Martina Devlin’s piece from yesterday’s Irish Independent has been reproduced below with the permission of the author. Martina appeared on the RTE podcast with Aine Lawlor on Thursday to discuss the Ireland’s Future letter and the unique context of this year’s Brexit election.
When voters in the North go to the polls next month, the question facing them won’t be the subliminal one which harks to the past of ‘which tribe do you belong to?’ Instead, it will be a question about the future: ‘do you want to be in the EU or not?’
The wind is blowing in a new direction. Nationalism versus unionism is not the default in this general election to Westminster; that default has been refined to something non-traditional – to whether a voter identifies as Remain or Leave.
Barriers between parties are being dismantled, with common cause made on their Brexit position. Loose pan-Remain arrangements are evident between Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Greens, while Alliance – although not party to any pact – is unequivocally within the Remain family and will benefit from those parties announcing their decision to step aside in certain constituencies.
The ‘Ulster Fry’ website satirises the current outbreak of political co-operation in its headline, ‘Celebrations as NI parties agree pact to not stand for election – anywhere’ and raises a welcome smile. But it is a highly significant development and a sense of energy is evident in this campaign that’s been missing for some time.
The stance is on a seat-by-seat basis rather than taking the shape of a formal pact, but is nevertheless a highly unusual strategy because it is driven by policy – something which tends to matter less than identity at election time in the North.
Here’s further evidence of change. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP called on their supporters to back Sylvia Hermon, a lone Remain-supporting voice from the six counties in Westminster, before she announced her decision to retire. Ms Hermon is an independent unionist and her late husband was head of the RUC.
Long-term trend or short-term pragmatism? That remains to be seen. But nationalism tends not to do pacts, unlike unionism. Ironically, it is the DUP and UUP’s combined Leave position – out of step with a swathe of their electorates – which has delivered this pan-Remain grouping.
The alliance to maximise the Remain vote is constructive overall, despite a democratic negative whereby voters are offered less choice. (Unionism is doing the same to make the most of the Leave vote.) But Brexit was hardly an exercise in democracy because of the lies and use of dark money during the referendum.
Realistically, the first-past-the-post system makes tactical voting essential. The Green Party is on the up in the North but has bowed out of the Belfast constituencies. “I’m prepared to put the need to have pro-Remain MPs returned ahead of party interest,” said its leader, Clare Bailey.
For the Greens, standing aside is a positive. It’s the opposite with Steve Aiken, who announced the UUP would run contenders in all 18 constituencies but swiftly U-turned following loyalist paramilitary intimidation. Not a strong look for a leader – he’s a busted flush before the ink is dry on his new business cards.
While unionism as a political entity is on the side of Brexit, its leaders ought to mull over the following fact: EU membership is what matters to younger voters. They are highly incentivised to vote outside their norms. Scottish nationalists have asked unionists for their votes to send a Remain message. How many Northern unionists, particularly from the business and farming communities, will do likewise?
When the votes are counted on December 13, some will look at the size of the Remain stack as a Border poll indicator.
It is too soon for one right now – insufficient cross-community outreach has taken place. Colin Harvey, professor of human rights law at Queen’s University, suggests 2023 as an appropriate date, marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, a strong Remain vote would point up the need for discussions about future arrangements and how best to manage change. Both the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and Downing Street Declaration of 1993 have guarantees about the right to peaceful and democratic pursuit of Irish unity.
Come what may, unionism faces a great many challenges, and Brexit – driven by English nationalism – is accelerating them. The election result will dictate whether or not the DUP makes way for a more moderate incarnation of unionism. The most likely upshot is that unionism will learn it needs to modify its positions, soften its language and engage in some outreach of its own.
There’s another green shoot of hope to consider here, too. A constructive development made the news this week with civic society, north and south, coalescing to call for discussions about a new settlement on the island of Ireland. It was led by a non-aligned, grassroots movement called Ireland’s Future, of which I’m a member. The group has petitioned the Taoiseach for a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss new constitutional arrangements.
And we were joined by almost 1,100 people from across the island, two-thirds in the Republic, who signed a public letter to Leo Varadkar in support of the initiative. Signatories included Adrian Dunbar, Jim Sheridan, Stephen Rea, Eoin Colfer, David McWilliams, Sian Smyth of the Dalkey Book Festival, Theo Dorgan, Paula Meehan, Fintan O’Toole, DJ Carey, James McClean, Tim Pat Coogan, Sharon Shannon, Christy Moore and Ailbhe Smyth of Together for Yes. They are drawn from business, sport, academia, arts, media and the trade union movement.
Coincidentally, representatives from a variety of trade unions are gathering in Dublin today at Mandate’s head office to discuss Irish unity, under the TUNUI banner (Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland). It’s the first in a series of consultative roadshows and will lead to a policy document. Some of the unions have members from the North and are well placed to reflect the unionist perspective.
Clearly, change is coming, arising from Brexit, and needs to be managed. Ireland’s Future’s position is that we need to plan for the future rather than adopt a rear-view mirror approach. As with the forthcoming Northern election, different times must give rise to a different model.
I joined the group because it’s high time people of goodwill outside politics played their part with a reasoned, factual conversation about what the future might hold. We need to find an amicable, constructive way to live together because even a soft Brexit threatens that. And unionism has a key role to play in transitioning towards new arrangements.
There are no road maps here. We have to find our own way forward as a people – and there’s no better way to do that than by talking about it.
Finally, the Irish women’s hockey team, which includes seven members from Ulster, is Tokyo-bound for the next Olympic Games. It’s a first for women’s hockey – and a metaphor for how we’re stronger together.