One of the key negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement and someone instrumental in abolishing the RUC, former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Seamus Mallon, has warned against a rush to a Border Poll if Britain now crashes out of the EU with no deal.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has warned Cabinet colleagues and party MPs that if they reject her EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill a fourth time it will increase pressure in Northern Ireland for a Border Poll and in Scotland for a second independence referendum.
Mr Mallon, a Catholic teacher and reluctant politician who has lived all his life in the predominantly Protestant and Unionist Markethill area of Armagh, has suggested extending the Good Friday Agreement’s original safeguards against simple majoritarianism to Unionists.
Mr Mallon, who with Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, remains one of the giants of Irish constitutional nationalism, makes the recommendation in his new book, A Shared Home Place.
In it, he says: “Generosity has been in short supply in any of the attempts to deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles over the past 50 years, notably in the relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein in recent years.
“I make what I hope is a generous new offer to unionism as a former constitutional nationalist leader.
“I have come increasingly to the view that the Good Friday Agreement measurement of a bare majority (50-per-cent-plus-one) for unity will not give us the kind of agreed and peaceful Ireland we seek.
“The SDLP put a variation of this principle, calling it ‘parallel consent’, into the section of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement dealing with the working of the Northern Ireland Assembly, requiring that key decisions in that Assembly would need the support of parties representing both traditions.
“This was to protect nationalists from an inbuilt unionist majority, which might vote as a bloc to undermine their rights in a future Northern Ireland.”
He recommends that the same safeguard be used to protect unionists if a future border poll resulted in the narrowest of overall majorities for a united Ireland – but without the consent of both traditions.
“A very narrow vote for unity would lead to more division, instability…and probably violence,” he warns.
Both Mr Mallon and the former Ulster Unionist Party leader and broadcaster Mike Nesbitt – who supports his proposal – point to the chaos that ensued from the failure of then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party government to make even the most basic preparation for the Brexit referendum.
Says Mr Mallon: “Look at the chaos caused by the narrow vote for Brexit in the UK and by the lack of preparation, reasoned debate and public education before that referendum.”
This sentiment is echoed by Mike Nesbitt, who followed David Trimble as UUP leader, who says in Mr Mallon’s book:
“If we go for a hasty border poll, we are going to repeat the mistakes of Brexit. If people vote with their hearts without a proper debate, they will not understand the implications of that monumental change … we all know it would be an utter disaster.”
Welcoming the Mallon proposal Mr Nesbitt says that if he, back when he was UUP leader, or current DUP leader Arlene Foster attempted to propose it they would be “rightly” shot down in flames.
“Nationalists would say we were being undemocratic; the rules have been set by the Belfast and subsequent agreements, which you signed up to, so you’ll just have to suck it up. But the important thing about this proposal is that it is a challenge to nationalism from an icon of nationalism,” says Mr Nesbitt.
He calls it “a very generous offer from a leader with impeccable nationalist credentials.”
Mr Mallon says the only way forward now for Northern Ireland is through the generosity of spirit on both sides of the political divide “notably the DUP – (has) to work alongside nationalists and their leaders – notably Sinn Fein – in a spirit of equality, respect and parity of esteem.
“That did not happen in the final years of the 2007-17 Executive,” he says.
He says that if politicians do not grasp this nettle now – both in the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland and in their responses to generous proposals like “parallel consent” – nationalists will simply ignore proposals like his and just wait for the demographic clock to run down until there is a majority for a united Ireland even if it is only by the narrowest of margins.
“The nationalist community, now moving into the ascendant, must show the generosity to unionists that was sadly absent from the way in which they were treated by the unionists during 50 years of one-party rule,” says Mr Mallon.
That needs, he says, “a nationalism that is the opposite of Sinn Fein’s…that allows unionists the space and time to put forward their arguments for the continuing Union with Britain in a safe and respectful atmosphere.”
He says it must be clear by now to most Irish people today that “the main obstacle to overcoming the deep and ancient divisions on the island is the unionist fear of Irish nationalism.”
Personally, says Mr Mallon, he sees the British eventually leaving Northern Ireland because they would see it as just no use to them anymore. That, he says, is the British mindset towards the region.
Therefore, the only meaningful task for nationalists is “to persuade a significant part of the unionist community that their fears are groundless, and there is no need for them to live apart from the rest of the island.”
That might have to be through a confederal Ireland, he suggests, “since I cannot ever see Unionists pledging loyalty to a unitary Irish state”.