By Gerry Adams (for Léargas)
I want to commend this week’s initiative by Ireland’s Future. It is an important contribution to the ongoing debate around Brexit, the issue of rights, the need to defend the Good Friday Agreement, and the imperative of planning for Irish unity. Planning for the future is the dominant theme in their letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar which was published in Monday’s Irish News and Irish Times.
“Discussion about the reunification of Ireland has moved centre stage. Many citizens are already involved in formal and informal discussions about this. We believe that a new conversation is now required about our shared future on the island of Ireland. The government needs to plan for this...
“It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the democratic wishes and rights of Irish citizens are respected and protected, regardless of where they live on the island ... Let’s have a discussion on how this can be achieved...
We would urge you to start this process, based on the vision of democratic change set out in the Good Friday [Belfast] agreement. Start planning now...”
This is the core message of the letter – signed by over a thousand citizens from civic society, including the relatives of the 1916 leaders, trade union leaders and activists, academics, people from the arts, business, the law, the media, community, education and the community. The signatories are calling for a ‘new conversation’ about the future constitutional arrangements for the island of Ireland. To this end they are proposing the establishment of a “Citizens Assembly reflecting the views of citizens North and South, or a Forum to discuss the future and achieve maximum consensus on a way forward.”
Ireland’s Future is an extension of the group which last January held a hugely successful conference - Beyond Brexit - at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. That initiative, which brought together 1500 people, was a response to the chaos around Brexit and the increasing demand from within civic nationalism in the North for the Irish government to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to plan for Irish unity.
A year earlier, in December 2017, over 200 individuals from within nationalist civic society in the north had put their names to a letter to Leo Varadkar. In it they outlined their deep concerns about Brexit and the denial of rights by political unionism. In his response An Taoiseach stated;
“To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations. Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”
The group subsequently met the Taoiseach in February 2018. Later in the year a further letter signed by 1000 citizens was sent to An Taoiseach.
Despite this ongoing dialogue the Irish government has consistently refused to take up the challenge of planning for unity. The current letter is a response to this and reflects the growing concerns about the negative impact of Brexit for the future of the Good Friday Agreement and for the peace process. The letter was signed by 1,088 Irish citizens from across civic society on the island of Ireland, with some also from the USA and Canada. For the first time the greater proportion of signatories are from the 26 counties.
Niall Murphy, the Belfast based Human Rights lawyer who is a spokesperson for the group has described Ireland’s Future as non-party political and non nationalist. It is a coalition of like-minded citizens who are concerned about the issue of rights and who believe there needs to be a conversation about changing the current constitutional arrangements on the island.
While opinion polls over many years have consistently highlighted the widespread desire on the island for reunification, it is an undeniable fact that Brexit has provided the accelerant for the current intense discussion around a referendum on Unity.
This discussion is also taking place internationally. Several weeks ago Professor Colin Harvey and Barrister-in-law Mark Bassett published the first ever report on what the European Union can do to help facilitate Irish Unity. It is available here: https://www.guengl.eu/issues/publications/the-eu-irish-unity/
The lengthy and detailed report was commissioned by the European United Left and the Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) Parliamentary Group. It identifies and explains the likely consequences and legal processes that will arise as a result of unity and outlines how the EU institutions can begin to support the process of planning and preparing for constitutional change in Ireland.
It points out that “reunification will be one way back to the EU once Brexit has taken place. This is increasingly being recognised and discussed as a solution to some of the problems created for the EU by Brexit”.
Of course, any discussion on altering the constitutional arrangements on this island will be challenging. Both states have existed for almost a century. There will be resistance to change from the political establishments North and South. But this is an opportunity to finally and democratically resolve the deep political fracture that has been at the heart of ongoing conflict and division on this island since partition. It will provide all of us with an opportunity to reshape society and construct a genuinely shared space for everyone.
The list of those endorsing this proposition is a reflection of that desire and of the breadth of support for it. Inevitably it will be a feature of the election in the North in the coming weeks. There will be those who will seek to present it in a negative light – those who will seek to heighten tensions by playing on sectarian divisions. This must be resisted.
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledged that nationalists in the North “will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.” He needs to live up to that commitment.
As Niall Murphy said this week: “We need to plan for the future and the inevitabilities of demographic change and economic imperatives. We can’t replicate the ill prepared recklessness of the Brexit referendum. We need to consult, converse, plan, and prepare for Ireland’s future.” He’s right.