We need to talk about a united Ireland

Issued 6 November 2016

In today’s Sunday Business Post our Party Leader Brendan Howlin has an opinion piece on why we need to talk about a united Ireland. Read his full article below

Four months have now passed since a majority of people in Britain voted to leave the EU and the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain.

That Brexit is taking place, contrary to the wishes of two of the nations of the United Kingdom is possibly of more long-term import than the economic or political implications. In Scotland, the Government is intent on putting the independence question again if they are not satisfied that Brexit can meet Scottish concerns. In Northern Ireland, where the Good Friday Agreement, the guarantor of a hard won peace is undermined by the UK vote, is even more complex and potentially dangerous.

Two weeks ago, Colum Eastwood became the first SDLP leader to address an Ulster Unionist Conference– in itself a welcome sign of political progress.

And, in a thoughtful contribution, he noted that both sides, Unionist and Nationalist needed to revisit their heartfelt positions.

“If the last year has shown us anything, it is that we can’t blindly trust the permanence of the status quo. As a Nationalist party leader I have been honest that we have thus far failed to develop a credible and detailed vision of what a New Ireland can look like.”

To Unionists he put the point that “the United Kingdom, as you know it, as we all know it, is no more. We all need to renew our thinking as to what political shape Britain and Ireland will take in this new century.”

That point is worth underlining. With Nicola Sturgeon looking more determined to achieve her objective of Scottish independence by the day, it seems clear that the status quo within the United Kingdom is under great strain.

Last year, writing about the 1916 commemoration, Joan Burton wrote that partition has not been good for either nationalist or unionist communities. Divorced from the need to accommodate one another, both retreated into their shells. The consequences in Northern Ireland were disastrous. In the Republic, partition facilitated the creation of an inward-looking sectarian state which endured for half a century.

To begin to attract unionists to the table it is surely necessary for the rest of us to also begin to give some indication of what a united Ireland might look like. That means moving beyond the vague ideals of the past and talking in real terms about the costs of an all-island project. Real uncertainties exist regarding funding provided to Northern Ireland. Currently Northern Ireland receives £133m per annum in EU Structural Funds – the future of such funding after 2020 currently lies in real doubt.

Some working on imagining a real future has already begun – the Joint Business Council (comprising IBEC and CBI Northern Ireland) started a project last year to scope the infrastructure needed to enhance connectivity for an island of 10 million people by 2050. But a much deeper conversation will be needed to really grapple with what an island united might look and feel like.

This is a time-honoured question that has faced every nationalist leader since Parnell and the emergence of the ulster unionist bloc. And nationalist thinking on the issue has tended to move at the pace of the slowest adapter to this reality. In the 1980s it was Charles Haughey’s insistence on the unitary state model that dominated, even though such a model was hardly the stuff of real politics.

Sinn Fein, the party that self identifies most on traditional nationalist lines, has done little or no work on the issue. Their manifestos talk about a united Ireland and the need for a green paper, but the party has been slow to put any flesh on the bones. In truth, those who shout loudest about ending partition are often the very same people who are least willing to persuade unionists to bring it about. Any conversation about a united Ireland that does nothing to accommodate a unionist minority is utterly meaningless, in truth.

I continue to believe that the people of Northern Ireland would be better off in an all island arrangement. I am confirmed in my view of this by the Brexit Referendum itself. That being the case we in Ireland have to act as persuaders of this case. Not through sloganeering, but through careful analysis and sound solutions. We in Ireland have a responsibility to our neighbours in the North who are clearly being side-lined in the preparation for Article 50 negotiations. Scotland has already experienced the hollowness of Theresa May’s promise of a Brexit hotline to all devolved governments.

If the ill-conceived call by Sinn Féin proposal for the border poll had been accepted, what position would we have adopted? How would we in the Republic, both culturally and institutionally, recognise the divergent identity of unionists, and particularly their Britishness? How might the British identity of many of those who live in Northern Ireland be reflected in the future governance of the island?

The time is right to look afresh at this issue. Not as a precursor of a short term border poll headcount but as a lasting fulfilment of our shared republican heritage to finally unite all the peoples of this island.

The truth is that we haven’t considered our place as persuaders since the New Ireland Forum in the eighties. The Taoiseach’s all-island dialogue was some beginning earlier this week, but this process requires deeper consideration.

It won’t be easy, it won’t be a quick fix, but it behoves us to try. And the reconvening of a new ‘new Ireland forum’ may well be the best starting point.