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A united Ireland will be worth the effort, but what would it really look like?

Alan Kelly


A united Ireland makes sense but we need to think of the practical realities

A united Ireland makes sense but we need to think of the practical realities

A united Ireland makes sense but we need to think of the practical realities

The landmark Sunday Independent/Kantar opinion poll gave us much-needed insight on the attitudes of people North and south to Irish unity.

That two out of three people fear a united Ireland could lead to a return to violence should give pause for thought to every person who is demanding an imminent Border poll when so little preparatory work has been done.

The truth is that Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are all more than happy to talk about when they believe a Border poll should happen, whether it is now or in a few years, but are much more reluctant to spell out in detail what they believe a united Ireland would look like.

By focusing on the question of “when”, it allows them to avoid the question of “what” a united Ireland would actually look like and what we as an island community would be voting on.

Taken together, the opinion poll results show that the pragmatism of the Irish people sees through this.

Practical questions need to be asked and answered before any such poll happens: What would the island’s health service look like? Would our schools system work? How would we ensure an all-island state had the allegiance of all communities that live here?

Since our foundation, the Labour Party has always sought to unite all of the people on our island through peaceful means.

That remains a work in progress, but we can proudly say the Labour Party was, and will continue to be, instrumental in transforming the economy of our Republic for the better to deliver on the commitments of the social contract and a more equal society.

I smile when I listen to Sinn Féin arguing that the strength of the Republic’s economy is a reason for a united Ireland, given how little it ever contributed to it or the cause of true unity of the communities on the island, and, in fact, how much it has hindered both causes over the decades.

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The strength of the Catholic Church was also once seen as a barrier to a united Ireland, but for decades Labour has campaigned to reduce the incredible power the Church wrongly held over our society for so long.

In making these changes happen, we played our role in creating the conditions where a new, agreed and united Ireland is deemed possible, and back on the agenda, due to influences such as Brexit, demographics and the decade of centenaries.

My party and I believe in an agreed and united Ireland. In the long term, it makes social and economic sense, just as the current pandemic illustrates that it makes geographic sense.

We would like to see the Ulster-British community represented in Dáil Éireann or whatever we would decide together to call a new national parliament. Together we could build our shared economy, provide better public services, build housing and shared communities, create new opportunities for the next generation and tackle the crisis of climate change.

However, in the debate on the future, we must be conscious of how deeply unsettling it will be for a large number of people on our island who are deeply attached to their British identity.

It is in the long-term interests of everyone on the island that the unionist community does not feel isolated and that they can engage with their neighbours in an open way with their British identity respected.

We do not for a second underestimate the issues involved. Reunification would involve profound change across the island. We need to find a mechanism to accommodate difference, and we do not underestimate how unsettling that will be – for everyone. Let us not pretend the choices we face are easy.

While Labour believes in an agreed, united island, we also believe a huge amount of preparatory work needs to be done in both jurisdictions in advance of any Border poll, in order to ensure that people across our island are clear on what it is they are voting on and that a new, agreed and united island would be a state that would be accepted by all communities.

Based on the results of last week’s opinion poll, the Irish public broadly agrees with this point of view. As we learned from the Brexit debacle in the UK, failure to provide specific details on what is involved with major constitutional change, and what the true nature of the offer to unionism is, will lead to confusion and very dangerous division.

This process will require generosity on the part of everyone on the island. It will require ambition for a socio-economic vision that goes far beyond where we are today and will need to incorporate what north and south can learn from one another on issues such as the economy, healthcare, education and other areas.

The first step is for engagement in all sectors of society between southerners and Northerners, and particularly Northern unionists, to ramp up significantly from their current anaemic levels.

However, it is the Labour Party’s view that the work will be worth the effort for every one of us who calls our island home and that the hard work must begin now.

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