| 7 mins read
Brexit has brought Irish unity back to the fore of our political discourse. Whether one seeks a united Ireland or the status quo, recognising these differences is the starting point of any discussion. We should be optimistic for our shared future, even if we do not agree on what form it should take.
How will the new Ireland be achieved?
In a border poll, a narrow victory may bring about a united Ireland, but without trust it may lead to more division than ever. Demographics and identities, both north and south, are complex and changing. We must ensure that we welcome everyone into any new Ireland, regardless of their beliefs. Those of us who became politically active in years since the Good Friday Agreement should remember the sacrifices made by the previous generation. Yet whilst we must not use discussions of reunification to antagonise, we also must not shy away from our opinions needlessly. Many people feel completely valid hesitations and fears that about this path. While I never expect any unionist to support a united Ireland, it must be a place where unionists do not feel compelled to leave. Division has done untold damage and will not heal on its own.
Brexit reminds us that voting for a concept without a definition is a recipe for disaster. Outlining what a successful border poll will result in is unglamorous work, yet it is crucial. Without a clear image of a united Ireland, it is difficult for many to attach themselves to the concept. A citizens’ assembly, comprising a fair cross-section of society from across the island, should be established to help shape it. Their deliberations will shape what a united Ireland will look like, along the criteria set out below.
What will the new Ireland look like?
The notion that Northern Ireland would somehow automatically be an economic burden must be dispelled. While a united Ireland would be costly initially, an economy can change drastically over time. The two economies on the island have been pulling closer together than ever in the past decade. The recently launched Dublin-Belfast economic corridor serves as a model which could be replicated across the country. The effect of the Northern Ireland Protocol and increased links between the two economies mean Northern Ireland’s economy can once again see growth.
Regarding international relations, Ireland is a clear EU success story and a united Ireland’s future will lie squarely within the Union. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the Irish government an advisory role on matters relating to Northern Ireland, was an important step of the peace process. It can be used to frame the relationship between any new Ireland and the UK, covering matters that may impact what was Northern Ireland and, crucially, British citizens within the state.
The new Ireland will be a republic with a directly elected head of state. A council of state could be appointed with reserved places Northern Ireland and the unionist community. A lower house should be elected by proportional representation, whilst a new upper house could be elected directly using a national list. Both houses will elect a speaker and a deputy speaker, but for the first decade of their existence ensure that at least one of these positions in each house is always held by a member from what would have been Northern Ireland.
A new constitution and legal framework would need to be established, decided upon in conjunction with legal experts from both sides of the island. Assimilating the existing judicial and legal systems should not be impossible, as both are common law jurisdictions covered by the European Court of Human Rights. Policing has been a contentious issue for some time and, whilst there have been some grievances, the Police Service Northern Ireland provides a model for the creation of a refreshed police force reflective of a more diverse society.
Regarding education, a new Ireland provides the opportunity to reassess educational needs across the island. It will require discussions with experts and members of both communities and the resultant system must be eased in to ensure that no student’s qualifications are put in jeopardy. The learning of Irish will remain a key focus, and greater resources should be made available to help preserve the language, but there needs to be realism about making it compulsory given the concerns of those from Unionist backgrounds.
Improving transport is a key aim, with dedicated funding ring-fenced for several projects on the island. Mobile phone operators will have to adapt their model and the two postal services will need to merge. A singular public service broadcaster for the island should be an aspiration, but greater integration should be a beginning, as this will need serious examination to ensure balanced regional and cultural programming.
Many in Northern Ireland hold a deep affinity to their NHS, whose resonance will be held up as a reason to oppose a united Ireland. Because of this, huge preparatory work will be needed to create a new universal health system that draws on the strong points of both and improves care and outcomes anywhere on the island.
Though still hugely important in Northern Ireland, symbols do not improve anyone’s life or economic outcomes. To address fears of losing identity, we must ensure that sufficient trust is established. Anyone thinking that a new flag or anthem will somehow resolve all issues is mistaken. Symbols must be the final piece of the discussion on a united Ireland; issues such as healthcare and education, that impact our day to day lives, must be prioritised.
Work, patience, compromise and imagination
The path to a border poll lies firmly in the Good Friday Agreement; its institutions and sentiments will allow us to build an island more connected than ever. We are a nation of people who want for peace, prosperity and reconciliation. We have more in common than in opposition and this must be borne in mind through these difficult conversations. Achieving a united Ireland worth having will require a massive amount of work, patience, compromise and imagination. It can be achieved.