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9 March 2015

Radical thinking is needed to secure future of Union

Pat Doherty, the Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone

The UK is sleep-walking into a constitutional crisis, says Lord Salisbury, who - as his many friends in Northern Ireland know - is as shrewd a political strategist as he is a fervent unionist.

Before I spell out his preferred solution, let's look at what Pat Doherty, the Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone and the low-profile member of the triumvirate who have run Provisional Ireland republicanism for more than 30 years, said last week.

Doherty is a Glaswegian who settled in Ireland in 1968 and became a true believer. At 69, he's slightly older than Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, but though he rarely appears in the media, he is just as important.

I first met him more than a decade ago at a St Patrick's Day party in the House of Lords, where we shook hands and I said politely how nice it was to have the IRA army council represented, and asked how his brother Hugh - a member of the Balcombe Street Gang of mass-murderers in the early-1970s - had been getting on since he was released under the Good Friday Agreement.

Hugh had become an artist, said Doherty, equally politely, and then mentioned that he knew I'd been in Donegal (his fiefdom) the previous summer. I was very chuffed that such an important man was so interested in the movements of a humble hack.

Last week, Doherty gave a rare interview, telling the Ulster Herald newspaper that Sinn Fein would be pressing for a referendum along Scottish lines. "Even a failed border poll would leave the Union on life support," he said.

He insisted that Sinn Fein MPs would not be taking their seats, but that, nonetheless, they were very influential at Westminster.

"We are over there, we meet with MPs, we meet ministers ... through the peace process, we have been able to get into the highest levels of the British Establishment.

"We do meet with the Tories, we do meet with Labour and their shadow ministers and we do meet with the Liberal Democrats."

He's not exaggerating. Doherty has been Sinn Fein's top lobbyist in London for years and has done a fine job, especially in trade union, Labour and further-Left circles.

The purpose of his interview, of course, was to put the frighteners on unionists and provoke further negative reactions guaranteed to annoy Westminster.

Isn't it time that unionist politicians ditched the habits of a lifetime and became positive?

There's a real possibility that the DUP could have a crucial role in choosing the next prime minister. Wouldn't it be reassuring to know they had a bigger idea in mind that holding out the begging-bowl?

Salisbury says bluntly that, although the United Kingdom is doing well in many ways, it is suffering from a crisis of government caused by worn-out institutions that no longer command the automatic loyalty of the majority. Scotland could easily be lost and, like the Romans, the British as a nation could disappear.

Only a radical approach to constitutional and administrative reform can save the Union now, he thinks. If the Conservatives win, the English backlash against Scots voting on non-Scottish matters will not go away. If Labour forms a government depending on Scottish votes, there will be a crisis.

The Salisbury proposal is for the winner to form a caretaker government, establish a constitutional convention, hold a nationwide debate, formulate proposals and supervise a referendum to approve what is agreed.

What he recommends is radical: the replacement of the House of Lords by a directly-elected federal parliament, raising taxation to deal with such non-devolved issues as defence, foreign affairs, security and immigration.

England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would all have parliaments with the same devolved powers, and all four would have committees in their capitals formed by their federal MPs with the revising power of the present Lords.

Although Tories believe only in "necessary evolutionary change", says Salisbury, "once in several centuries, the true Tory must accept that the nation demands more radical solutions if it is to survive. This is one of those times".

Enemies of the Union are gathering their forces for the final push. Will Northern Ireland's unionists have the courage to fight them under a radical banner?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards