Peter Robinson full article: Northern Ireland needs a pro Union group that will help prepare for any border poll
Finding a topic for a regular newspaper column is unlikely to cause much head-scratching, though my first article obliges me to introduce an element of prioritisation.
Unquestionably the pressing and burning issues are the Covid pandemic, Brexit and the Stormont arrangements but there are other massive yet not immediate matters that need to be addressed.
My conundrum is symptomatic of unionism’s approaching problem.
Our unionist leaders, especially those who have ministerial responsibilities, are bound by a solemn obligation to focus on and confront each crisis that faces them.
They would be failing their constituents if it were otherwise and, frankly, my experience is that crises come in throngs rather than in single file.
The consequence of this political fact-of-life is that inescapably the seemingly less immediate subjects get pushed down the line.
Of course, leaders have support staff and colleagues to share the load but, because most local democratic parties operate with limited resources, they too will be engaged with the immediate crisis rather than issues that might appear distant on the political radar.
Advocating for the Union should be the routine duty of those who cherish our link with Great Britain, but beyond the routine lies a much greater task in preparing for the predictable showdown.
I know there are border poll deniers who think such a referendum will never be called or believe that to talk about and prepare for a plebiscite creates momentum that will speed its arrival.
I do not subscribe to such complacent and dangerous thinking.
In the past when the Union was in peril unionist parties worked together in defence of a shared objective. These relationships have never lasted long, and it have never worked particularly well. Party political interests, differences, priorities and suspicions have diluted the effectiveness and value of the arrangement.
So, what’s the answer? How best can we move forward given the constraints? Our political leaders are elected and trusted to provide direction and need to be the voice and face of the ongoing campaign for the Union.
However, they do not need to do the spadework, nor do they need to provide the blueprint of the campaign.
Yet they do need to set up the body that will fulfil these tasks.
The think tank or working group would be permanent. It would carry out research and provide material proclaiming the benefits of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It would pass its research to pro Union political parties and politicians to augment their arguments for the maintenance of the Union and it would offer campaign advice, when needed, confidentially, to the political leadership.
The group should not be packed with safe hands from the parties’ ranks though a trusted link will be important for communications.
It should be very widely drawn from the pro Union community and consist amongst others of academics, professionals and additional specialists along with a small representative group of unionist influencers.
The group’s agenda would involve researching and compiling papers demonstrating the benefits of the Union from the viewpoint of each sector and aspect of life.
It would prepare analytical responses to propaganda and reports that either seek to undermine the pro British case or promote a united-Ireland and it would prepare an evidence-based case for the Union in the event of a border poll.
The case for the Union is compelling and logical but we should never be complacent. As we approach Northern Ireland’s centenary, today’s unionists must show the same drive, dynamism and determination to deliver. Success at a border poll will be down to a steady and consistent espousal of the real value of United Kingdom membership not a three-week splash.
It will depend as much on those who are pro Union but do not vote for a party with unionist in its title and those who do not normally vote at all. It will depend on people from all backgrounds and minorities realising the Union is the best option.
That will not be accomplished in a few weeks or months; it is a long-term task that needs to be commenced in the short-term.
Everyone who lives here will pay a heavy price if unionists do not focus on these preparations. In her Friends of the Union address in April 2017 Arlene Foster said, “Make no mistake, this is a time of threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom and it is a time for care and vigilance.”
I couldn’t agree more. Moreover, she also pointed out that the Union is a two-way process and maintaining it must not be the job of people here alone nor should we only direct our arguments to those who live in Northern Ireland.
Above all she proffered the advice that we must make the Union more appealing to everyone in our society.
That seems a sound programme of work and a goal worthy of support.
• Peter Robinson is a former first minister of Northern Ireland and DUP leader
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