Alison O’Connor: Varadkar must adapt his approach to discussing a united Ireland 

Given the fragility of the situation in the North at the moment, the Tánaiste's comments on a united Ireland were opportunistic and poorly timed.
Alison O’Connor: Varadkar must adapt his approach to discussing a united Ireland 

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and deputy leader Simon Coveney. Mr Varadkar decided to stir the pot on unification that he himself acknowledges may not happen for many decades.

Throw a little petrol on the fire there why don’t you Leo? Of all the things you might have anticipated the Tánaiste would major on in his ard fheis appearance this week, a rabble-rouser on a united Ireland was not hotly anticipated.

Difficult to put it any more pithily than the new Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie who commented: “Good man, Leo, for bringing up Irish unity again when we are in a crisis.” 

As recently as last weekend at the G7 meeting in Cornwall, US president Joe Biden showed how seriously he is taking this precarious situation by making sure he had a “candid discussion” with British prime minister Boris Johnson concerning the Northern Ireland protocol.

We were also informed that Mr Biden had “encouraged the prime minister to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the progress made under it.” 

There were also a number of meetings over the weekend where Boris Johnson was put under pressure by German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and European Council president Charles Michel over the failure to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Ah, the North. It has seen dark days and frequently looks to be approaching yet another unmerciful mess; the political football of the Boris Johnson government and now an opportunistic approach being taken by Fine Gael. What other spin can be put on the Tánaiste’s intervention at this time when Stormont was once again on the verge of collapse, loyalists are very angry over those post-Brexit arrangements, and the parade season is almost upon us?

'In my lifetime'

Still, Leo felt the time was right to make the North the centrepiece of his speech by saying he believes in the unification of our island and “I believe it can happen in my lifetime”.

Now he didn’t overlook the unionists. No. He said their views had to be “acknowledged, understood, and respected”. But he also insisted “no one group can have a veto on Ireland’s future”. 

Oh, Mr Varadkar, what a soothing balm your words will have been throughout those Loyalist communities where we have seen serious rioting in recent months

The inevitable, more obvious political point-scoring came in the form of the digs at Sinn Féin and their “cold form of republicanism, socialist, narrow nationalism, protectionist, anti-British, euro critical, ourselves alone, 50 per cent plus one and nobody else is needed”.

The Tánaiste has lots more to say on Northern Ireland.
The Tánaiste has lots more to say on Northern Ireland.

The crucial point on timing here is that in saying he believed it would happen in his lifetime. Mr Varadkar, a man in his early 40s, who will hopefully live a long life, decided to stir the pot on something now that he himself acknowledges may not happen for many decades. It would be interesting to know the real thoughts of foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney on this — a man who has devoted serious time and energy trying to improve the situation in the North.

Needless to say, the Tánaiste has lots more to say, words designed to induce warmth, but given their timing, landed rather hollowly. He spoke of a new state designed together, a new constitution. This place would reflect the diversity of a bi-national or multi-national state in which almost a million people are British. 

“Like the New South Africa, a rainbow nation, not just orange and green.” 

A more valuable contribution

There was some much-needed positive news later in the week with a deal being struck between Sinn Féin and the DUP on the controversial Irish Language Act which paved the way for Stormont leaders to be appointed. A little further afield, a far more valuable contribution on the North than Leo’s came from a group of 12 academics based in Ireland, the UK and the US.

The final report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland was published recently by University College London (UCL).

The group does not believe that any referendums are imminent, but that it is important to think through the procedures underpinning potential referendums well in advance.

Their approach is that the agreement provides the framework for decision-making on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. It offers the possibility for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.

“Processes of decision-making on this issue must be neutral, treating unification and the status quo equally and respectfully," stated chairman of the Working Group, and deputy director of the Constitution Unit at UCL, Dr Alan Renwick.

"Progress is best made in Northern Ireland when those belonging to both traditions and to none are included. That should be maintained so far as possible in any process of decision-making on the unification question. But the basic question of sovereignty is decided by simple majority.”

He also said that the future of the United Kingdom is highly uncertain at the moment, with potential implications for the whole island of Ireland. Pressure for an independence referendum in Scotland is strong, and the protocol has created real tensions in Northern Ireland.

"The Working Group is not pushing for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future in any way," he said. "But we are saying that such a vote might be legally required in the not-too-distant future. Everyone involved needs to think through carefully what that process would be like.” 

When is the time to go the polls?

The Good Friday Agreement states that the  Northern Ireland secretary of state may trigger a poll at any time, and must do so if they hold the view 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 exactly how to proceed at that point is not addressed.

What would it all look like? What wording should be used? Should referendums take place in the North and the Republic at the same time, or first in the North? The report really stresses the importance of preparation, and of voters realising well in advance, in a balanced way, what they would be voting on.

Professor Oran Doyle of Trinity College said the report interprets the Good Friday Agreement to identify the legal parameters for any unification process. 

“We conclude that unification would require referendum approval, north and south," he stated. 

"These referendums need not be simultaneous, but must occur close in time, and the voters in each referendum must vote on effectively the same proposals. The threshold for approval in each referendum would be a simple majority of those voting on the day.” 

The lengthy report stays away from the political, and examines the procedural. This is a heavyweight piece of work, with evidence gathered from a wide range of groups and individuals, as well as a large public consultation.

While appreciating that these are academics and that the Tánaiste is a politician, the utter fragility of the situation as it exists right now suggests that a similarity in approach from Mr Varadkar would be very welcome right now.

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