Monday 19 August 2019

Jason O'Mahony: 'We need to talk about a united Ireland - TDs won't'

The great debate: Six year-old Ruby Stewart poses for a photograph during the annual Twelfth of July parade in Belfast. Photo: Paul Fath/Getty
The great debate: Six year-old Ruby Stewart poses for a photograph during the annual Twelfth of July parade in Belfast. Photo: Paul Fath/Getty

Jason O'Mahony

As a general rule, Irish politicians hate "divisive". For people operating in a centrist political system, in which every vote counts, the idea that people have to make choices on an issue is not a popular one.

As a result, Irish political jargon is filled with words such as "consultation" and "getting around the table". Politicians often regard a "comprehensive full-scale review" of an issue is as an actual policy in itself. This is the country which used to have talks about talks, after all.

God forbid anyone ever takes a side on an issue someone else might disagree with.

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The use of Citizens' Assemblies is the latest mutation of that, the belief that a controversial issue can be dropped into a political pit at arm's length from actually taking political stances and let percolate in the hope it might come out with that elusive El Dorado of political solutions, something everybody agrees on that we can afford without a new tax.

Failing that, an assembly might at least buy a politician time: an asteroid might hit the Earth and extinguish thousands of years of human civilisation, which would be bad admittedly.

But it would avoid having to take a definitive stance on Mercosur or water meters or the national herd's wind destroying the polar bears, so not all bad.

Now and then you come across an issue, however, where division and public policy punch-ups are actually the least worst option. I give you our old friend: a united Ireland.

If there is one issue which we need a citizens' assembly to go at hard, with fellas beating seven bells out of each other, it's reunification.

The alternative is that the issue creeps up on us as the mutant virus offshoot of Brexit, and we've done no actual thinking about it other than roaring and shouting when the pubs close.

We don't just need to have an assembly debate on Irish unity in a fluffy "wouldn't it be nice" sort of way either.

We need an assembly to be tasked to write out a draft framework as to how a united Ireland would work.

What it would be called, what flag it would fly, what anthem it would sing, what would be the role of the British monarch, if any.

It must be given a clear set of objectives it has to reach because the debate has to be formally and publicly begun, and we can't rely on our elected officials to do it.

Someone is going to have to compromise on the above issues, and our TDs simply won't get the ball rolling.

On this issue, they are like the politburo of the Soviet Union: they all know there has to be change, but they also know the first guy to suggest it will be taken out and shot for political heresy. Imagine being the first guy to suggest we change the Tricolour.

In fact, we have to go one step further. If you put all our parties and selected random Irish voters and the SDLP and Alliance Party into Dublin Castle for this, they'll come out with something all huggy-wuggy and parity of esteem and useless, because it will avoid the big giant (orange) elephant in the middle of the room.

That's why we will have to put in what is called in Nato war-gaming terms a "red team", or in this case a "red, white and blue team", an actual designated unionist/loyalist opposition team to force the main participants to fight and confront the awkward issues.

It's unlikely that many unionists will agree to participate.

But there's nothing to stop us paying good money to recruit a team of northern academics, journalists and others to act as the red team, to identify what unionists would look for once the idea of unity had been consented to.

Let the red team put its demands on the table and watch the sparks fly.

Force Sinn Féin and southern nationalists to confront the awkward issues about how we're going to run this thing and how we're going to pay for it.

How we feel about President The Lord Dodds or the British army recruiting on (northern) Irish streets or the simple fact a united Ireland will actually be more British, not less?

Why would the political establishment do this to itself, you ask?

Because, long term, this is in its interest. The Irish people have got to become accustomed to the terms of this debate.

We can't have the complexity of a united Ireland appear out of nowhere because the United Kingdom starts to suddenly disintegrate as the English realise they're giving a bunch of Paddies in bowlers and weird sashes £12bn a year.

We've seen what happens when pub talk turns into government policy without anyone doing the middle bit of actually reading up on the details.

We can't let this become our Brexit, because the risks are just too high. If we stumble into a united Ireland which 48pc of Northern Ireland vehemently feels is being rammed down their throat it won't be A Nation Once Again.

It'll be the Occupied Territories and we'll be the Israelis.

We need to get this right and it means us fighting out the whole issue now in public, and safely, before our hand is forced by the hysterical chaos of British politics. We can't afford to go in that direction. We just can't. Better we do it now in controlled circumstances, where we can road-test options, than go the UK route of trying to change the wheel on a car while haring doing a motorway doing 100.

We have to do this right and that means starting the debate now.

Irish Independent

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