David McCann: Wallace Thompson New Ireland comments pose challenges for unionism and nationalism

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

Last week a founding member of the DUP, Wallace Thompson, told Sam McBride that some form of New Ireland was now inevitable. His contributions are worth reading in full, not only because of the significance of someone from his background uttering these sentiments but also for the manner in which he delivered them.

The calm and measured way in which he made his argument is something for all of us to take a lesson from. No, I am not asking for everyone to agree with his views, but there is something to be said for holding these views and articulating arguments about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

One of the more depressing aspects of the entire debate was the response from some quarters to it.

Reacting with emotion and soundbites, the criticism sought to look past the key arguments that Thompson was making. Instead of reflecting on the state that unionism finds itself in that such comments felt like they needed to be said, there was just a brushing past of his core arguments. The intervention by Peter Robinson was an honourable exception to this.

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Whether you agree that a New Ireland is inevitable or not misses the point. There is a debate happening around us about the future of this place. Whether you view that within the United Kingdom or a united Ireland, it is important that any of us who have a platform encourage contributions like this. Thoughtful ideas asking honest questions about the future should be encouraged, not shouted down.

Not everyone who wades into the constitutional debate does so with pre-planned ideas or a firm grip on the eventual destination. We need to give breathing space for these important contributions to be put forward and those necessary questions to be asked. The debate about our future belongs to all of us; everyone should be able to play whatever role they want.

Thompson has posed challenges for unionism but also for nationalism. He is up for dialogue and talking about the future. There must be an honest engagement about what unionism will need in any new constitutional arrangement and a demonstration that we will follow through on the many compromises that will be required. A compassionate response to his thoughtful contribution requires no less.

If, as Leo Varadkar says, we are on a pathway to Irish unity, then all of us need to get better at raising the level of contributions to this debate. We need more people like Wallace Thompson on both sides to feel confident enough to step forward and pose these questions to us.

DUP founder Wallace Thompson
DUP founder Wallace Thompson

If anyone on the pro-unification side has doubts, then step forward, ask the questions and don’t stop until you get the answers you’re looking for. This only helps keep those campaigning on their toes and will make the arguments stronger come a referendum on the issue.

The campaign that wins a border poll will be the one that has spent more time challenging themselves to come up with the right answers for the future.

Unionism should be smart and take what Thompson said to reflect on its political position. How has unionism gone from being unassailable in 2016 to the state that it is today? There are many serious and thoughtful activists within the pro-union fold who have plenty of challenges and ideas that could help strengthen their cause. They need more of these people to step forward, make these arguments and then press their leadership for answers.

This debate is not going to go away. Whether people like it or not, it is going to be here right until there is a border poll. We cannot control every aspect of what goes on around us. But we can act to ensure that the debate we have is as open and serious as it can possibly be.

In any campaign, there will be noise, distractions and nonsense that will be hurled by people who have no interest in making this place work regardless of its constitutional status. That does not have to dominate what should be an important debate.

We are fortunate to have serious people on both sides of the constitutional divide in this country, let’s hope more of them can step forward in the months ahead.