Former Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson has suggested holding fixed generational polls on Irish unification as a way to stabilise politics in Northern Ireland.
The ex-Stormont first minister said the approach would help make the constitutional question less disruptive to local politics and the prospect of a referendum less threatening.
Delivering a lecture at Queen's University in Belfast, veteran unionist Mr Robinson stressed he would be very confident that citizens would choose to stay within the United Kingdom. But, reflecting on the discordant aftermath of the Brexit vote, he said the prospect of a simple yes/no poll to deal with a "colossal constitutional change", and which could be carried with a majority of just one vote, was a "recipe for chaos" on the island.
As such, he said there was a need for processes and timescales to be agreed in advance, rather than having to “tackle the issue on the fly” if unification was ever backed.
“In this I am not, of course, talking about the nature and shape of the new state that would emerge if there ever was a vote to exit the UK,” he said.
“I am alluding to the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement.
“With those details settled, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that fixed generational border polls would be less divisive and disruptive of our local political process.”
Mr Robinson acknowledged he had “pulled the pin out of the grenade” with his remarks.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement allows for a border poll on Irish unity to be held no more than every seven years but the document is ambiguous on when exactly it should be called.
Explaining what he meant by “fixed generation”, Mr Robinson said any such poll should not be “on the whim of a Secretary of State, or on the demand of a political party”. In addition, it “should be sufficiently far ahead so that we have stable government in between”.
The main focus of Mr Robinson’s lecture at Queen’s was his reflections on how to restore a stable powersharing administration. The former first minister, who was recently appointed an honorary professor of peace studies at the institution, warned that community division in the region was “accelerating” and suggested violence could reignite if the political stagnation continued.
“We are at risk of awaking the slumbering hostilities that we had all hoped would never again be aroused,” he said.
Addressing an audience that included current DUP leader Arlene Foster, Mr Robinson said the most recent set of failed negotiations to resurrect Stormont ended in a "train crash".
In an apparent challenge to the current generation of leaders, Mr Robinson said: “Let’s be clear, not all of your colleagues, will want to make the necessary concessions... That’s where leadership comes in.”
Speaking to The Irish Times ahead of the lecture on current controversies, Mr Robinson said he always has been "pro life" on the issue of abortion. And he rejected the suggestion that British and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland were being discriminated against by not having civil marriage equality, and abortion services that were available in Scotland, England and Wales, and soon the Republic of Ireland.
He said he did not believe the DUP was being hypocritical when it said Northern Ireland must be “in lockstep” with Britain when it came to Brexit but not on these social issues.
“No, it is a recognition that Brexit comes into a constitutional issue which his of course a matter for the United Kingdom as a whole,” he said. “The social issues are not constitutional matters.”
In advance of his lecture, dozens of academics complained to the university about Mr Robinson’s appointment as a honorary professor of peace studies.
Professor Emeritus Phil Scraton, Dr Marie Coleman, Professor Peter Gray and Dr Emma Reisz are among 37 academics who claim, in a letter, that the appointment is “weaving hostility to LGBT+ and Muslim staff and students into the fabric of the university”.
This relates to comments made in the past by the former politician about the LGBT and Islamic communities.
A QUB statement said it was “committed to the promotion of equality and diversity” and anyone who had raised concerns about an appointment could raise it with a member of the university’s honorary titles group. - Additional reporting PA