It’s funny how the unthinkable can, when you’re not looking, turn into the thinkable. Ten, fifteen years back, it would have been unthinkable that Martin McGuinness would have found ways to work with Ian Paisley, and vice versa. Chalk and cheese, oil and water, the immovable meets the unstoppable. But they did. And those who have studied demographic trends tell us it’s far from impossible that, after the election in a little over a year from now, Sinn Féin could emerge as the biggest party at Stormont. That would mean Martin McGuinness would be First Minister. Hold that thought for a while.
In the south, it seemed even more unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago that Sinn Féin would not just gain a foothold in the Dail but that it would be a party supported by tens of thousands of people. If you’d told someone back in, say, 2005, that you thought Sinn Féin could become the most popular party in the south, you’d have been laughed off-stage. And if you’d said that you could see Gerry Adams as a possible Taoiseach, you’d have had the men in white coats called for. But look at how things are today. Sinn Féin is, if the most recent polls are any guide, the most popular party in the twenty-six counties. And more and more commentators have been using the words “Taoiseach” and “Gerry Adams” in the same sentence. Hold that thought for a moment.
Supposing – just supposing – both those possibilities came to pass.That you had Martin McGuinness as First Minister in the north and Gerry Adams as Taoiseach in the south. What would be the reaction of unionism? Would they accept that there were grounds for calling a border referendum? Or would unionist politicians find a way of wriggling free of such a potentially calamitous event?
And what about unionist/loyalist paramilitary groups, which have been making their existence patently obvious and making the inability of the PSNI to do anything about that existence – inability or unwillingness, take your pick – how would they respond? Would they accept the democratic wishes of the people of Ireland? Or with their minds fresh from the commemoration of the signing of the Covenant, would they go back to their old modus operandi and start at best threatening to kill Catholics or at worst killing them?
With the horrors of the past forty years still fresh in the minds of many, the very thought of such a situation is indeed appalling. Maybe it’s time unionist politicians were asked what their stance would be in the event of such an outcome.