John Cushnahan: Both the DUP and Sinn Fein are prepared to run risk of hard border

Sinn Fein's demand for a border poll is based on the premise that if polls show even a simple majority of Northern Ireland voters in favour of a plebiscite then it should happen
Sinn Fein's demand for a border poll is based on the premise that if polls show even a simple majority of Northern Ireland voters in favour of a plebiscite then it should happen

The reaction of both Sinn Fein and the DUP to the current Brexit crisis is a betrayal of the interests of the electorate of Northern Ireland.

In the case of Sinn Fein, it is also a betrayal of the interests of the electorate of the Republic of Ireland as uniquely they are also a major party in Dail Eireann.

John Cushnahan is a former Fine Gael MEP and former leader of the Alliance Party

John Cushnahan is a former Fine Gael MEP and former leader of the Alliance Party

In their respective responses to Brexit, both are prepared to risk the establishment of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The DUP objective is to ensure that the political division between both parts of Ireland will be widened even further whereas Sinn Fein believe that a hard border will accelerate the holding of a border poll and create a momentum towards a United Ireland.

No one should be surprised that both these parties would be on the same side when pursuing opportunistic, narrow self-party-political interest.

People forget that these parties and their predecessors both opposed the 1974 Power Sharing Executive and their parallel actions contributed to its premature collapse.

Furthermore, both parties opposed the Anglo- Irish Agreement. Despite the opposition of both, thankfully it survived and was seminal and absolutely essential in eventually bringing about the Good Friday Agreement.

Nonetheless, I do acknowledge that Sinn Fein were a party to the Good Friday Agreement whereas the DUP strongly opposed it and they viciously attacked David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists for agreeing to it.

However, the DUP attitude changed when they realised that following the St. Andrews Agreement, they would become the top dog in the subsequent Power-Sharing Executive.

While I recognise that the intentions of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were honourable in negotiating this Agreement, they were unwittingly responsible for sacrificing the centre ground of Northern Ireland politics to achieve it.

The end result eventually resulted in declining electoral support for the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and the Alliance Party and the creation of a Power-Sharing Executive exclusively involving only the DUP and Sinn Fein with disastrous results.

The current political situation is unacceptable. It therefore raises the question what action can parties in Dail Eireann take to help move things forward.

As Sinn Fein is not slow in telling government parties and Fianna Fail (who support them in a confidence and supply agreement) what to do, all these parties should not be slow in reminding Sinn Fein what responsibilities they should discharge in response to the greatest political, economic and institutional threats faced by the peoples of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Firstly, they should tell them to end their abstentionist policy towards the Westminster Parliament particularly as it looks increasingly possible that over the next forty plus days power could shift from the British Government to back bench MPs.

In such a scenario there is a strong possibility that a cross party alliance of MPs will work together to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU with a no deal and Sinn Fein’s seven votes could be critical in delivering a vote which is in the best interests of both parts of Ireland.

Secondly, they should tell them that the current priority should be to restore the Power-Sharing Executive. Logic dictates that if you cannot unite Northern Ireland first there is little prospect of uniting both parts of Ireland.

Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou Mc Donald in a speech in Belfast on 26th January called on the Government to convene a forum “to begin planning for Irish unity”. This statement is an abandonment of the principle of consent at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and the Government and other parties in the Dail should say so.

What the Government should do is offer to Sinn Fein that if they end their abstention of Westminster and immediately engage in talks to restore devolution then they will propose establishing an ad hoc Oireachtas Committee to consider what conditions need to exist to justify the holding of a border poll.

The Sinn Fein argument seems to be based on the premise that if opinion polls showed that even if there was only a simple majority of voters in Northern Ireland in favour of such an initiative then it should trigger one whereas most sensible people would recognise that there would have to be a much wider consensus based on the principle of consent than a simple majority.

In my view, it would also be prudent that the holding of a border poll would need to be preceded by a period of political stability instead of a political crisis like Brexit.

Such a committee could also examine what the economic cost would be for the Republic of Ireland to absorb Northern Ireland. Experts estimate that this would be €10 to €12 billion annually. Sinn Fein, given their simplistic proposal for imminent Irish unity, should be asked to explain how this would be funded – should there be cuts in housing, health, education budgets etc and increases in taxes particularly after the economic effects of Brexit are experienced.

A further task of such a forum would be to consider what governance structures would need to be established – confederal, federal or unitary parliament structures.

Sinn Fein’s premature talk about border polls and imminent Irish unity is opportunist sabre rattling and is unnecessarily provocative and unhelpful in the current climate. It needs to be challenged by all nationalist and democratic parties.

• John Cushnahan Former Fine Gael MEP and Former leader of Alliance Party