Northern Ireland’s future has never appeared more ambiguous than in this, its centenary year, and only the rashest gambler would risk money on it lasting much beyond another decade.
“Events, dear boy, events,” as political wisdom has it, continue to make their impact felt – what happens in Scotland in less than three weeks’ time could be instrumental in shaping Ireland north and south.
The current election campaign to return members to the Holyrood parliament is dominated by the question of another referendum on Scottish independence. If, as expected, the May 6 vote returns a strong, pro-independence majority, pressure on Boris Johnson will intensify.
He is trying to hold the line, insisting the Scots had their say seven years ago, and uncorking the genie once in a generation is quite often enough.
Nevertheless, polls show public backing for Scottish independence, while election results will be read as a more telling barometer. The largest grouping, the Scottish National Party (SNP), wants to hold a plebiscite once the Covid pandemic ends; the Scottish Greens also support independence, as does Alba, a new party established by former SNP leader Alex Salmond.
The Scottish Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are all opposed and say focus should be directed towards pandemic recovery. Independence would be like Brexit on a rocket to Mars, claims Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie.
In which case, seatbelts should be fastened. If the SNP forms a government, as looks certain, independence moves won’t be far behind.
That said, the Scots lack clarity on what should trigger a referendum, a situation mirrored in Northern Ireland, where a Border poll is at the discretion of the UK’s Secretary of State.
History teaches us that Westminster does what’s best for England. But if Mr Johnson resists the Scottish government, a constitutional crisis will be whipped up. After all, the union is meant to be consensual.
Protests and civil disturbances are the likely consequence. Independence is like toothpaste – it can’t be pushed back into the tube.
Supposing the British premier accedes and a date is agreed for another referendum. Any staging post by Scotland towards independence would accelerate the due dates of twin borders poll in Ireland.
If Scotland votes to take the high road, the rationale for the union becomes increasingly tenuous – which has a bearing on Northern Ireland.
How can you argue for a union no longer in existence?
In 1962, American philosopher Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of the paradigm shift through his book, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’.
It explains how accepted understanding of a topic is undermined by new findings, precipitating a sudden change of perspective. For example, the realisation the sun was at the centre of the solar system rather than the earth, or germs replacing the “evil air” theory of disease.
Right now in Ireland we’re in paradigm shift space, where new constitutional arrangements are inevitable.
A border in the Irish Sea placed there by an English prime minister, shifting demographics, unity as a route back into the EU, Scottish independence resurgent – it’s evident where these factors are pointing. Sooner or later, a new Irish state will be formed and its scaffolding must be constructed by government-led intervention.
The Irish Government’s reluctance to begin planning is negligent. It seems the Coalition is nervous about producing a discussion paper on unity, sensible though it would be to scope out options. But it need not commit to anything at this stage.
An all-island citizens’ assembly is another model worth considering, and this has been advanced by Ireland’s Future, a civil society group to which I belong. It is a tried and trusted way of mapping change.
Let’s face it, nobody wants a Border poll without responsible preparation.
There is widespread acceptance that if unity is the eventual outcome, it will be a carefully plotted transition over time. But planning is surely sensible if reunification is even just a possibility, never mind a probability.
Those ideologically committed to the UK will not be swayed by any argument. However, moderate unionists and moderate nationalists, plus unaligned voters, are open to persuasion on the basis of facts and figures.
Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan spoke eloquently about unity at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge recently. Sinn Féin’s position is clear. But why isn’t the Oireachtas a key part of the debate that’s happening countrywide?
Tradition is a powerful force, memorably called “mind-forg’d manacles” by William Blake in his poem London. It is an entire system of values and attitudes in support of the established order permeating society. Remember, all ruling groups seek to perpetuate their power.
But unity would mean political change.
And that helps to explain why we hear a great many politicians describe themselves as Irish republicans, but it’s nothing more than word salad. It’s also cognitive dissonance – inconsistent attitudes. Because their view of a republic is sadly limited.
At some point, people need to decide on their preferred position. And that day could arrive sooner than many suppose. What if Mr Johnson calls a snap Border poll in the North, gambling it might fail? Colum Eastwood has speculated on exactly that scenario.
Some will point to loyalist rioting as a reason for keeping the North at arm’s length as a place apart. But extremist voices shout loudest, and are not representative of the population. Unionists know they are being untethered by Westminster and some are resigned, others are angry. The vast majority of people are law-abiding, however.
Back to Scotland. The chances of an SNP majority are high, with Labour gaining no ground, while the Scottish Conservatives are hampered by the Boris Johnson factor which does not play well there.
What if the new government in Edinburgh calls a referendum anyway, with or without London’s assent?
The 2014 independence vote decided 53pc to 47pc to continue within the union, but EU membership was a factor. The Scots are entitled to a second plebiscite on the basis of Brexit alone – it would be anti-democratic of Westminster to ignore that material difference.
Finally, voters are eligible to cast their ballots from the age of 16 onwards in Scotland, as in Wales, but 18 is the franchise for the Dáil, Stormont and Westminster assemblies. Our young people are old enough to work, pay tax, have consensual sex, drive, agree to medical treatment, apply for a passport at 16 – but not participate in democracy.
Such a position is untenable, ungenerous and unjust, and smacks of an older population refusing to share. Shame on us.