By Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams (for the Guardian)
The single most important issue facing the people of Ireland and Britain is the achievement of Irish unity and the construction of a new relationship between Ireland and Britain based on equality.
Economic crises, however severe, will come and go. Governments will come and go, but for more centuries than any of us care to contemplate Britain’s involvement in Ireland has been the source of conflict; partition, discord and division; and great hurt between the people of these islands.
The peace process has delivered an end to conflict and that is to be welcomed and applauded. But the underlying cause of conflict persists - the British government’s claim of jurisdiction over a part of Ireland. It is this denial of the Irish people’s right to self-determination, freedom and independence that is the core outstanding issue that must be resolved.
Sinn Fein is initiating a conversation this week in Westminster about achieving this. Sinn Fein believes that a national representative democracy in a sovereign reunited Ireland is desirable, viable and achievable in this generation through peaceful and democratic methods.
To succeed in this there are three interlinked challenges facing us. These are: getting the British government to change its policy from one of upholding the union to one of becoming a persuader for Irish unity; getting the Irish government to begin preparations for Irish unity; and engaging with Ulster unionism on the type of Ireland we want to create.
To achieve all of this requires those of us who share these goals to find ways in which we can work together. Is it possible to put in place a formal structured broad front approach to campaign for a united Ireland? Or would it be better to opt for an informal, organic and popular movement based on core principles?
That’s a matter for the dialogue we are beginning. Some progress has already been made. The Good Friday Agreement has put in place all-Ireland political institutions which can be enhanced and developed. It contains a legislative, peaceful and democratic mechanism to set up a new and democratic Ireland. Advancing this means reaching out to others, including those who are unionist, and engaging with them on the type of Ireland we want to create.
We need to address the genuine fears and concerns of unionists in a meaningful way. We must be open to listening to unionism, to look at what they mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts.
It is worth noting that within the British system, unionists make up fewer than 2% of the population; they cannot hope to have any significant say in the direction of their own affairs. As 20% of a new Ireland, unionists will be able to assert their full rights and entitlements and exercise real political power and influence.
So, our vision of this new Ireland must be a shared Ireland, an integrated Ireland, an Ireland in which unionists have equal ownership. The shape and structure of that new Ireland must be a matter of agreement.
At the Unite Ireland conference in early June in New York, Professor Brendan O’Leary, in his contribution to this very debate, suggested that republicans and nationalists and unionists should examine the possibilities of some form of federal arrangement. Others may have different ideas and suggestions. This is one part of the debate we must have.
All of this presents a daunting challenge. But it is a challenge I believe we can rise to and meet. This is not about some pie-in-the-sky naive discussion and aspiration, about an unachievable goal or meaningless political outcome. No. This is about solving one of the great unresolved and contentious issues of Britain’s colonial past. In preparation for this, Sinn Fein has already held discussions with people in Britain from different sectors; trade unionists, academics, Irish community groups and others, including elected representatives in Westminster and the Welsh and Scottish assemblies.
Next February we will hold a major conference here in Britain to move into the next phase. Of course this conversation, this dialogue, with people here in Britain or in the US or elsewhere will not in itself achieve a united Ireland. That is a matter for agreement between the people who live on the island of Ireland. But British policy toward Ireland is key to unlocking the potential for this change to occur. So, we need the active support of people in Britain.
We need to reach out to the widest possible public opinion, to the trade unions, the business sector, the community and voluntary sector, to the political class, as well as with those of other ethnic minorities who have experienced a similar history of colonisation and immigration.
I believe we can be successful. Why? Think back 20 years. Then my voice could not be heard on the British media - censorship ruled courtesy of Margaret Thatcher. For much of that time I was a banned person - unable to travel to London. British policy was locked into a military/security strategy and a policy of criminalisation, and the conflict was dug in and vicious.
Had I been in London asking for support to build a peace process I would have been thought of as at best naive or just daft. Had I predicted cessations, peace talks, an international agreement, a resolution of issues as difficult as policing and arms, I would have been dismissed by the Guardian and others as crazy.
Well, it happened. All of those difficult and some said, unimaginable goals have been achieved. So - Irish reunification is achievable. With the right strategies and a determined commitment to a united Ireland can happen. Join us in that task.