17 May 2018

Forty Shades of Green; Fifty Shades of Orange

Professor Jim Dornan is a world renowned gynaecologist living on Northern Ireland’s “Gold Coast,” the prosperous stretch of County Down peppered with picture window residences. He’s one of Northern Ireland’s great and the good. He’s celebrated in his field. He’s from a unionist background. As it happens, he’s also father of the actor Jamie Dornan, star of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” He’s also recently started thinking he might just back a united Ireland. And he’s not alone.

When Theresa May took on Jacob Rees-Mogg in a private meeting with Tory MPs on Monday night she pushed back at the backbencher’s confident assertion that a border poll in Northern Ireland would be easily won for unionism. “I’m not sure I’d like to take that risk,” she responded. One present at the meeting said that the PM cited the October poll by Lucid Talk which suggested Northern Ireland opinion could shift if some felt there had been a Hard Brexit which harmed their interests. Professor Dornan is part of that shift.

In Dublin, in No. 10 and even amongst some DUP sources, you hear talk of “shifting plates” in public opinion, “creaking glaciers” in both community voting blocks.

In the nationalist community, there’s long been a sizeable percentage that wants a united Ireland with its heart but is held back by some cooler, head-driven calculations. Is Ireland’s health service a match for the NHS? Is the welfare state as generous? Does the public sector in Northern Ireland provide more job opportunities? On top of years of austerity with consequences for the UK public services, the nationalist community is now contemplating Brexit and doing so with pretty much universal horror. Nationalists who’d been content to stay in the UK tell you that on the night of the referendum results something clicked in their mind and the scales tipped on the issue of Irish unity.

In the DUP/Sinn Fein dominated Northern Ireland political landscape you don’t hear so much from those who for years might’ve been natural supporters of the more liberal elements of the Ulster Unionist Party which once dominated the Unionist landscape. Voices from the Alliance Party support base and the Green Party support are similarly heard from less. People who don’t vote regularly in elections but who turned out for the Good Friday Agreement Referendum and might turn out again if there was a popular vote on a united Ireland don’t get heard much either. The Lucid Talk poll tried to tap into those voices and this week Channel 4 News has been trying to do the same.

Like Lucid Talk, we picked up stirrings, new thoughts, reported conversations with friends and family which don’t show a shift has decisively happened but which suggest some minds are more open to the idea of a united Ireland than headline figures would have you think.

Ian Marshall was President of that unionist bastion the Ulster Farmers Union and farms near the border with the Republic in South Armagh. He said Brexit had been a catalyst for new thinking in parts of the unionist community. He wanted much more thought given to how a united Ireland might work to assuage anxieties across his own community but said he thought many unionists were “beginning to think the unthinkable.” I asked if he was one of them? “Yeah, I’m a realist, I’m a pragmatist.” Mr Marshall has just been elected to the Irish Senate as a voice from Northern Ireland.

Professor Dornan says he wants a new plan to be outlined for how the people living in Northern Ireland might be accommodated in what he likes to call “a union of Ireland.” Professor Dornan revealed that senior figures in Northern Ireland public life have been down to Dublin to discuss the possible shape of a united Ireland with a senior official in the Irish government. There’s talk of a meeting with Leo Varadkar himself being on the cards. It’s not quite the back channel that preceded the Hume/Adams secret talks but it is an intriguing development that might  have been unthinkable before the Brexit referendum.

For some it’s all happening a bit too quickly. Trevor Ringland, former Irish rugby star turned lawyer and Northern Ireland Conservatives officer, told us he thinks people are rushing things and need to slow down. We found some younger students at Queen’s University Belfast who shared his concern. Even Seamus Mallon, SDLP veteran from the Good Friday negotiations and former Deputy First Minister, told us the enthusiasts should “make haste slowly.” There’s a danger, Mr Mallon said, that nationalists chase the border poll before there is wider consent across the unionist community. That risks, he said, creating a disaster and risks the nationalist population playing top dog over the unionists in what he sees as a mirror image of unionism’s own darkest past.

Mr Mallon, like just about everyone else in Northern Ireland, is fully aware of where the demographics are going. Dr Paul Nolan has recently re-crunched the existing numbers and thinks by the time of the next Northern Ireland census, which will coincide with the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland in 2021, those with a Catholic background will probably be the larger of the two communities for the first time and will be inexorably on the way to being the larger group amongst those of voting age in the not too distant future.

One liberal unionist warns that Unionism could lose its negotiating leverage if it leaves discussions with Dublin much longer. Some of these enthusiasts talk of the prospect of a wholly new political dynamic that would see Northern Ireland enjoying a blocking minority on policy across the Republic. Others say Northern Ireland would continue to have the Stormont Assembly with significant devolution within a new Ireland. Professor Dornan dreams of Sinn Fein like UKIP after Brexit folding up its tent and disappearing into obscurity.

You might consider some of these fanciful notions. Some in the unionist family and the nationalist community certainly do. But a debate is resurfacing. It is doing it in the changed circumstances of Brexit, of austerity and a changed Ireland. It’s caught the attention of the leaders of the UK and of Ireland and many others too.

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