A growing consensus is emerging that all-Ireland forum on Irish unity should be convened as a step towards planning for the reunification of Ireland.
Last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said moderate unionists and nationalists could be spurred to consider a united Ireland if there is a no-deal Brexit. Speaking at the Glenties summer school, he said that the government ‘might initiate’ a forum on Irish unity, but stopped short of saying his government was making preparations for such a development.
A forum on unity was recommended two years ago by a report of the Dublin parliament’s Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, but it failed to gain the interest of Varadkar’s government at the time.
Mr Varadkar has said those unionists uncomfortable with a “nationalistic” Britain might now join forces to support Irish unity and continued membership of the EU. But he claimed it would be “provocative” for the Dublin government to have a green paper [government discussion document] or a forum on Irish unity now.
“We have always been trying to make the point that what we are trying to achieve with Brexit and the withdrawal agreement is the status quo,” he said. “People being able to continue to live their lives and trade as they do now.”
Anything stronger could play into the view that Dublin is exploiting Brexit, he said, before adding: “That obviously could change in the event of a hard Brexit. Those questions will arise whether we like it or not, and we have to be ready for it.”
Responding to the comments, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said that “there is nothing provocative about wanting a United Ireland” and “that the government has a responsibility to lead from the front in delivering Irish unity”.
She added: “There is a momentum building for Irish unity and we need political, institutional and legislative arrangements in place to manage that. That preparation must include the convening of an all-Ireland forum on Irish unity without delay.”
She said the “live prospect” of a crash Brexit meant that it would be irresponsible not to prepare for constitutional change.
“The Taoiseach must make clear that in the event of no-deal Brexit that Irish unity is the solution to averting a hard border on our island,” she said.
She called for a referendum on unity, a border poll within the Six Counties to take place in the event of a crash Brexit, while the SDLP has instead called for a move to joint authority, where the Six Counties would be ruled jointly by Dublin and London.
The structures are not yet in place for a border poll, and a national dialogue was needed to ensure all voices are heard ahead of any such vote, the SDLP’s Claire Hanna argued, because there had been little integration in the North in recent years.
She told the Glenties school: “For all that the two dominant parties have spent the last decade dividing the spoils, little meaningful North-South integration has emerged, precious little use has been made of the North-South bodies so hard fought for in the 1998 negotiations.”
There is a need to argue “positive alternatives” for all sides, including unionists, said Ms Hanna, adding: “The border poll should be the last, and not first, piece of the jigsaw.”
Aontú leader Peadar Toibin claimed that Sinn Féin and SDLP had adopted its own ‘New Ireland Forum’ initiative. He linked it to his party’s agenda of “practical republicanism” for cross-border cooperation. “Irish people north and south should determine what happens in Ireland,” he said.