SF's Border poll was a dangerous political football
In rejecting the Sinn Féin proposal to hold a Border poll on a united Ireland in the near future, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers has acted quickly and decisively to protect the peace process.
It was Sinn Féin that instigated the current union flag controversy in the North – although to be absolutely fair, it wasn’t solely responsible for bringing unionist demonstrators on to the streets.
Its initial proposal last November to ban the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall was supported by the SDLP. Then when the Alliance party succeeded in amending this proposal so as to allow the flying of the flag on designated days in line with the established custom and practice at Stormont and in accordance with the recommendation of the Equality Commission, the DUP exploited the situation for cynical political reasons.
The DUP, aided and abetted by the Ulster Unionist Party, perceived it as an ideal opportunity to politically damage Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long, who had unseated Peter Robinson from his East Belfast Westminster seat. Their scurrilous campaign against the Alliance Party heightened loyalist fears and played into the hands of loyalist paramilitaries – the rest is history.
As these tensions seemed about to subside, Sinn Féin decided to launch a sustained campaign for the holding of a Border poll and showed a callous disregard for the impact it would have in exacerbating unionist fears.
The peace process has worked and survived intermittent crises because Northern Ireland parties have parked their long-term constitutional aspirations to concentrate on internal devolution on a powersharing basis.
In tabling a Border poll, Sinn Féin was dragging the most divisive issue back centre stage. Then the DUP indicated it would welcome the opportunity to engage with Sinn Féin.
No one should have been surprised at this as it would have suited the interests of both parties. In what would have been a polarised and emotive “gladiatorial” contest, both parties would have been able to pander to their own tribal power bases.
The continued irresponsible approach of the two largest parties in the Northern Executive clearly demonstrates that while Sinn Féin and the DUP are committed to the institutions of the peace process, they are not committed to its objectives. They support the institutions because of the status and prestige that accrue, domestically and internationally.
However what is brought into question is whether either party genuinely supports the objectives of the peace process, namely bringing about a real reconciliation between unionists and nationalists.
While both the DUP and Sinn Féin will pay lip service to this objective, they will do little to bring it about as they fear it would threaten their power bases structured on maintaining physical and political apartheid in Northern Ireland.
That is why both parties have continued to drag their feet on implementing the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy.
Division and sectarianism
This strategy is considered by many as the key to ending division and sectarianism by tackling segregation in sensitive areas such as housing and education. Hopefully this would lead to community harmony sufficient to allow a dismantling of the province’s so-called “peace walls” built at flashpoint areas.
Although an all-party Assembly committee had initially been established to devise an all-embracing strategy under the CSI, disillusionment with lack of progress resulted in Alliance Party and Ulster Unionist Party members withdrawing.
Sinn Féin and the DUP would better serve people on this island by breathing new life into this initiative rather than playing selfish opportunist politics as in the flag and Border poll issues.
Sinn Féin’s real intention behind the Border poll was revealed by the choice of venue to launch it – Dublin not Belfast. The initiative was never really about Northern politics. It was about securing leadership among the Opposition parties in the Republic. In establishing itself as the “real custodian of the national question”, it hoped to relegate Fianna Fáil into third place.
The DUP’s willingness to engage with Sinn Féin on the issue had a similar motivation. If the DUP and Sinn Féin had locked horns, the DUP would have emerged as the stronger defenders of the union, thus accelerating the decline of the Ulster Unionist Party. The cost to the wider Northern Ireland community would have been damage to the peace process.
Theresa Villiers has done a great service to the genuine supporters of the peace process throughout this island by “removing the political football” and not allowing them to play their dangerous opportunistic political games.
* John Cushnahan is a former leader of the Alliance Party (1984-1987), and a former Fine Gael MEP