and their political representatives. Behind the scenes, we are not really as abnormal a people as the political picture suggests.

Liam's suggestion for giving voice to the silenced centre involves seeking agreements to share votes across the traditional divide using proportional representation.

He is a distinguished economic historian and rights campaigner, so presumably knows the mechanisms by which this rescue of the endangered centre could be carried out.

In the past unilateral gestures of cross-party goodwill, as Mike Nesbitt found out, are not always reciprocated, because of the zero-sum mindset Liam refers to, so there has to be agreed simultaneity.

Beyond that I assume it is fantasy to imagine a gathering of the SDLP, UUP, Alliance and Green parties (and independents) to discuss a way out of the cul-de-sac we find ourselves in? Even if they all share exclusion from governance?

But I fully agree with Liam that Strand 3 of the Belfast Agreement has never seriously been pursued. Yet, surely, without Strand 3 (east-west relations) the other two strands are ineffectual? Embedded in Strand 3 is the inextricable braiding of British and Irish identities on our island, broad recognition of which would go far to allay unionist fears.

What a missed opportunity this has been to knit up the ravelled sleeve of this co-dependent archipelago.

My small hope is that Brexit (like it or loathe it) will, contrary to current feelings, impose the necessity of this road not taken.

But I am equally interested in how the centre could be encouraged to speak below the political structures.

In a timely article in this newspaper, Malachi O'Doherty has drawn our attention to the Civic Forum provided for by the Belfast Agreement and allowed to fall into abeyance in 2002.

Certainly, that forum resurrected could do real good, unless it became an echo-chamber for our political differences.

A "body of expertise" drawn from various "sectors" and composing a "consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues" does require, surely, a prior agreement by all involved that the forum is in sincere aid (at least for now) of a successful Northern Ireland.

The forum is at least worth a try. For it is my belief that, unless and until Northern Ireland can be made to work, and peacefully, there is no prospect of a united Ireland anytime soon that would not involve coercion and tumult.

So, we vocally prioritise what we all share and try to achieve the highest common factor of our mutual interests. Only then can we agree to differ civilly on our divided aspirations, with the future open to persuasion and debate (without sound and fury) and possibly evolution to constitutional change through broad consensus.

There is a real untapped constituency of opinion in our midst that justifies this approach. The 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey reports that 49% of Catholics surveyed would vote today for a united Ireland.

Yet the response of Catholics who wouldn't vote today for a united Ireland I have still to see elaborated in words. Have I somehow missed this tremendous detail? My conclusion is that the identification of United Kingdom citizenship with Northern Irish unionism (especially DUP unionism) has made it impossible for Catholics who wish to stay inside the UK to say so publicly. Am I right?

Is it the case there is no available formulation for their preference and no political party they can vote for that would not taint that preference with historic Protestant unionism? Or is tribal allegiance (or unease, even fear, about breaking away) trumping personal opinion?

But surely the problem must be explained and a public attempt made to find the formulation? In any case, Catholics who do not wish an immediate united Ireland outside the UK have an unused power to affirm, in defiance of the polarised parties, the functional and often amicable daily life they enjoy with Protestants.

The real polarisation in our society is inside many of us, between what we feel and experience and what we feel obliged to say. And this is a form of repression.

For their part, the most educated Protestants suffer silent embarrassment over their unionism, worried at being thought tribal, provincial or bigoted should they declare it. Their silence, too, is costing us dearly.

They should be publicly explaining their embarrassment and declaring in defiance of the DUP the expansive, UK-wide nature of true unionism.

And if some think a united Ireland not such a bad idea, let them say so, even if their reasons or motive may be challenged.

For the big parties suffer no such embarrassment, blaring their parched certainties without qualifications or second thoughts.

"Whatever you say, say nothing" is wise counsel if it maintains daily inter-tribal peace. My old social anthropology teacher Rosemary Harris explained its intricacies in Prejudice And Tolerance In Ulster (1972). But is it unwise if it helps maintain polarity and never brings honest difference (and buried agreement) to the surface?

Why can't we civilly ask our friends and colleagues from the other side what they think about life in Northern Ireland and what they think we ought to do in the long-term?

Bizarrely, I don't know what most of my colleagues - and even some of my friends - think we should do. The worst among us may be full of passionate intensity, but I can't believe the best lack all conviction.

Daily life is too fragile, some might answer, for us to endanger it by "talking politics".

I agree that town hall meetings, for example, would not get us far, dominated as they would inevitably be by ideology and whataboutery.

The solution instead (and Liam seems to agree) is at the levels of publicised personal statements and civil conversation among acquaintances. The solution is in the hands not of the usual groups, which are tyrannical, but of a critical mass of individuals - us.

Until it is achieved, an imminent border poll would, during the announcement, the run-up, the result and the aftermath, be the ultimate polarising catastrophe.

We are simply not there yet.

John Wilson Foster is a literary critic and cultural historian. His latest book is A Better Boy: A Titanic Monologue (Kindle)

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