Peter Robinson is showing leadership by preparing a Border poll

Posted By: June 13, 2018

Former First Minister Peter Robinson delivered his first public lecture at Queen’s University Belfast. 
Brian Feeney. Irish News.13 June 2018 

Let’s be clear that Peter Robinson in his lecture at Queen’s didn’t oppose the simple majority the Good Friday Agreement stipulates for success in a border poll.

Nationalists’ knee-jerk reaction to his remarks led them to miss just how radical his proposals are.

The heated response from members of his own party and the hyperbolic response from the UUP show unionists straightaway saw what Robinson was getting at. He used the Brexit referendum as a hook to hang his argument on and what he said makes a great deal of sense – if you’re not a dyed in the wool unionist.

Robinson pointed out that no preparations had been made for a Leave victory in the 2016 referendum. The result has been two years of chaos, indecision, civil war in the Conservative party. What Robinson said was that exactly the same will happen here if there’s a majority vote for Irish unity in a referendum. To quote him, if the Brexit vote ‘can stir up such passion, division and disruption’ a simple yes/no vote on constitutional change would hardly produce peace and stability in  Ireland.

What he proposed instead was extraordinary coming from a former DUP leader. Unfortunately, the mistaken interpretation of his 50 per cent + one point led nationalist politicians to miss the importance of his advice. Robinson advocated, ‘the need to agree on a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement.’ That’s groundbreaking for unionism.

What that means in plain English is when a border poll is called, and Robinson accepts implicitly one will be called, all those affected will first need to negotiate what happens afterwards to avoid chaos. That means the British and Irish governments and at least Sinn Féin and the DUP. It would be preferable if there were an executive but you can’t have everything.

Let’s look at the mechanics. The Irish government must be involved because, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, in case you’ve forgotten, a referendum on Irish unity requires concurrent polls north and south. Dublin and London must agree on the question or questions. You need to work out beforehand what happens afterwards. That will take two to three years. Think of the recent abortion referendum. Although the question was whether to repeal the eighth amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann the voters knew what legislation would replace it. Indeed the referendum arguments were largely about that legislation.

In the same way, people north and south voting in referendums on Irish unity need to know what they’re voting for. Remember the referendum on Scottish independence? The SNP produced a book over 600 pages long detailing what independence would involve. Robinson, though he wasn’t explicit, was arguing correctly that unionists need to be involved ‘in negotiating such an agreement’ about Irish unity.

Of course, they do. You can’t have joint referendums happening over unionists’ heads while they sit passively and await the outcome. Is Irish unity a unitary state, a federal state, a confederal state? What’s the currency? What happens to pensions, health care, education? That book might be longer than 600 pages but it has to be written before the referendums and Robinson was putting the case implicitly and circumspectly for the requirement for unionist involvement. They certainly wouldn’t trust the British to do it for them or should that be ‘do for them’?

The bulk of Robinson’s lecture was about leadership and in those proposals, he showed leadership. He knows which way the wind is blowing and what the 2021 census will show. So far the response from MPs in his own party has been predictably hostile. He knew himself that, as he said, he had ‘pulled the pin out of the grenade’. He added having done that, ‘let me move swiftly on’.

The responsibility for leadership now rests on the current crop of regrettably deficient DUP politicians who can’t even bring themselves to contemplate the inevitability of two Irish national referendums still less begin to prepare for such an eventuality. Just at the time when leadership is needed power in the party has shifted to yesterday’s men who Robinson shunted off the stage.