Alex Kane: Soft Brexit, or even no Brexit, the unity question is not going away

Voting Yes in the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998 was difficult for me; as it was for everyone on the pro-Union side of the debate (and on the pro-Irish unity side too, of course).

I was aware of the ‘difficulties’ involved, chief of which was that the Assembly and Executive would mean Sinn Fein in government.

Given that Sinn Fein was viewed by just about every unionist – and quite a few nationalists – as ‘inextricably linked’ to the IRA; and that the IRA only announced another ‘complete cessation of military operations from 12 midday, Sunday, 20 July 1997’ (less than a year before the referendum), it was always going to require a leap of faith – a leap that many unionists couldn’t take.

There was consideration of potential damage the agreement and the new institutions could do to the Union. Gerry Adams’s view was very clear: ‘The bald fact is that while the Union has been weakened, partition remains. Sinn Fein believes, however, that partition and all its negative ramifications can be further weakened by the dynamic operations of the all-Ireland bodies, which are a critical part of the agreement. Never again can the question of partition be relegated to the sidelines of Irish political life.’ But the presence of an in-built veto for both sides meant that Sinn Fein couldn’t act unilaterally on key issues.

Anyway, I weighed up all of the available evidence and voted Yes. I believed there was an opportunity – one which had never existed in my lifetime – to test the question whether we could ‘do’ politics together in Northern Ireland. From the age of 14 I had lived in an unstable, divided, violent society. Too many people I had known had been killed or injured. I had had two close encounters with exploding bombs. I reckoned the opportunity to test the question would probably never come again in my lifetime. The risks, or so it seemed to me at the time, were worth taking.

Last Wednesday the agreement celebrated its 21st anniversary. Sadly, it hasn’t matured into adulthood. It’s a grumpy teenager; thran, huffy, unpredictable and fond of bed. The electorate, meanwhile, is more polarised than ever. The political atmosphere is poisonous.

But I do have the unambiguous answer to my 1998 question: no, we don’t want to ‘do’ politics together. If we did, we’d be doing it. But we don’t, so we’re not.

The DUP and Sinn Fein blame each other for the mess, yet neither of them is taking an electoral hit; quite the opposite, in fact. The SDLP/UUP/Alliance blame the ‘big two’ collectively, yet none of them is achieving growth or traction. Everybody else just shrugs their shoulders and mutters, “well, we are where we are; and at least we’re not killing each other”.

Do I regret my vote in 1998? No. The question had to be tested. We needed to know if a period of changed circumstances and power-sharing would, at the very least, allow the parties to reach collective agreement on issues like health, education, societal integration etc; in other words cooperate in a way in which we could say, with some confidence, “if nothing else, our hospitals, schools, infrastructure and housing etc are much, much better than before”. That didn’t happen, either. If we describe the agreement as an ‘experiment’ it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it has failed.

But I still hear people saying the present levels of division and toxicity should be laid on the doorstep of those who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. That is nonsense. That division and toxicity predates Brexit by a long, long way.

The mistrust was embedded for most of the period when the DUP and Sinn Fein were the top-dogs in the Executive; you only have to read Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter in January 2017 (which brought down the structures) to realise how bad the relationship between those parties was. The Orange and Green elements of life hadn’t even begun the process of blending to turquoise.

It’s also a nonsense to say that voting Leave (which I did, as most of you will know) represented a new challenge to the Union. Really? In December 1956, 16 months after I was born, the IRA began a campaign that lasted until February 1962. In 1969/70, when I was 14, PIRA began a campaign that lasted until July 1997. Within weeks of Sinn Fein cutting their deal with the DUP in May 2007, they had begun their ‘unionist outreach’ project to win over soft/civic unionists to the unity cause. In 2002, SDLP leader Mark Durkan was ‘heavily involved in launching a discussion document on the future shape and pathway to a united Ireland ...’. For my entire lifetime nationalism and republicanism has been geared towards the end of the Union. Even if every single voter in the United Kingdom had supported Remain in 2016, local nationalists and republicans would have continued their assorted unity projects.

It is the relationship between unionism and nationalism which is the key determinant in the Union versus Irish unity debate. It didn’t matter so much when the demographic margin between both blocs was hugely in favour of unionists (although they were still stupid not to forge a much better relationship with nationalism from 1921 onwards), but in the past 15 years or so, as that margin has narrowed considerably, the debate is now a numbers game, pure and simple. Some circumstances will, obviously, shift the dynamics of the debate, but the debate isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, it would continue, albeit in a different form, if a border poll did deliver a majority for unity.

So if, as I expect, and have said since 2016, we end up with a gloopily soft Brexit, or no Brexit at all, unionists from both sides of the Brexit debate would be stupid to believe that the unity debate will just disappear. It won’t.