LAST week, legendary Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole proposed a radical response to the Brexit dilemma for Northern Ireland, the Republic, and for Britain.

Possibly the most authoritative voice on the whole Brexit crisis these past few years, O’Toole has been the absolute go-to for in-depth analysis on the current paralysis and fast-approaching cliff-edge that is No Deal and the chaos it threatens for the whole of Ireland.

Now he’s turned his mind from analysis to solution, from commentator to political agitator. O’Toole has proposed a pact among all the anti-Brexit parties in the North with a radical twist. He suggests a temporary arrangement where the seven Sinn Fein MPs, who currently abstain from taking their seats at Westminster, stand down to force a series of by-elections.

Under the O’Toole initiative their places would be taken by alternative candidates, for instance, former President, Mary McAleese, actor, Adrian Dunbar, and Ian Marshall, the former Ulster Farmers Union President (with agreement from Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and the Greens). These potential MPs are just suggestions by O’Toole but have been chosen from a wide cultural arena and are free of alignments to party politics so would fit the bill in terms of representing Northern Ireland as a whole.

If these candidates were successful, they could take their seats at Westminster and vote on purely Brexit related matters until Brexit is either accomplished or revoked. After this, they would not seek re-election and their seats presumably revert to Sinn Fein.

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This creative proposal is designed to respect Sinn Féin’s cardinal commitment to abstentionism but use their seven seats to change the course of the current parliamentary impasse, indeed to potentially change the course of Irish (and British) history.

Now, how is that for lateral thinking? The ball was hit well and truly into Sinn Fein’s court. But would they run with the idea? No it was rejected with the ink barely dry on O’Toole’s email. Why? Because to even break by proxy with abstentionism would be a massive step for Sinn Fein to take, cutting into the very core of their political being.

It should be added that are also some practical difficulties with the idea. Boris Johnson’s Svengali, Dominic Cummings, is crowing that it is already too late for Parliamentary action to halt Brexit in its parliamentary tracks. He is wrong. There are still a range of parliamentary initiatives which could place a spoke in the Brexit wheel.

The National: Dominic CummingsDominic Cummings

However, what is certain is that if something is to be done it will have to be done immediately when Westminster returns on September 4 – before any putative Northern Irish by-elections could alter the parliamentary arithmetic.

That is not to say such an initiative would lack political impact. On the contrary. It would present the most fundamental political challenge to Brexit. Johnson and his little helpers in the DUP would be faced with one of the greatest democratic demonstrations in history, seven simultaneous by-elections allowing Northern Ireland to bellow once again “Never, Never, Never” , but this time against hard-line Brexit.

There is another argument of course against the O’Toole innovation. And this is one which is at times unspoken. A century ago in the bloody quagmire of world war it found bold expression in the nationalist dictum “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”.

In other words, some would argue that nationalists in Ireland should be quite happy to see the UK destroy itself over Brexit. At this rate, a united Ireland could be just around the corner, pushed together by British nostalgia and myth and ironically helped along by the DUP with their unionist blindfolds in place. You could argue the same for Scotland; surely PM Johnson steering us at full speed towards the hard edge of the Brexit iceberg is the best way to gain increased support for independence?

That has not been the approach of the Scottish Government. Throughout the Brexit debacle, they have consistently argued for a softer exit to protect not just Scotland but England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. And the SNP have been part of a cross-party action which has thrown the UK a lifeline with the option to revoke Article 50 and reset the whole sorry Brexit affair. Quite a different approach from the divided politics of Northern Ireland, with Scotland reasserting its civic nationalist credentials.

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That’s all very well and very noble. However, while I applaud this kind of nationalism, we are no further on in Scotland in terms of the independence cause or saving ourselves from crashing out of Europe. We are in a holding pen for Brexit, powerless as we watch and wait for the latest madness spewing forth from Westminster, while Prime Minister Johnson like Prime Minister May seeks to deny us the means of self-determination. So how do we get out of this Tory trap? Where are the big lateral and status quo busting ideas for Scotland like O’Toole’s for Ireland?

Of course Lord Ashcroft’s poll this week shows that support for independence is increasing. No surprise Sherlock. It is great to read this in black and white and it will be interesting to see the polling direction as we get closer to October 31st. But polls do not change politics -leadership does that.

The Ashcroft poll also shows that Scottish support for remaining in the EU is on the rise, from 62% to 67%, where a majority of Scots would choose staying in the EU overstaying in the UK. In addition, 40% of Labour voters now support independence, as do 20% of No voters from 2014.

One thing is clear. No matter what you think of O’Toole’s suggestion for Ireland, he’s right about the positive potential of cross-party allegiances and he’s certainly correct on the power of political parties putting their shibboleths aside for the greater good. But it’s going to need some big personalities with even bigger ideas and the courage of conviction to cause a seismic shift in Scotland.

In an increasingly disunited Kingdom where old habits die hard, time is fast running out.