Brexit has pushed the potential of Irish unity back on to the agenda, but TP O’Mahony says we need to pause and think through what kind of country we wish to share with all other people on this island.
The riot in Glasgow following an Irish unity march at the end of August may be a portent of things to come if there are any hasty, ill-thought-out and ill-prepared moves to hold a border poll on this island.
Rushing to hold a poll based on lazy and purely hypothetical assumptions about the desire for Irish unity could have very unpleasant unintended consequences.
It may be that there is something inexorable about the movement towards a United Ireland, and that the realisation of this political objective is only a matter of time. The extremely complex and messy Brexit process has certainly helped to bring it nearer centre-stage again.
Various voices have been saying of late that we should be preparing for it in tandem with a no-deal Brexit. For Sinn Féin, Irish reunification is a core principle.
All of that said, we shouldn’t take anything for granted. And a process of consultation — on the widest possible basis — is a vital prerequisite.
A premature poll, in the wrong circumstances, could have disastrous repercussions. An accelerated border poll could have potentially destabilising consequences. The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 must be the bedrock of any such consultation, which would be central to a structured approach.
The Agreement provides that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may make an order for the holding of a Border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.
But the Agreement does not specify any mechanism for ascertaining, gauging, measuring, or establishing the voting intentions of the citizens. The key phrase is “if at any time it appears likely to him” that a majority would favour a united Ireland, then a poll may be held.
Would demographics be enough? Would the mere fact that a census showed that nationalists outnumber unionists suffice? Would a vox pop in a newspaper serve the purpose? It would certainly be very rash and premature (as well as irresponsible) to assume that all Catholics in the North are in favour of Irish unity.
And what, then, of opinion in the Republic? The Agreement recognises “that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right to self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.
To talk of a desire for Irish unity is one thing — but what form would that unity take? What would a “new Ireland” look like? What would be its constitutional make-up? Would we really be talking about a “new” Ireland or just a bigger Republic as we now know it, a larger, extended version of what we’ve got? A “greening” of the entire island — is that what we want?
In a speech in early August, Leo Varadkar said that people calling for a united Ireland must realise it would involve a “different state” with a “new constitution”.
Speaking to an audience in Belfast, he also emphasised that now was not the time to push for a border poll, after the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, had told the same audience that a no-deal Brexit must lead to a poll on Irish unity. They were both speaking during the West Belfast Féile an Phobail leaders’ debate.
Mr Varadkar said in the context of Brexit and in the absence of power-sharing at Stormont, a border poll would be divisive and could be defeated. It should be realised that — were a united Ireland to happen, and considering matters such as the status of Irish as being the first official language — a “new constitution” would be required.
He also referred to the reunification of Germany, where West Germany absorbed East Germany (leading to a situation where, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many East Germans see themselves as second-class citizens), as a model Ireland should not follow if and when the time comes.
The Taoiseach also expressed concern about what might happen if a poll in favour of unity was carried by a narrow margin.
“I think it would result in some of the mistakes made one hundred years ago at the time of partition being repeated, just the other way around, with unionists being brought into a united Ireland against their will.”
This has echoes of a warning first voiced in the 1970s by Conor Cruise O’Brien. We should fear, he said, a “reverse scenario” — one where a disgruntled unionist minority would resort to violence if they were being forced into a united Ireland against their will.
In his recently published memoir, A Shared Home Place, Seamus Mallon, the widely-respected former deputy leader of the SDLP, devotes considerable space to the concept of “parallel consent”.
In essence, he says, it is a simple concept. “Its aim would be to reassure unionists that Irish unity would not come about by a 50% plus one (or a similarly narrow majority) in the North.
Nor would it come about by a narrow majority in the North backed by a majority in the Republic in simultaneous referendums (there is no explicit mention of a unity referendum in the South in the 1998 Agreement, but it is clearly required by the clause recognising the Irish people’s ‘right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish’).
“It would also require a majority — or at least 40% support — within the unionist community ... Nobody could seriously argue with Irish unity if 40% to 50% of unionists were supporting it. This would truly be an ‘agreed Ireland’, as outlined by John Hume as the preferred goal of constitutional nationalists as long ago as the 1960s.
“This Parallel Consent mechanism may be cumbersome in its working, but it should be seriously considered as a realistic alternative to a bare majority vote in a deeply-divided society like Northern Ireland.”
There is a separate but related strand to all of this. It is represented by those who intermittently question whether, or to what extent, we ever had a “true” republic in this country; that is to say, a republic-in-existence, as distinct from “declarations” of a republic.
The most famous of these declarations, of course, is the 1916 Proclamation. Much of the socialist (some would even say “Marxist”) spirit of this was reflected in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, proclaimed at the inaugural meeting in the Mansion House in Dublin on January 21 1919.
But even a modified version of this was sidelined afterwards and quickly forgotten. The members of the First Dáil were, for the most part, socially conservative.
And as Professor Patrick Lynch emphasised, “with few exceptions, the members of the First Dáil were primarily concerned with achieving the national independence of a formerly dependent colony”. Ushering in a social revolution was not part of their agenda.
The word “republic” doesn’t appear at all in Bunreacht na hÉireann, the 1937 Constitution that was very much Éamon de Valera’s creation. As for John A Costello’s 1948 Republic of Ireland Act, that was as much a piece of political theatrics as anything else.
It consists of just 96 words, and merely declares that “the description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland”. It has nothing whatsoever to say about what the essential elements or components of a Republic should be.
If — or when — the reunification of Ireland is close at hand, then the preparations for it, involving new socio-legal and socio-political architecture, might lead to a new debate about what sort of new society the people, North and South, would support.
In a recent column in the Irish Times under the heading, ‘Mutual respect a key ingredient for a united Ireland’, Hugo MacNeill, the former Irish rugby international and now chairman of the British-Irish Association, raised some pertinent issues.
He wanted to know what element of Britishness would be incorporated into a united Ireland.
He then cites the familiar complaints at the start of every rugby season over Ireland’s Call as an anthem for the Ireland team as opposed to Amhrán na bhFiann.
“That misses the essential point that the Irish rugby team is not that of the Republic but that of the entire island, with all its diversity and richness. For those who have a problem with Ireland’s Call, wait until we get to the real issues.”
He is right when he says that those who promote a united Ireland expect the unionists to give up so much — but what would we in the Republic be willing to give up? The national anthem? The Tricolour? We are certainly looking at a new constitution, as the Taoiseach has already indicated. Are we going to be talking about a “new” Ireland, or just a bigger version of what we already have in the Republic?
In any planning for a Border poll timing will be crucial. And nor should we blandly assume that all Catholics in the North are nationalists, eager for a united Ireland.
Speaking in Derry in mid-August at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside, Bernadette McAliskey dismissed any such notion. “Who in their right mind in a Border poll would vote to join the Free State. Who in their right mind would join the existing Free State? Nobody. Well, not me anyway.”
One of the themes explored at the MacGill Summer School in 2010 was the possibility of “building a Republic that reflects the ideas and ambitions of its founders”.
Ms McAliskey is not alone in believing that the Republic envisaged by Connolly and Pearse never got beyond a noble and idealistic vision, an unrealised dream. But even if the prospect of the reunification of the island opens up new possibilities, are we ever going to have a clean slate to work on?
We cannot unmake the past, though we do not have to be imprisoned by it.
By Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin leader
A United Ireland is in all of our interests, agues Mary Lou McDonald
As we approach the 100th anniversary of partition, it is timely to consider the future of Ireland and how that future is to be shaped in the coming period.
The underlying lesson from history is that partition has not served any section of our society well. To this day it prevents our island from reaching its full potential.
Over the past three years, Brexit and its profound consequences for Ireland — north and south — has brought a new dynamic to the discussion surrounding Irish unity and has starkly exposed the failure and undemocratic nature of partition.
As long as Britain’s border is maintained, part of our island will always be exposed to, and uniquely affected by, the actions and whims of the English political elite. Those actions have never taken account of the interests of the Irish people, including the unionist community.
The conversation on unity has already started and regardless of Brexit, Irish unity stands on its own merits. It stands as a positive, progressive national aspiration. An aspiration that not only chimes with the complexity of our history but one which also speaks to the needs of our future.
We live in changing times. Political unionism has lost its electoral majority. People from different sections of society in the north, including those of a British identity, are seriously questioning how and where their interests are best served; as part of the United Kingdom or in a united Ireland.
The proposition of unity stands as a modern solution to a modern problem. It is my unwavering view that Irish unity is in everyone’s interests and would reap significant economic benefits; unleashing the economic potential of the all-island economy.
Two recent reports by Professor Kurt Hubner of Vancouver University support this view and concluded Irish unity would result in a sizeable boost in economic outcomes across the island, concluding that Irish unification could benefit the north by almost €18bn and the south by €5bn to €6bn.
There are also significant social, political and cultural benefits to be enjoyed as we reconcile our differences and embrace our diversity.
Irish unity is not about bolting the north to the south. We need a new Ireland that builds reconciliation between Orange and Green. We need a society that is democratic and inclusive, and based on equality, freedom and social solidarity.
Planning for unity means the Government shifting from an attitude of acquiescing to the union with Britain to one of becoming a persuader for Irish unity and engaging with unionism on the type of Ireland we want to create. Unionism and what is important to unionists has never mattered much to the English political class, something which has become patently clear in recent times in the circus of Westminster.
Preparation for unity must begin now. An All-Ireland Forum on Irish unity must be convened without delay; to map out making the transition to a United Ireland a success for all the people who share this island, for our economy and for our public services.
The Good Friday Agreement, which is now over 20 years old, provides us with a peaceful and democratic pathway to Irish unity through referendums to be held, north and south, and it is time for those provisions to be put to the test.
In a series of polls, a majority in the north have indicated that they may now vote for a united Ireland, with polls indicating a similar sentiment in the south. Partition has run out of road.
Partition is a harness, a barren rock on which our potential has perished time and time again.
Irish unity has the power to unbridle the future, allowing opportunity to burst forward. It is good for society and good for the economy.
It is time to grasp the opportunity and to press ahead to end a century of division and partition. It is time for unity.
Ian Marshall, Senator
Anyone familiar with Northern Ireland will understand the sensitivities of language,flags, emblems and colours even though its21 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Although much has changed and all have enjoyed a long period of relative peace and stability some of the more contentious issues around culture and identity, human rights concerns and the constitution still thwart society’s ability to deal with issues and move on, and the capability to condemn the horrors of nearly 30 years of violence to the past.
Understanding the Irish unity question north of the border begins with understanding the people of Northern Ireland and it’s not just as simple or as binary as one might think.
The old orange and green lines although still evident are now blurred by a large cohort of people, many of whom are the younger members of society, motivated by education, careers and ambition are less and less interested in being defined by religion of politics, and less likely to see themselves as any particular group or party.
Rather, they have a desire to listen to arguments and be convinced of the merits of either argument and take a position on what’s better for themselves.
Whether a future is best served as part of a new Ireland or as part of an island separated by the old divisions and borders of the past reinvigorated with new thinking. Many still need to be convinced that change would have benefits.
If we have learnt anything from our past it was that partition on the island of Ireland never delivered the outcomes as intended at its inception.
Furthermore, for those who believe that partition was a huge mistake and that the forced separation of land and people was a fundamentally flawed idea then logic would follow that the forced unification of land and people against their will would be equally misguided and wrong.
Indeed, a united Ireland can only work when all the people on the island subscribe to the idea that it’s the right thing to do and that the timing is right.
However, the absence of any templates about what this entity would or could look like certainly won’t endear the concept to many across the island.
The lack of any modelling or studies to establish impact and outcomes, or the failure by those protagonists to consider the pros and cons of any such venture will result in a nervousness by the electorate to consider radical changes worthy or worthwhile.
Many in Northern Ireland will feel that ideology and aspirations are fine but only become meaningful and tangible when citizens know the implications of any divergence from the status quo and how it would impact their lives financially, how education and health services would be affected and in simple terms, would they be richer or poorer, better or worse off in such a scenario.
Ultimately, the immediate goal should be to have a ‘united people’ across both jurisdictions; an all-island ecology and economy where north and south complement each other, where seamless frictionless trade exists north and south, east and west, both on the island and between the two islands of Britain and Ireland.
This unity of people has the advantage of reducing tensions and differences and makes any changes or amendments to borders less threatening to anyone’s culture or identity in the truly multicultural society we witness evolving in Ireland irrespective of geography north or south.
The Irish unity conversation has been re-energised especially as a consequence of Brexit but shouldn’t be conflated or confused with the conversation about whether the UK decides to leave the EU.
Although Brexit and Irish unity are not mutually exclusive they must be considered as separate topics and one should not define the other.
As some have stated ‘the train on Irish unity has left the station’, however, this train will only remain on the tracks if the destination remains undefined and if the option remains to decide the endpoint as we learn more on the journey.
The union (GB and NI) or unity (NI and RoI) must both be choices until such time as informed decisions can be made, until such time as consideration can be given to all the advantages and disadvantages of either.
Why would any unionist board such a train if the destination was only unity, undoubtedly and understandably they would endeavour to build more track or derail this train!
Any Irish unity conversation must explore the benefits and merits of maintaining and building on the current set of circumstances within the union while comparing and contrasting the alternatives, giving all parties and perspectives a mechanism to present evidence and supporting arguments for their individual positions.
At the end of the day, the human mind has been described as being like a parachute; working best when it’s open, and for this reason this discussion can only be facilitated by strong leadership and open minds.
Leaders comfortable in their identity and open to alternative thinking, receptive to considering ideas not normally within their comfort zone based on the merits and values of any such proposals, devoid of any prejudice or preconceptions or previous thinking.
Good shepherds (not a religious reference!) don’t lead from the front but always direct their flocks from behind by identifying the leaders in the flock and letting them guide the rest. We will need a few good shepherds!
The issue is not so much that a united Ireland is problematic rather that you make it problematic if it’s not properly dealt with.
All opinions and views must be considered, all impacts and outcomes need to be understood, and the biggest enemy could be impatience.
Furthermore, as part of an ever-changing, fast-moving world Ireland must consider if unity serves it best or if a better alternative is to build and grow an all-island economy with people and services working together for the greater good. Open minds will be essential.
Ideology is perfectly admirable but all must recognise that unity remains an ideal until such time as it can be demonstrated that it won’t be problematic and that it presents opportunities for all, with no one left behind or disadvantaged.
All options are dependent upon Northern Ireland being a peaceful harmonious place where businesses thrive, jobs are created, wealth is generated, where people want to live and ‘everyone can call home’.