A point has been reached where the lack of clarity about basic constitutional questions on this island is a serious problem. There is a growing view that the concurrent consent mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement on self-determination will be operationalised. Perhaps sooner than many imagine.
Rigid pronouncements about ruling out referendums lack credibility, precisely because the right belongs to people, not politicians or institutions. Once it is apparent that opinion has shifted in Northern Ireland, that will be the beginning of the end for the current Union. That sort of language is already being used about the future of the ‘United Kingdom’. This is what grounding constitutional status on consent means. If the patterns of recent years continue, then this may be close, and references to this decade are now commonplace.
There are people who do not want to face this. And much of that is well intentioned. There is genuine anxiety about how the process is handled and the practical consequences. No one engaged in these conversations takes any of that lightly. How could we? That is why so many stress the significance of responsible preparation.
However, it is transparently obvious when ‘not the right time’ arguments are deployed as deflection and distraction techniques. The now tokenistic use of selective quotations from John Hume or Seamus Mallon, often by those with little interest in, or direct knowledge of, the ‘Northern experience’, is everywhere present.
Concepts devoid of measurable content are thrown in too, just to suggest something other than an exercise in deferral of uncomfortable engagements. These are familiar and all-too-human traits. Procrastination when confronted with difficult homework that you know must be done but can always wait until tomorrow. If combined with well-founded worry about how those opposed to constitutional change might opt to react, then it is not difficult to understand the hesitation.
More now accept that it is better to simply get on with the work. And they are right. Projects and initiatives are springing up everywhere. All welcome and necessary. Because the focus must remain on preparation and planning for possible change. When the time arrives, people need to be ready with campaigns that are well informed, and evidence based. With the hope that myths will be challenged and at the far end of it people will know each other better on this island.
Some may find this line of argument naïve and odd. The dominant narratives speak of fear and potential violence. The coded threat of the use of force is never far away here. But only by facing into the often boring and tedious work required will the island be able to work off an extended exercise in avoidance.
We must press on. No useful cause is served by sulking away in our separate silos on this shared island. We need to talk about this more, not less. And as we all do, the deliverable core of the different propositions must emerge.
In the world we are in, the border on this island will not melt away. Nor will it wither in a mystical process without human intervention. Only through the prescribed consent mechanisms in the Agreement will that outcome stand a chance of happening.
Those with a stake in nurturing a sustainable and stable future know that encouraging the required work is now the only way forward. There is no need to be afraid, and just consider what we might be able to achieve together on this island.
Colin Harvey is a Professor of Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast and is a member of the management board of Ireland’s Future