The column first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on Monday April 4th. Though the DUP’s support is faltering and has been on a steady decline over the past few years, it is still too early to write the party’s political obituary. It may run Sinn Féin close in the race to emerge as the single biggest party. The DUP decline in the polls, past the Robinson era, is due to internal faction fights that are based partly on personality, but primarily due to the inability of a sizeable cohort in the party to grasp the fact that Northern Ireland has changed over the past decade or more, despite the DUP’s political preeminence, and is continuing to change.
With the Northern Ireland Assembly election exactly one month away, a great deal of the commentary has focused – naturally enough – on the damage that unionism continues to inflict on itself.
I cannot recall a time when unionism seemed in greater disarray. All due to the ill-judged decisions and actions of hard line, irridentist unionists.
This is not to deny that there is a strong and growing seam of moderate, indeed progressive, unionism. A modern unionism that is more focused on facing the challenges of the future than re-waging the tribal battles of the past. A unionism that sees the grave dangers in the rallies against the Northern Protocol being foisted on many small towns across the six counties.
This post was originally posted on Broadsheet.ie on January 6th 2020. I have written about unity many times here in the years since the Brexit referendum. This piece was written in the heat of the Government’s RIC commemoration fiasco. While some saw that episode as proof that we are not yet ready for a constructive debate on unity, I believe that any moves to quash or stymy open discussion now on how unity might work are wrong-headed – just a wrong headed and counter-productive as charging towards holding unity poll within five years
This may come as a shock to some, but it is entirely possible to want a united Ireland and not favour holding a unity poll within the next five years. Indeed, I would suggest that it is axiomatic that wanting to see Ireland successfully reunited means having reservations about holding a referendum in the next five or even ten years.
The sensible position for anyone who thinks unity is more than just a political slogan is to not consider holding a unity poll until there is a more than a reasonable chance of it being passed. Surely this is evident? Is this not a lesson we have taken from the whole Brexit vote fiasco?
For clarity: when I say “passed” I mean backed by a simple majority: 50% plus one. Just as retention of Northern Ireland’s existing status as a part of the United Kingdom requires a simple majority, then so does any process leading to unity require a simple majority.
This is not just a core principle of the Good Friday Agreement it is the fundamental basis of democratic process: every vote is equal. An individual unionist’s determination to remain in the Union is as legitimate and valid as any republican’s desire to see a United Ireland. The idea of weighted majorities requiring a 55 or 60% threshold for change, as some have suggested, is not just denying parity of esteem it also denies parity of representation.
While making unity work in practical terms would doubtless require a greater public buy-in than just a bare 50% plus 1, the principle of one person, one vote – of equal value, cannot be up for grabs.
There have been a few Fr Ted references here over the past few days, so let’s start off with another one. Remember that episode of Fr Ted where the lads need to raise money to fix the water leaks in the parochial house?
You know the one, they destroy the car Bishop Brennan gives them for the raffle and thus have to rig the draw to ensure that Dougal’s ticket wins it. Ted gets Fr Billy “Spinmaster” O’Dwyer to do the disco before the draw, but there’s a problem. Fr Billy has only one record with him and it’s “Ghost Town” by The Specials. Undeterred, the Spinmaster plays it over and over and over again, oblivious to the fact that the crowd have stopped listening.
I like Ghost Town. Not only is it a good song, it is a serious piece of popular social commentary, but even the loyalist Special fan would concede that forcing anyone to listen to it over and over again could turn them against it.
This is something that Sinn Féin’s “spinmasters” Mary Lou MacDonald and Michelle O’Neill could do well to bear in mind.