The fact that the constitutional question is now firmly back on the table makes the likelihood of a functioning Executive all the more improbable, writes David Whelan.
In July, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signalled his desire to see talks on the restoration of an Assembly at Stormont resume in the Autumn. All Stormont parties have signalled their willingness, at least publicly, to get back around the table and Varadkar’s prompt furthered the debate to the extent that it now appears likely that an attempt will be made in October.
Another round of talks is unlikely to end the current deadlock given that there has been no softening of positions from either Sinn Féin or the DUP since a deal failed in February. If anything, the parties are further apart than ever on key issues such as an Irish Language Act, marriage equality and legacy issues.
There are those that argue that such issues can be addressed within government, advocating a return-now-fix-later scenario.
However, to do so neglects the fact that any reformed Executive will operate in a very different, more divided context than when it last sat. The constitutional question is now firmly on the table.
In the past, there have been many instances of ideologically-driven decision-making within the departmental silos of the institutions. Ministers making, or not taking, decisions which they felt could weaken or damage their constitutional claim.
That scenario will only be amplified under any reformed Executive. What incentive exists for nationalist decision-makers seeking a re-unification of Ireland to commit to long-term plans for the future prosperity of Northern Ireland within the union? Similarly, why would their unionist counterparts embrace any future strategy which enhances economic or institutional links with the Republic of Ireland?
Of course, the constitutional question has always existed. However, Brexit has acted as a catalyst to put it front and centre of political and public consciousness. Those who blindly dismiss it are simply burying their heads in the sand. Those who advocate for it to happen amidst the confusion of Brexit are fantasists.
For many, Peter Robinson’s speech in Donegal, stating that unionists should prepare for the possible eventuality of the re-unification of Ireland, served as a reality check. Robinson’s words were construed by some as fuelling the fire of those demanding a border poll when in fact, his intention was simply to outline that unionism must have a strong counter argument to any calls for a United Ireland.
“I don’t expect my own house to burn down but I still insure it because it could happen,” he said.
Staunch unionists have long held the belief that London would not abandon them. However, this ignores the reality that demographics in Northern Ireland are changing dramatically. The last census in 2011 highlighted that only among the over 60s is there a majority of Protestants (57 per cent), compared to Catholics. The most stark contrast is in the younger generations, where 51 per cent of schoolchildren are now Catholics, compared to 37 per cent Protestants. While simply being Catholic does not underline support for a united Ireland, the demographics of Northern Ireland are certainly shifting to make the possibility more likely, even without Brexit.
There was great solace taken from Theresa May’s speech on the proposition for a border in the Irish Sea, when she stated that it was something neither she, nor any British Prime Minister could ever except. However, as the ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario looms larger, the gaze of those of an economic orientation is beginning to shift south from the east.
The recent contempt shown for the future of Northern Ireland in the release of the UK’s no deal contingency plans, may diminish the confidence of unionists.
At the same time it would be foolish for nationalists to believe that Brexit alone will deliver a united Ireland. Unionists and the political middle ground have not and will not become united Irelanders overnight. If a united Ireland were to happen now, the unionist population in Ireland would be no more than 14 per cent, smaller than the current immigrant population. Even unionists with a small ‘u’ will be fearful of underrepresentation in any future political institutions. Viable strategic plans for such an event must be discussed and tested, with unionist collaboration and direct involvement.
The eventual outcome of Brexit will determine the extent to which a debate on Irish reunification is seriously considered across the political spectrum. However, it is inescapable that the issue will loom large among decision making in Northern Ireland. Stormont, if returned, is unlikely to form a consensus to make the big
challenging decisions needed to avoid further damage.