Two weeks ago the British Secretary of State Karen Bradley emerged from the NIO Office in the Stormont Estate to tell us that the conditions for a referendum on unity, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, have not been met.
Three weeks earlier the same Secretary of State was reported in the London Times privately warning a British Cabinet meeting on 8 January that a no deal Brexit would make a referendum on Irish Unity “far more likely.”
Last week the BBC reported that several British Cabinet Ministers had told it that a no-deal Brexit could lead to a vote on Irish unification.
The BBC report said: “One senior minister said the prospect is "very real" and very much on the prime minister's mind. A second cabinet minister warned the government risked "sleepwalking into a border poll". And a third cabinet minister said there was an understanding in government that a vote on unification would be a "realistic possibility" if the UK leaves the EU without a deal next month. "If we are party to creating an environment of chaos, disruption and uncertainty - that could move the dial", the source said. All three spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity.”
What’s behind this sudden talking-up by British Ministers of the possibility of a referendum on Irish Unity? Do they believe it? Possibly. But more likely its part of a very blunt tactical approach by Downing Street to frighten and blackmail its own members to toe the leadership line on Brexit.
Talk of a referendum on Irish Unity is an attempt to scare Tory backbenchers in the British Parliament into agreeing to May’s Brexit plan. At the same time Theresa May has written to all of her 316 MPs. She has appealed to them to support her Brexit deal warning that “history will judge us all.”
With less just over 5 weeks to go before the March 29th deadline for Brexit the British Conservative government and Parliament continue to be as deeply divided as ever as a result of that government’s incompetence in managing the self-inflicted Brexit crisis.
Its ineptitude was also on display in Belfast last Friday when the British Secretary of State Karen Bradley, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, met the five main parties at Stormont. According to Bradley it was about recommencing a talk’s process to restore the political institutions. It deservedly got short shrift from Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Simon Coveney did less than well when he acquiesced to that pretence.
It’s just over two years since Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister. In his letter of resignation Martin set out clearly the crisis facing the institutions as a result of the DUP handling of the RHI scandal and its behaviour within the institutions. Martin wrote on January 10th 2017: “The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism, and to the Irish identity and culture; there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry.
Over this period successive British governments have undermined the process of change by refusing to honour agreements, refusing to resolve the issues of the past while imposing austerity and Brexit against the wishes and best interests of people here. Against this backdrop the current scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has emerged.”
This is the yardstick against which Sinn Féin and all of those democrats and progressives who seek to rebuild confidence and restore the institutions, will judge any talks process. The British and Irish governments need to be up to the task of substantially addressing the matters raised by Martin, especially the ongoing denial of rights enjoyed everywhere else on these islands. If they don’t, and if the DUP remains doggedly resistant to making progress on the issue of rights, then a talks process will fail before it begins.
Mary Lou and Michelle didn’t mince their words last Friday. They described Bradley’s intervention as cynical and lacking any credibility. They believe that the Conservative Party’s real agenda is about helping the DUP distract public attention away from DUP intransigence and the RHI scandal as the local government elections loom on the horizon.
The reality is that there is no tolerance – none – among nationalists and republicans for going back into political institutions which function as they did before. That is not acceptable. In the interviews he gave in his office after submitting his resignation letter Martin put it best when he said that there can be no going back to the status quo. He was right. He is right.
If the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party want to be back in the Assembly exercising power and influence over government departments and policy then the price for that is the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and in particular the creation of laws which embrace every citizen on the basis of equality and parity of esteem.
Sinn Féin wants a functioning Assembly. An accountable and transparent Executive. We want local Ministers, accountable to local citizens, taking the decisions that impact on the daily lives of everyone living in this part of Ireland. We want an Assembly which is progressive, respectful, and has integrity. We do not want a sham talk’s process which cannot, will not, and is not designed to deliver progress on the issue of rights and the Good Friday Agreement. There can be, there will be, no return to the status quo.