Saturday 19 October 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Prospect of reunification a reminder that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless'

'This week talks about rebooting Stormont have resumed between the Northern parties, while elsewhere civic society is debating reunification' (stock photo)
'This week talks about rebooting Stormont have resumed between the Northern parties, while elsewhere civic society is debating reunification' (stock photo)
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

'I always get to where I'm going by walking away from where I've been," says Winnie-the-Pooh, a self-styled bear of very little brain although that zinger proves the opposite is true.

Wouldn't it make a useful motto for the talks process currently taking place at Stormont, where movement away from entrenched positions is needed if devolved government is to be restored? Perhaps Simon Coveney might consider having it printed on T-shirts and handing them out to the party leaders.

Hands up, I can't take the credit for remembering Pooh Bear's insight into how to deliver political change - the quote was shared in a different context this week by a senator. Take a bow, Ian Marshall, farmer, unionist and a man with the self-confidence to show his admiration for AA Milne's tubby teddy. I salute you both.

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He referenced it at a public forum in Newry, Our Rights - Our Future, considering the possibility of new constitutional arrangements post-Brexit. This was the second such discussion organised by a civic society pressure group called Ireland's Future, and more than 300 people attended.

Senator Marshall is the first Northern unionist to sit in the Oireachtas since the 1930s. That's four-fifths of the Irish State's timeline. Still, better late than never, although better still if he had company (and I don't mean soft toys). Fine Gael approached him last year as part of an outreach initiative and he was elected with Sinn Féin's support, sitting as an Independent.

So, this week talks about rebooting Stormont have resumed between the Northern parties, while elsewhere civic society is debating reunification. The Irish Government is involved in the former and would probably prefer if the latter wasn't happening. But if not now, when? Brexit has created momentum - shaking loose something. Call it possibilities. People are considering constitutional change; whether it is in the island's best interests and if so how to make it consensual - what practical steps should be taken.

This is a debate in the here and now. The impetus is from the grassroots up and nobody is waiting for permission. Politicians, by and large, are behind the curve on this issue. So, it's good to talk. Speaking of which, after almost two-and-a-half years of silence, Stormont may also be back in the talking - and preferably doing - business shortly. Optimistic? In the spirit of Senator Marshall, may I direct you to an Eeyore quote: "It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine."

The Tánaiste says the parties realise they have an obligation to break the deadlock. The leaders are meeting at least weekly and five working groups are addressing outstanding matters including the petition of concern. The presumption is that a deal will be struck. But reaching agreement isn't enough - it needs to have stickability or the institutions will collapse for a third time.

While politicians will always have a role to play, it's fascinating to observe a new dynamic emerge. Ireland's Future, a non-political group (lawyers, teachers, business people, members of the arts world) is making the case for reunification on the basis of common interests. It held its first public meeting in Belfast's Waterfront Hall in January, the Beyond Brexit conference, followed by the Newry event on Thursday. Dublin is likely to be next.

A dynamic beyond politics has sprung up to approach the question - one which most parties, with the exception of Sinn Féin, are reluctant to consider. Momentum is growing whether governments like it or not.

But may I suggest creating space during deliberations to consider whether the union with Britain should be preserved? Is it working for people, delivering prosperity and opportunities? If not, might there be improved prospects within Europe? How to make that case to unionists?

At the Newry forum, I shared a platform with an Irish High Court judge. To my mind, his presence was yet another signal of the sea change that's under way. Mr Justice Richard Humphreys has given the matter some thought, having written a book called 'Beyond the Border' which explains the Good Friday Agreement and its relevance to a united Ireland.

He urged people to learn from Gandhi and be the change they want to see in the world. "If nationalists want accommodation they should be accommodating, if they want to be listened to they should listen. Compromise is not a dirty word, compromise means life," he said.

This goes to the heart of the reunification debate, and takes in both Brexit negotiations in London and Stormont talks in Belfast.

Everyone will have to surrender something they value if change is to be delivered, just as Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution were part of the trade-off for the Good Friday Agreement.

There are shades of opinion among those who aspire to reunification. Some are pushing for a Border poll soon, others say basics should be lined up first. My view is that something is missing: a detailed document outlining the specifics of a new Ireland. People cannot be asked to vote without knowing the nuts and bolts.

Civic society will be withered from waiting for the Irish and/or British governments to take the initiative here. It needs to raise funds, put together a broad church of open-minded people and set to work on its own document.

Another development this week was the two governments signing a memo of understanding, an attempt to put the common travel area between Ireland and Britain (in place since 1922) on a secure footing post-Brexit. It covers people's rights to move between the two jurisdictions, and live, study and work in either, but does not encompass trade because that's EU business.

However, this memo has no legal standing. It's a gentleman's agreement - a statement of good faith. It is not to be sniffed at. But if you're in the reassurance line, legal rights are the only game in town.

Still, modest signs of change overall. Indications that we understand the need to listen to one another. Returning to Senator Marshall, he made the point that the Irish flag is anathema to some within unionism who don't see the symbolism of green and orange stitched together. Clearly, in a reimagined Ireland, a new flag and anthem are essential as acts of generosity and inclusivity. This will be difficult for some.

However, as Mr Justice Humphreys observed, the unionist rallying cry of 'no surrender' should not be matched by mirror image obstinacy on the part of nationalism.

It's a reminder that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves everyone blind and toothless. And setting out red lines beyond which you refuse to pass simply means that everyone ends up stuck in a rut.

Irish Independent

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