Discussion on Irish unity has to move onto practicalities

Posted By: March 02, 2020

Chris Donnelly. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, March 2, 2020

The latest poll on the constitutional future of this island has better news for supporters of unity than the poll preceding it by only a matter of days on the same theme.

The very fact that such polls are being commissioned with increasing regularity tells a tale in itself. The unity discussion is very much alive and is here to stay.

Brexit, demographics and contrasting attitudes to social change may have helped propel the subject firmly into the political domain, but getting down to the brass tacks of unity is where the discussion needs to be at this point.

In that regard, Sinn Féin’s proposals for a junior minister and a unit within the Department of the Taoiseach to lead a process of beginning to plan for unity is an important step forward, as is its plan for an all-island citizens assembly on the topic, which was enthusiastically endorsed by clear majorities in both jurisdictions in the Lucid Talk/ The Detail poll published last week.

There is a lot to be worked out before referenda could deliver a majority for unity, both North and South.

An irrefutable fact that has to be accepted as part of making the conversation real from the outset is that unity will happen in spite of the continuing opposition to the prospect of a constitutional change of the overwhelming majority of people who currently self-describe as Unionist. Believing otherwise is to engage in self-delusion, and there is no room for such naivety in this discussion. Those not open to persuasion must be accommodated through proposals matching – if not exceeding – the sum of measures incorporated within the Good Friday Agreement to accommodate nationalists within the UK.

We need to move the discussion on to practicalities. The greatest impediment to unity in the medium-term future is not the opposition of unionists, who will be in an electoral minority at that point. It will be in the reluctance of people with an open mind to the idea of constitutional change to embrace any proposal which is not clearly thought out and planned with meticulous detail to minimize the extent to which such a historic development could represent a leap into the dark.

That presents a mammoth challenge to Irish nationalists, many of whom have yet to even accept that the time has come to begin seriously planning for such an outcome.

The great mass of Other voters in this jurisdiction will need to be persuaded that changing sovereignty from a UK context to an island-wide context will not adversely impact their standard of living.

There has already been significant research undertaken to illustrate how the Republic of Ireland is, on many measures, a more affluent and comfortable society in which to live than Northern Ireland today. The  ESRI’s report last year (‘The Political Economy of a NI Border Poll’) was particularly welcome for the fact that it compared and contrasted the structure of both economies on the island as well as health provision and educational outcomes.

There are many problems with the functioning of our National Health Service in the north today, but the ability to promise an Irish NHS as part of a unity vision will be essential. Slaintecare is the Irish government’s strategy to help transform health provision across the state, but delivering on its promise will prove a considerable challenge in the decade ahead.

The actual size of the UK government’s subvention to Northern Ireland remains a matter of contention, but what is clear is that the economic backwater status of The North is a hindrance to unity. Making Northern Ireland work as a region in Ireland will prove vital to improving the short-term viability of unity.

One of the greatest challenges to the current generation of Irish nationalists will be to write Northern Ireland into the united Ireland narrative.

Accommodating unionists (and others) within a united Ireland will entail devising a new constitutional framework. The Irish government will rightly be keen to ensure that the identity issues perpetually plaguing northern society do not infect a settled political culture in the Republic, and therefore ensuring that the principles of power-sharing and parity of esteem enshrined in Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement survive any change in sovereignty will be a priority.

For historical reasons, ‘Northern Ireland’ remains a phrase too far for many Irish nationalists, the very utterance of the two words equating to a rejection of their all-Ireland identity and sense of being. Yet ensuring its survival in some form will prove essential to winning the battle for hearts and minds.