The question that must be answered

On Saturday last, I was in a very crowded lecture hall in St Mary’s University College where  they were discussing the  economics of a united Ireland. As I write  I’m half-listening to a recorded radio discussion, where Jonathan Powell and Ray Bassett are exchanging views on the backstop and reactions to it.  Buy a newspaper and chances are the headline will be about the border and/or united Ireland and/or Brexit, and/or the backstop.

The last time I remember this mood was in Glasgow about three weeks before the referendum on Scottish independence. There was a charged atmosphere; everywhere you looked people were leaning in, talking animatedly. But it wasn’t just anger or apprehension or antagonism: the main feeling was one of excitement. When you’re discussing  the fundamentals of how you and your fellow-countrymen and women are going to be governed, and you know the answer is coming down the track towards you moving at ever greater speed, you do feel scared but also excited – even exhilarated.

Bill Rolston was the chairperson of the St Mary’s discussion and he allowed each of  the four speakers  fifteen minutes  before opening the discussion to the audience. “Please keep your questions brief”  he begged. Of course nobody did. Some questions were considerably longer than the answers.

So maybe I  made a mistake in following Bill’s instructions. My request/question was  “50 + 1? Discuss.”

Two of the four panelists – Paul Gosling and Martina Devlin – answered my question. Mind you, they needn’t have bothered. I was as wise when they were finished as I was before  they spoke. Fudge-talk tastes sweet but doesn’t enlighten.  

So here’s the thing: in a border poll, do we say that , as in any exercise of democracy, a simple majority  – even of one person – wins the day? Or do we say, as a lot of unionists and even non-unionists are saying   – that there must a majority of unionists voting for a united Ireland, since no sensible new Ireland would want to drag  three-quarters of a million outraged  unionists into it?

The answer to that question needs to be resolved before ANYTHING else is looked at. Yes, we can and should talk about models for a new Ireland: would it be a federated Ireland, with the Assembly in Stormont staying in place at least temporarily? Would we have a dual-First Minister for a period, with one of those a unionist? Would unionists have  a mandatory seat at the Cabinet table?  Should we have a new flag, a new anthem, local assemblies in the four provinces?

All of these are important questions and will demand our full attention, and answers.  But before any of that, the 50%+1 question needs answering. The St Mary’s panel last Saturday seemed excessively coy about addressing it.

It’s a divisive question and a hard question, but if you have any commitment to democracy, there can be only one answer: 50% +1 wins the day.

Certainly no politician from the south should make the case for anything but 50% + 1.  The south’s case against the IRA during the Troubles was that a minority shouldn’t be allowed to shape things in a democracy. To be consistent, the same people must now argue for 50% + 1 in the event of a border poll… Because there will be a border poll, and probably inside the next five years.

As to 50% + 1: that in effect is what the Good Friday Agreement says. If a majority votes for constitutional change, there will be constitutional change. The whole question of how big or small that majority is doesn’t feature.  It’s a majority agus sin é.  When Michelle Gildernew won the  Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat by four or was it five votes, no one, not even defeated unionists, argued that Gildernew’s majority was too small to count.

She had a majority – that was it.

This shouldn’t and can’t be fudged, because at the back of it is the notion that there might be a loyalist backlash if the border poll was won by a whisker.

So while wanting to sell the exciting image of a new Ireland to as many unionists and others as possible, the fact remains that a majority is a majority, not necessarily a massive majority. When that’s made clear, just as when a deadline  is set for a poll,  people can then concentrate on the kind of Ireland we can build together.

But let’s first provide an answer to that core question. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

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