A major conference in Dublin last weekend brought more than 5,000 people together to hear a debate on the subject of Irish unity and the way forward for the island of Ireland.
It was the largest event organised to date by the campaigning civic nationalist organisation, ‘Ireland’s Future’. Senior politicians, celebrities and other prominent figures were among the 34 speakers who took part in a debate under the slogan ‘Together We Can’.
The major venue also invited speakers from a civic unionist background and several took part, including the keynote speaker of the night, film and TV actor James Nesbitt (pictured, right), who concluded the event. His nuanced explanation of his own interest in an inclusive, federal ‘Union of Ireland’ – despite himself coming from a unionist background in Counties Antrim and Derry – was hailed as a significant contribution. It drew attention to the increasing number of former unionists who are open to supporting a unitary, island-wide Irish state.
The openness and honesty of the unionist speakers contrasted with the hostile response of the unionist political parties, including the so-called ‘moderate’ Alliance, who refused to attend, leading to condemnation from Sinn Féin that they were “burying their head in the sand” in the face of change.
Brexit, changing demographics, healthcare, education, and infrastructure, as well as identity issues such as the national anthem and flags were among the matters discussed.
Jim O’Callaghan, one of the main contenders to succeed current Taoiseach Micheál Martin as leader of Fianna Fáil, argued that the Six County Stormont Assembly should be retained within a 32-county Republic.
He said “partition was a sectarian solution to a political problem” and a united Ireland is in the best interests of young people living on the island of Ireland and “Brexit has brought that into focus”.
Former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the event was a “statement of intent about Ireland’s future”.
“A united Ireland is a noble and legitimate aspiration, and one that I share,” he said, but speaking about a potential united Ireland delivering for everyone, both nationalist and unionist, but warned: “Our dreams must not become someone else’s nightmare.”
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the “two states created by partition have failed” and it is the “duty of this generation to fix what is broken”.
“We have many tribes and traditions, but we are but one nation,” she said.
“If we aspire to build our new Ireland as a real home for everyone then that must shape how we deliver healthcare, housing, and public services. It must shape how we create good jobs, decent wages, dynamic businesses and how we ensure that workers and families can live good, secure, and prosperous lives.”
Other high profile participants included film and TV actor Colm Meaney (pictured, left). Speaking before the event, the Dubliner said he “agreed immediately” to be part of the event because he feels it is time to have a debate about reunification.
“It’s time for change, and young people are aware of that. Young people aren’t afraid of that,” he said.
Delivering the keynote address, James Nesbitt spoke of his protestant and unionist upbringing and said he welcomes debate on potential constitutional change.
“A border poll may well be inevitable but if it is going to happen let it happen after an informed debate and not just when the numbers are right,” he said.
He said that the Good Friday Agreement promised that there was going to be a “new future” for these islands, but “that has not happened”. The Coleraine man suggested that “maybe the time is right now to explore what a world would look like post-unionism and post-nationalism.”
“I know many northern Protestants are open to this. Among my friends, who are all lads who are Protestants – well, men, we are all in our mid-fifties, I know I don’t look it – they would really consider now what the notion of a new union of Ireland might look like, and I think there’s a lot of people that think that,” he said.
“It strikes me that I think a lot more people are coming round to the idea of just even considering themselves Irish.”
The conference is part of a number of initiatives seeking to examine Irish unity. Sinn Féin is holding a “Peoples’ Assembly” in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, while SDLP has its civic forum the New Ireland Commission. The next event to be organised by Ireland’s Future will take place on November 7 as the Ulster Hall in Belfast.