A debate about the details of a united Ireland has begun after the 26-County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that a new Ireland must be a “different state” with a new constitution.
Speaking during the West Belfast Féile an Phobail leaders’ debate, Mr Varadkar also said now was not the time to push for a border poll, a vote within the Six Counties on a united Ireland. Fellow participant Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that a vote on Irish unity for the North must follow a no-deal Brexit.
However, Mr Varadkar said in the context of Brexit and in the absence of powersharing in the north of Ireland, a border poll would be divisive and could be defeated. He said it should be realised that were a united Ireland to happen, it would involve Ireland being a “different state” and it would require a “new constitution”.
Some solutions that have already been discussed include federal models as well as full integration.
Various issues have been identified as being matters for resolution in the case of unity. Apart from constitutional questions, there are practical concerns such as health care -- the North is covered by Britain’s underfunded National Health Service, which is free at the point of delivery, while the 26 Counties provides only means-tested healthcare and is being slowly privatised.
Other issues range from significant questions such as tax and social welfare rates, to more mundane problems such as the format of car registration numbers.
However, there was disappointment at Mr Vardakar’s failure to follow through this week on the logic of his statement of a need for a new republic. Nationalist commentator Chris Donnelly said it was his responsibility “as the most powerful political figure in the land” to signal that now is the time to begin the serious work of planning at government level for the constitutional changes he mentioned.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said ahead of a unity referendum it was essential for nationalists across the island to “set out a comprehensive plan for what it actually looks like”.
“We need to learn the lessons of the Scottish independence campaign and set out detailed proposals for what public services, energy, currency and all the other things that matter to people will look like in a new and united Ireland,” he said.
A border poll could soon be held as a result of ongoing disputes over Brexit, according to the deputy leader of the opposition at Westminster. Also speaking at the Féile, Labour MP and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said the possibility of a poll needs to be debated, including within his own party, because Brexit has changed wider political discussions.
He said only people in Ireland could make a decision about their constitutional future.
“The climate is changing,” he said, referring to the north of Ireland. “It has changed with developments across the island of Ireland. The issue around a border poll has got to be addressed at some stage.”
Derry human rights expert Professor Colin Harvey has said it would be irresponsible for the North not to explore Irish reunification as a means of continuing its membership of the European Union.
He asked: “Why do so many still hide from a reality that is being forced upon us? Irish unity is one way back to the EU. It would be irresponsible not to talk about this.
“In the face of growing belligerence from the British government, there is much wisdom in having a focused conversation about how we share this island. More and more people do accept that this is a radically new context that demands fresh thinking.”
Meanwhile, the DUP has sought to counter discussions for a united Ireland with its own plans to bolster the union with Britain.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said it will draw up a “patriotic list” of measures to prevent the break-up of the ‘United Kingdom’. The cultural ideas including putting Test cricket back on terrestrial TV and making Remembrance Day a Bank Holiday.
And DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly has founded a new group at Westminster which aims to strengthen the ties between England, Scotland, Wales and British-occupied Ireland.
“Britishness celebrates our shared history which has endured world conflicts, industrial change and many other threats. Britishness unites us through literature, sport and identity,” the MP said.