A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Northern Ireland’s future might ultimately be decided by the middle ground. 

That’s because, when in a position of strength, political Unionism never thought farther than the next election.

Psychologically, within political Unionism, there has been little effort to prepare for the coming of demographic change.

Even though it’s been obvious for a long time, it seems to have completely blind-sided those who represent 40 per cent of the electorate.

Republicans though have long expected this situation to come about.

That’s always been captured in the catchphrase used for decades. That infamous phrase, ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ reputedly originates in the political struggles of the 1970s, particularly those of the Republican prisoners in Long Kesh.

Essentially that translates as ‘our day will come'. 

Sometimes it’s attributed to Bobby Sands, though James Joyce is said to have used the same line in English, in his fiction. But whoever started it, it’s picked up a fair head of steam since.

At the heart of it, there’s a sense of triumph over suffering.

Maybe a wee bit like when the guy in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ crawls through a tunnel of shit to get out of prison. Or like the lines in ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone'.

They start off with coming through a storm. Then they find “a golden sky, and the sweet silver song of a lark". 

Sadly, unless you’re a Mancunian or an Evertonian, Liverpool haven’t found such a destiny at the end of this season.

History doesn’t work out perfectly as Jurgen Klopp has found out rather painfully, having been top of the league with a mere eight games to go. A lot of supporters maybe thought the title race would rightly have a romantic ending.

But it wasn’t to be, which shows that you can never tell how history’s going to end.

Even at the time of writing, that league title could end up as Manchester City’s or Arsenal’s. Football’s never over until the final ball’s kicked.

Even then the season’s going to start again in August. Last spring’s trophy winners soon get forgotten in the slog through the next hard winter. And it’s the same in politics because no matter what happens in one election, more will follow.

Nothing stands still so even if a united Ireland were to happen, that day’s going to pass and tomorrow’s going to come. But how likely is such a day to come soon?

That’s probably going to be answered by what’s often called the middle ground. Although Sinn Féin’s day has certainly come in terms of being Stormont’s largest party, that’s not because of a huge rise in the ‘unification’ side of the vote.

Effectively, the pro-unity vote has flatlined at around 40-42 per cent, with Sinn Féin’s rise coming about largely because of eating into the SDLP’s traditional base.

So going back to the football comparison, it is a bit like Liverpool being top after 30 games, but without having played Manchester United and Everton.

If Sinn Féin are to secure support for a united Ireland, sooner or later, they are going to have to move into new terrain.

Their next target market is the 20 per cent of people who appear not to be represented by the two main camps as they are now.

These are the people who quite like Northern Ireland as a place and won’t die in a ditch over the constitutional question. They might feel Irish or British or something else in between, but they’re happy enough with the status quo.

Maybe they’d vote for a united Ireland. Maybe they wouldn’t. They might if it put money in their pockets. They probably wouldn’t if it kickstarted trouble again. And if they do vote for a united Ireland, it won’t have anything to do with Bobby Sands.

That’s the reality and the crossroads of sorts that Sinn Féin are at. They have to win hearts and minds of those who aren’t Republican, whilst at the same time staying ‘Republican’ enough to hold onto their traditional base.

Maybe to do that, there will have to be two shifts in Sinn Féin policy as monumental as Michelle O’Neill taking her place as First Minister.

Strangely too, in using either one to pursue Irish Unity, the eventual outcome might well be a strengthening of the status quo. But with the nationalist-unionist-other vote at deadlock, those on the Republican side probably now have no option but to gamble, in the long term.

Firstly, contrary to everything they have historically stood for, Sinn Féin have to make Northern Ireland work, politically, culturally and economically.

Secondly, in a move that would be much less popular with their base, they’re going to have to change the iconography around dead republicans.

Those such as Bobby Sands will be hard to situate in the narrative of whatever emerges in Ireland’s future.

Of course, so long as those of a British identity commemorate their war dead as heroes, including those involved in acts of colonialism, Irish Republicanism feels morally justified in doing the same. Yet, for real progress to be made, Mandela-like gestures are going to be needed.

This idea is not new, having long been voiced in Irish political settings.

Indeed as far back as an Irish Unity Conference held in TUC House, London in January 2010, John McDonnell of the British Labour Party voiced such a sentiment.

In part of his speech to the conference, he referred to the film Invictus which tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with South African rugby.

That film shows how Mandela came out of prison and even with the wounds of apartheid so fresh on all sides, made magnanimous gestures towards his former enemies, such as preserving the identity of the national rugby team at all costs.

In doing so, he established the tone and flavour of a national reconciliation for all.

McDonnell’s point then was that Irish unity requires something of the same. But, until recently, there’s been little sign of a Mandela spirit emerging.

But that’s what it is going to take if the 40-40-20 impasse is ever to get broken.

Those who quite like Northern Ireland need to be coaxed into quite liking a united Ireland. And by that time, those who quite like being British and are undeniably British, might also realise they’ve nothing to lose from such an outcome.