It is now inevitable that some form of New Ireland is set to emerge

Posted By: January 06, 2019

Denis Bradley. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, January 4, 2019 
Despite the wall to wall coverage of Brexit, the name of Andrew Frederick Ebenezer Hunter is seldom if ever mentioned.

Yet he was a precursor of much of what is happening in the world of Brexit.

He was Conservative MP for Basingstoke for many years until he joined the DUP in 2002. He stood for election in Lagan Valley but came seventh in a six-seater constituency. It was thought, at the time, that he was the one who leaked to the press that John Major’s government was having talks with the IRA through a secret back channel. That leak came shortly after Major had said in parliament that ‘face to face talks with the IRA would turn my stomach’. Hunter was vehemently opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

He was part of that strain in English public and political life that is inherently anti-European Union and sentimentally attached to what is seen as the greatness of the UK union. He was part of a political cohort that was a stone in the shoe of John Major’s premiership. His group saw any moves to talk to the IRA as betrayal.

Embryonic of what is now the European Research Group, Hunter, at least, had the grace to spend time here in The North and sacrifice his political career for the precious union. The Unionists in Lagan Valley, however, were not awestruck enough by his history, by his name or by his self-sacrifice to award him with a seat at the emerging political table.

Hunter and his confrères made the road to peace somewhat more bumpy than it ought to have been but did not stop the inevitable convergence of the political realities that were present at the time and that resulted in the British government negotiating with the IRA. Just as Ian Paisley and the DUP delayed but failed to derail the inevitability of Unionism and Nationalism finding a model of shared governance. The irony and the lesson is that Hunter was prepared to engage in the structures that he had fought so doggedly against coming into being. And the DUP, having roared and threatened all and sundry, themselves became a leading player at the “table of shame.”

The relationship between the DUP and that strain of English society may indeed hinder and slow down the political realities now present on this island – for a time. But no matter how that relationship deepens or sours, no matter what model of Brexit develops or disintegrates, the political reality that Unionism and Nationalism have to find a way of sharing this island in a peaceful and integrated manner is not going to change or be undermined.

Almost a hundred years after partition, and the beginning of the Northern Ireland state, it is now clear, inevitable and irreversible that some form of a New Ireland has to emerge.
But that new reality can be made more traumatic and more fraught than it need be. It can happen in a mature and respectful way that is embracing and respectful or it can happen in an acrimonious and bitter atmosphere. It can seek to have winners and losers or it can ensure that there are wins and losses on all sides. It can happen in a dramatic and dangerous way where passions and blood are stirred or it can happen incrementally and calmly where debate and consultation are meaningful and informed.

The methodology for this enormous change is a Border poll, to be carried out sometime in the future at the discretion of the Secretary of State. Even with an adequate lead-in, the poll has already been contaminated in that it is already assumed that it will be a war of attrition: Unionists will be against the poll and will vote no,  while Nationalists will be for the poll and will vote yes. While the hardened cynic may argue that change never happens the easiest or best way, it need not be so. Brexit has taught that preparation is everything.

Unionism, of course, could grab the initiative and set the terms and conditions. Instead of cowering in fear and anger at the changing realities, they could control the table for years to come. They could dictate the timetable, set the agenda and decide on the pace and rhythm of the talks. All of that they have the power and the opportunity to control. What they cannot do is stop the flow of the changing realities.