Belfast Telegraph

Wilson’s response is of the ‘loose talk costs Unions’ kind, but some minor score-settling may also be involved

By Jon Tonge

Not mellowed, has he? Peter Robinson's scathing denunciation of fellow unionists - within and beyond the DUP - in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph offered a stark reminder of the brutal, and often effective, style of the former DUP leader.

The former First Minister has several strong and clear arguments: unionists do not control the timing of a border poll; it is likely to happen at some point; there is no team in place to fight the unionist cause in the event of a poll being called, and there is no unionist plan regarding the rules and procedures of such a poll.

Robinson made clear his proposals do not involve discussion of structures of Irish unity - which many unionists would regard as surrender, or treason (or both). For those unionists, defeatist talk leads to defeat.

There are also some weaknesses in Robinson's arguments. Presumably, the need for unionists to discuss poll procedures is an attempt to alter the basic 50.1% requirement for change and set a bigger barrier.

But republicans would regard this as the second-biggest gerrymander of the last 100 years, not far behind the 1918-21 version.

And if unionist negotiators are not prepared to discuss what is in a united Ireland for unionists - federalism, devolution, dual citizenship, joint sovereignty, etc - what is there to discuss with those Sammy Wilson described as the "enemy"?

The case for the Union will obviously be articulated during the campaign itself. Yet, isn't refusing to contemplate a united Ireland also "head-in-the-sand" stuff, which would also leave unionists in crisis if they lost?

A referendum wouldn't just be about input to the rules; it also needs to be about readiness for either possible result.

Robinson is correct that unionist defeat is most unlikely - average out the survey evidence - but if there was a majority for Irish unity, a unionism only then beginning to discuss structures of unity would be on the back foot - even allowing that not too many republicans have done serious thinking about new political institutions, either.

Robinson couldn't resist a swipe at the UUP, for old times' sake: 1998 all over again. He blamed the DUP's rival for agreeing to a border poll without unionist safeguards. But the UUP did this because, on all available demographic and survey evidence at the time, the prospect of its calling seemed remote.

The idea looked to enshrine the principle of unionist consent, on which Sinn Fein shifted in the Good Friday Agreement. And the nature of a border poll didn't seem to figure in DUP-Sinn Fein discussions at St Andrews in 2006.

Old UUP foe, Sir Reg Empey, has speculated that Robinson is considering a comeback. This seems implausible, if not quite impossible. No vacancy and the prospectus is hardly inviting: ghost Stormont, RHI inquiry, Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage, abortion and legacy issues all in the in-tray. And that's without a border poll. Thanks, but no thanks.

And it's unlikely Robinson has got his eye on a possible vacancy in North Antrim, even if that might represent the ultimate triumph over the Paisleys.

Sammy Wilson's response has been robust, of the "loose talk costs Unions" variety. Some minor score-settling may be involved. Robinson squashed a possible Wilson candidacy for the leadership, effectively installing Arlene Foster as his successor. And what about the DUP leader's view of all this? Deafening silence, so far. But, then, as she told Patrick Kielty, she is leaving anyway, should a united Ireland come about. In which case, the only planning to be done is the packing.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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