How are nationalists going to get unionist consent for unity if they don’t actively work for reconciliation with that community?

I wouldn’t have said this seven years ago, when he first became Taoiseach, but I am sorry to see Leo Varadkar stepping down from that post. I do not agree with many of his right-of-centre policies on economic and social issues. But this straight half-Czech Irishman liked having a leader who was a gay half-Indian Irishman, a symbol of the new openness and multiculturalism of the country.

More importantly, as someone from a Northern Protestant background who would one day like to see a peaceful, harmonious and united Ireland, I believe Varadkar has played a progressive role when it came to the thorny issues associated with my home place and its difficult unionist inhabitants. I remember his reconciling gestures: attending ceremonies to remember the 1987 Enniskillen atrocity by the IRA, walking alongside the unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast at First World War commemorations and visiting the headquarters of the Orange Order. He was rightly steely in his fierce opposition to a post-Brexit hard Border which would have damaged the interests of Ireland, North as well as South (although he won few unionist friends for this stand, and for the resultant trade border down the Irish Sea).

I particularly remember a speech he gave to the big rally by the pro-unity campaigning group Ireland’s Future in Dublin’s 3 arena in October 2022.While saying he believed in a united Ireland, Varadkar suggested that the existing structures of the Good Friday Agreement – internal power-sharing, North-South bodies and East-West cooperation – should be strengthened and deepened after reunification.

He said some other eminently sensible things. “There is a distinct danger that we could focus too much on a Border poll and on future constitutional models, and not enough on how we enhance engagement, build trust and create the conditions for a convincing majority for change.” (He was booed by a section of the nearly 5,000 strong audience, many of them Northern nationalists, when he said this).

“So we need to engage with unionists and that growing group who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, and indeed those who identify as both. We also need to acknowledge the right of Northern nationalists to have equal recognition in the debate.

“We can’t build our future based on narrow majorities or on the wishes of just one community. For these reasons, I believe the objective should be to secure as large a majority as possible in both jurisdictions in any future poll. 50% plus one may be enough on paper, but won’t be a success in practice. Our only hope depends on presenting a proposal – North and South – that will be able to achieve democratic consent. This will involve compromise.

“It involves accepting a form of unification that is more inclusive and imaginative, one that can achieve the greatest measure of democratic support, and therefore legitimacy, and have the greatest chance of success. We need something that can evolve and deepen in time. And we need to remember that the next step doesn’t have to be the final word.”1

After that rally I said to Neale Richmond, then a backbench TD from a Church of Ireland background, now likely to become a minister in new Fine Gael leader Simon Harris’s cabinet, that Varadkar was “my kind of moderate nationalist”. I remain convinced that his balanced, humane approach to the North and to the slow and careful steps that will be necessary if the ‘new Ireland’ is to be more harmonious than the old divided island is the correct one, rather than the ‘bring it on’ approach to a Border poll adopted by the militarists and ideologues of Sinn Féin and the passionate nationalists of Ireland’s Future.

I was reminded of this when I read the latest Ireland’s Future report – Proposals for the period between 2024 and 20302 – the latter year being when the group wants to see a Border poll being held. I was forcibly struck in particular by the following paragraph in this paper: “There is no requirement to achieve ‘reconciliation’ (however this concept is defined) in advance of a referendum being held, and our view is that any such objective will only follow the transition to a new constitutional arrangement on our shared island. Reunification is a reconciliation project.”

That is an extraordinary dismissal of the need for reconciliation in such a deeply divided society as Northern Ireland. How on earth are nationalists going to get unionist consent for unity one day if they don’t actively work for reconciliation with that community? I don’t believe reunification in the short term (after a narrow vote for it in a Border poll) will be ‘a reconciliation project’. I believe it will be ‘a victory for nationalism project’, and will be seen as such by the great majority of unionists. Unfortunately, I also fear it will be seen by many Northern nationalists as a ‘boot’s on the other foot now’ project, a triumphant turning of the tables after more a century of discrimination against and repression of their community by the unionists.

Any move to a united Ireland, according to the Good Friday Agreement, is explicitly conditional on the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. But reconciliation in that agreement has no conditions set on it: “We firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all…We will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements”, the two governments and the North’s political parties pledged in 1998.

Ireland’s Future also engages in hypocritical doublethink when it comes to the roles of the British and Irish governments in the run-up to any Border poll. It demands that limitations are placed on the British government to ensure its “rigorous impartiality.” However it calls on the Irish government unilaterally to set up an all-Ireland Citizens Assembly or similar body (thus intruding into another state’s jurisdiction) “to assist in the promotion of inclusive deliberation before, during and after constitutional change.” It stresses that “the template used for Citizens Assemblies in Ireland will need to be adjusted to achieve our basic objectives.” How can one run an exercise in deliberative democracy like a Citizens Assembly (which would normally produce a range of recommendations) when the aim is to have one outcome only – a united Ireland?

As Newton Emerson wrote in the Irish Times, the people who will have the casting vote on the timing and outcome of a Border Poll will be the middle ground voters who support the Alliance party. “They are unlikely to be impressed by the belligerence of Monday’s report from the Ireland’s Future campaign, with its downplaying of reconciliation and disturbingly post-Agreement demand for a Border poll compelled by international pressure.”3

This last comment refers to the following paragraph in the Ireland’s Future report: “In our view, the British government is unlikely to enable a Border poll without a formal request from the Irish government, reinforced by widespread international support. The Irish government must therefore mobilise its international partnerships and networks – within all relevant international and supranational forums – to secure cooperation and support for its desired outcome.”

Ireland’s Future then goes on to recommend a “binding Declaration” to be adopted by the two governments “in the context of wider consultations with relevant international/supranational organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe and the EU in line with new [Irish] Programme for Government commitments [i.e. on moving towards an early Border Poll]…each government should then commence preparations for the required referendums.” This sounds to me suspiciously like a whole new British-Irish agreement to supersede and negate the ultra-careful checks and balances of the Good Friday Agreement.

Emerson said that Tánaiste Micheál Martin’s speech to Alliance’s annual conference a few days earlier, with its emphasis on the need for Stormont reform and on his pragmatic Shared Island initiative, made more sense than this contentious and misleading proposal. Martin was specific about the reforms needed: ending the ability of the DUP and Sinn Féin to collapse the NI Executive and block Executive decisions; a reset of the NI Assembly’s petition of concern veto mechanism; the replacement of cross-community voting with weighted majority voting; reversal of the St Andrews Agreement changes on appointing the First and Deputy First Ministers, and renaming both posts Joint First Ministers because that is “what they are.”

I might also suggest to Ireland’s Future that there are some very clear defining markers of progress towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland. One is a power-sharing government lasting its full five years in office, agreeing a programme for government and successfully carrying out a significant part of it in areas of real substance: notably tackling sectarianism and inequality and laying some foundations for a flourishing economy. Another would be some dismantling of the nearly 100 so-called ‘peace walls’ still dividing poor Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast and elsewhere.

1 ‘Is Ireland’s Future effectively a front for Sinn Fein? Or is that the wrong question?’ http://www.2irelands2gether.com, 10 October 2022

2 Published on 4 March 2024

3 ‘Martin shrewd enough to play Shared Island unification game’, 7 March

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