Unionists have many reasons to like the Government
Coalition excludes SF and has pressing issues to distract it from Border poll
Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster before a portrait of Ian Paisley: Unionists should start by trusting the Government. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne
Unionists were finally able to heave a sigh of relief on Friday evening. Sinn Féin in government on both sides of the Border has been a recurring nightmare for them since February, particularly when the fallout from Brexit remains unclear and while most unionist leaders – even if they wouldn’t say so out loud – don’t trust Boris Johnson.
Some comfort is taken from the argument that the Belfast Agreement suggests a Border poll can only be triggered by the Northern Ireland secretary of state, yet senior unionists fear Johnson and Dominic Cummings (who doesn’t appear to lose any sleep over the constitutional status of the North) would find a way round the wording if they had to.
For too long the default position within unionism has been to assume no Irish government could be trusted
So unionists will be delighted this government does not include Sinn Féin. They’ll take further pleasure from knowing the Coalition will have enough on its plate – Covid-19, repaying debts, regenerating the economy, avoiding redundancies, stopping another, deadlier round of the virus in the next few months and Brexit – without taking on the hassle of a Border poll and unity. They’ll be particularly pleased cross-Border meetings won’t involve Sinn Féin ministers from Belfast and Dublin having side-meetings and prioritising their own agenda beforehand.
Crucially, the Coalition’s programme for government is fluffy, almost invisible on the issue of a united Ireland: “We are committed to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future. This consensus will be underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and by the absolute respect for the principle of consent. We will establish a unit within the Department of An Taoiseach to work towards a consensus on a shared island. This unit will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected.”
Just imagine how that paragraph would have been worded had Sinn Féin had a hand in its drafting; or how unionists would have felt had the strategy outlined in a Sinn Féin-approved draft been headed-up by a Sinn Féin minister? Critics have long accused the Civil War parties of guarding and accepting partition, a charge given renewed weight by the coyness of the programme for government which doesn’t even mention partition or a Border poll. That’s good news for unionism right now.
Which means there could be a temptation to bank the sigh of relief and imagine time has been bought. Nothing to see here. Nothing to fear. Nothing to worry about. So let’s do nothing. That, I think, would be the worst position to adopt. Over the past few years I’ve got to know a number of political, party and advisory “players” in the South and I’ve been surprised by the number who have said to me something along the lines of, no matter how many unionists you get to know it’s always extraordinarily difficult to work out what makes them tick. My favourite line came during an event a few months ago: “Alex, I can give you a list of what really pisses off unionists, but I could barely muster the first line of a list of what really matters to them or how we can help them. Do they even want our help?”
Covid-19 and Brexit
Unionism must not squander this opportunity. This is a government which shares many of the concerns about Sinn Féin that unionism has had for decades. It is a government which doesn’t even come close to prioritising a united Ireland. It is a government which wants to avoid a Brexit outcome which could do enormous economic damage on both sides of the Border. It is a government which wants to avoid the sort of instability and potential violence that any rush to Irish unity would cause. It is a government that wants a functioning, cohesive executive in Belfast to co-operate in dealing with a number of problems, particularly Covid-19 and Brexit. With Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at its heart, it is a government with which unionism can and should do business. By the way, I wouldn’t overegg Micheál Martin’s failure to appoint “someone from a unionist background” to the Seanad, not least because one voice cannot represent the huge tent that unionism is.
For too long – going back to 1921 – the default position within unionism has been to assume no Irish government could be trusted (although quite a few had a soft spot for Bertie Ahern). The relationship with Leo Varadkar was bad, with both the DUP and UUP describing him as particularly green; although his actual problem was a DUP/Conservative parliamentary deal which gave every appearance of a hell-for-leather pursuit of the hardest of hard Brexits, without concern for the Belfast Agreement, the Remain majority in NI or nationalism.
But this is a new kind of government and my instinct is that unionism should begin from a position of trusting and testing it. Unionism has a long history of not seizing the moment or playing a good hand when it is unexpectedly presented. There is a moment and a good hand right now: neither should be wasted.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party