Irish Times view on violence in Northern Ireland

Appalling reminder of the past underlines need for united approach to calm tensions

PSNI at the scene where viable explosive device was left at the home of a police officer near Dungiven. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

PSNI at the scene where viable explosive device was left at the home of a police officer near Dungiven. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

 

The attempt – apparently by extreme republicans – to murder a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, coming close on the heels of a period of predominantly loyalist street violence, illustrates the need for a united approach by the Irish and British governments to calm current tensions. The placing of a device under the officer’s car was an appalling reminder of the past and could have had tragic consequences.

It is just the latest sign of rising tensions. Aiming to calm unionist concerns, British prime minister Boris Johnson’s declaration that there will not be a Border poll for “a very, very long time to come” is designed to reassure those who are feeling vulnerable because of the Northern Ireland protocol. The forthright opposition to an early referendum expressed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin should also help to calm unionist fears. But it’s not clear if anyone is listening.

Of course the two leaders have different visions about the long-term future of Northern Ireland. Johnson is currently engaged in a desperate attempt to counter the negative impact of Brexit on the cohesion of the United Kingdom. He has a huge battle on his hands to persuade the Scottish people to remain in the UK.

There is clearly no prospect of a referendum for the foreseeable future

The Taoiseach favours a united Ireland in the longer term. That goal is enshrined in the Irish Constitution and the aspiration for unity by peaceful means is a core value for his party. Martin is adamant, however, that demands for an early Border poll are “very explosive and divisive”. Whatever their differing long-term aspirations, the two leaders share a common approach about what should happen in the more immediate future.

Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement a decision on calling a Border poll is a matter for the British government. The Northern Secretary has the authority to call one if “it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”. Given Johnson’s current commitment to retaining the North as part of the UK and Martin’s opposition to an early Border poll, there is clearly no prospect of a referendum for the foreseeable future.

That does not mean that those who desire Irish unity have to accept that partition should remain in perpetuity. The revised article 3 of the Constitution, which was endorsed by a massive majority after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, replaced the territorial claim to the North with an aspiration to “unite all the people who share the territory of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”. Those who favour unity need to spell out how they propose to achieve that noble ambition. Such a move would be the first step in a lengthy process of persuading unionists that their future lies in a new all-Ireland arrangement.

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