It’s now more than 21 years since the people of Northern Ireland voted, by an overwhelming majority, to endorse the Belfast Agreement.
Not every unionist backed it then and I am not interested in re-running the arguments from those days – but I am sure that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, whether unionist, nationalist or neither, would agree they now live in a better place.
That better future came at a heavy price. For many families, the Troubles have left a legacy of grief that no social or economic progress can ever fill. Those with relatives and friends in the security forces, in particular, know how hard that road was; the senseless murder of young journalist Lyra McKee was a bitter reminder that there still people out there committed to killing the innocent.
The gains that have been won need to be protected. The political vacuum caused by the suspension of the Assembly has created space into which dark forces are seeking to enter and the chaos and confusion caused by Brexit threatens to make that worse.
The expected election of Boris Johnson as prime minister, committed to pushing through a Brexit deal regardless of cost and certainly in defiance of the views of the majority of Northern Ireland’s electors, is just such a threat. Johnson either doesn’t know much or couldn’t care less about the complications of the Irish border. As foreign secretary, despite it being at the very centre of the whole Brexit morass, he ludicrously compared the international frontier to the boundary between two London boroughs.
In another man, this might have been taken for naive ignorance, but in Johnson’s case it was a deliberately provocative cocking of the snook. He doesn’t care about Northern Ireland and he doesn’t care that you know he doesn’t care.
For unionists, especially the DUP, who have painted themselves into the hard Brexit corner, Johnson’s imminent ascent to the top of the political pile must be a moment of urgent reconsideration. The foundational principle of the Belfast and St Andrew’s Agreements on which peace and progress rest was and is the need for consent to anything that alters Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as fully part of the UK. Could anyone seriously think Johnson will respect that? That he wouldn’t be averse to throwing unionism under a passing Ulsterbus if it helped him or his career?
Of course, he wouldn’t contemplate actually forcing Northern Ireland into a 32-county state against the will of the people – because in law a referendum would be required to trigger unification of the island of Ireland. But he could quite easily abandon Theresa May’s commitment to keep Northern Ireland in the same economic space as the rest of the UK. If he were to agree to a Northern Ireland only backstop he could escape from what so many Tories regard as a nightmare of "Brino" - Brexit In Name Only – for Great Britain at the price of an economic and regulatory border on the Irish Sea.
That way he would open the road to what he really wants: a Canada-style free trade with the EU that would ensure tariff-free goods trade, along with the freedom to cut other trade deals across the world as he saw fit, not least with Donald Trump. He could even justify the letdown of erstwhile friends in the DUP by claiming that the magic technology that would render a hard border on the island of Ireland as unnecessary was really just around the corner when, even it was, common regulations both sides are needed to keep the border open and invisible as everyone has become accustomed to.
I doubt, though, that many unionists would be mollified. They might feel – and they’d be within their rights to do so – that once the principle of change without consent had been abandoned for this, even if supposedly temporarily, then it was abandoned for all time. That is why unionists should use the window of the next few weeks to reconsider their position. The facts are changing, and they can change their minds and join those of us supporting a People’s Vote on whatever form of Brexit is eventually proposed.
The DUP has already made it clear it won’t support a destructive no-deal Brexit and no-one is asking them to tear up their long-help view that the UK should leave the EU. Rather we are asking them to join us in saying that Boris Johnson must not be allowed to use his election by Conservative Party members – no more than a handful of whom live in Northern Ireland – to claim he has a mandate to trash the peace process and weaken Northern Ireland’s place in the UK without consent.
A People’s Vote on Brexit is now the only way forward, and it is in as much the interests of Northern Ireland’s unionists as any other citizens of the UK.
Peter Hain was Labour MP for Neath from 1991 to 2015. He now sits in the House of Lords