By Gerry Adams (for the Irish Times)
Thirty-eight years ago Seamus Heaney wrote the poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing. It described “The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place”. By the end of the poem all that this reticence had delivered was “the new camp for the internees: A bomb had left a crater of fresh clay”.
Central to the Northern Ireland peace process has been dialogue, which is the indispensable precursor to agreement.
Fifteen years ago the Belfast Agreement was endorsed by the vast majority of people on this island. The agreement delivered new power-sharing institutions, put the principle of equality at the centre of politics and established a political process for peaceful, democratic change.
The agreement provided also for constitutional change. The British government veto on change was replaced by an international agreement to legislate for change if it is the will of the majority of people north and south.
The continuation of partition or the alternative of Irish unity are now in the ownership of the people north and south to be expressed in concurrent referendums.
In recent articles in The Irish Times both Andy Pollack and Glenn Patterson addressed the issue of partition. Both articles looked beyond the Border, one highlighting the process of change and the temporary nature of all institutions, the other seeking greater co-operation and integration. Both found it depressingly necessary to go out of the way to attack Sinn Féin and the notion of a Border poll.
As a republican and a democrat I believe that the logic and benefits of greater north-south co-operation and integration, now accepted by all but a tiny minority, also extend to the political and economic sovereignty of our people.
Greater co-operation and integration makes sense and will benefit all our people. Co-operation is not a threat to any identity and nor is it a route to unity by the back door. It clearly also makes sense for this island to have a single economic unit, managed by a national government accountable to the people.
Unionists disagree, so there is a need for a reasoned discussion on how greater co-operation can deliver for the people north and south: how we can better manage our economy and create jobs and how we deliver effective and efficient public services across the island and along the Border. However, the end point of constitutional change is for the people to determine.
I do not believe that Irish unity is inevitable or solely an outworking of demographic change. Sinn Féin wants to see the maximum level of agreement on the type of new Ireland that could be delivered. This will require work, dialogue and compromise.
The Irish Government needs to take up the leadership on this important issue. Outreach to our unionist neighbours is crucial. So too is the need to implement all outstanding aspects of the Belfast and other agreements and to hold the British government accountable on all these matters.
Sinn Féin has called for a Border poll to be conducted in the next political term. We are not seeking a mere sectarian headcount but an informed, reasoned and respectful dialogue. Sinn Féin is confident as to the benefits of unity and for the first time those who support continued partition will be able to make their case.
Sinn Féin supports and abides by the Belfast Agreement and will respect the outcome of any Border poll.
Since starting this campaign there have been a few dubious polls and the increasingly tired old line that “now is not the time”.
Why not? There is rarely a right time, so while I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge we face to convince a majority of people of the need for change, Sinn Féin is also ready for difficult discussions and the compromises required to deliver an agreed and united Ireland.
The days of conflict are behind us. The days of “whatever you say, say nothing” are gone, replaced by the primacy of dialogue, politics and equality. So let’s have the national discussion on the future. Let us continue the difficult discussions, the process of reaching agreement and peaceful change. Let’s continue with greater co-operation and integration.
As a democrat and a republican I am confident in the ability of our people to engage in an informed and reasoned debate and I believe they should be allowed to express their opinion on the future of this island through a Border poll.