Saturday 24 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Sands are shifting in the North, with people prepared to connect. Varadkar must show they have valued and important roles in a reframed and stronger Ireland'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The wind is blowing from a different direction here in Belfast, where I've spent the past week. As a no-deal Brexit looms, squandering peace and threatening livelihoods, the compass needle is shifting - no longer does it point automatically east towards Britain.

Conversations are happening about reimagined versions of Ireland which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The whispers are growing louder: some within loyalist communities are beginning to wonder whether the union with Britain is worth saving.

Now is the time for the Irish Government to harness this openness to giving consideration, at least, to new constitutional arrangements. Now is the time for Leo Varadkar to say to unionists: "We value your traditions. We see an important place for you in a new Ireland. We will listen to your voices. Together we can be stronger."

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Space for British identity within Ireland has to be made. But uniting people is a key first step before territories can be united. And unionism needs to hear directly from Ireland's leader that its heritage would be welcomed and respected in a reframed Ireland. After which, details of how such a scenario would work are essential. 'Four green fields' rhetoric won't influence anyone.

The DUP will shriek about overreach, of course, but that party doesn't represent all strands of unionism and someone needs to speak directly to moderates. Brexit has raised identity issues for some unionists who recognise that Britain doesn't place much worth on their contribution to the union.

I don't want to overstate the position - sands are shifting but there isn't a stampede for reunification along the lines of a 32-county Ireland operating out of Dublin. But noticeably, palpably and indisputably, some people in the North have begun to step back from traditional certainties and envisage an alternative future.

Our Northern neighbours realise the Westminster government has limited interest in the region. You can see the dismay on people's faces at the realisation that Leave supporters prefer Brexiting to preserving the union. They feel unvalued by Boris Johnson's government, ready to sacrifice employment in the region which may never be replaced - up to 40,000 jobs are projected to be at risk.

Here's another example of shifting tectonic plates. During Mr Johnson's lightning visit to Belfast, Harland and Wolff workers took part in a bilingual protest at Stormont. They chanted "save our shipyard" in both Irish and English, supported in their demonstration by Irish language activists. Mr Johnson referenced unity upon taking up office, but he seems to be uniting people in ways he might not have anticipated.

He even united all of the North's political parties, his confidence-and-supply partners excepted, by dining with the DUP before meeting the others. "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others," as Orwell puts it. So much for the British prime minister's charm offensive.

There is a view that talk of a united Ireland puts unionism on the defensive. But I chaired a discussion event with four unionist speakers on Thursday night at Féile an Phobail in Belfast, where they engaged openly with the subject - expressing reservations and reflecting on advantages. It was organised by the civil society group Ireland's Future in conjunction with Féile.

Speakers included surgeon Michael Eames, son of former Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Robin Eames. There was a positive response that was tangible when he said the Irish Government ought to be explicit about whether it wants the North to be part of a new Ireland.

Also on the panel, Alliance councillor David Honeyford, son of a Presbyterian minister whose children play GAA sports, reminded the audience that Ireland was composed of both Orange and Green. Pastor Andy Masters, of the Lagan Valley Vineyard Church in Lisburn, urged people to stop thinking in silos: "Thinking one way is a cult," he said.

Heather Wilson, recently an SDLP candidate in the North's local elections and the first woman from a unionist tradition to stand for that party, said Ireland was not just for Irish people. But if Northern people were to be encouraged into a new Ireland, their fears must be dealt with.

Elsewhere, we heard unionists were anxious about losing even more identity within a united Ireland. Some contributors were sceptical about how it would function economically - especially from a healthcare perspective, as Mr Eames pointed out. The National Health Service, although under pressure, is prized. Other issues included the fact that most of Northern Ireland's exports go to Britain and any tariffs there could cause enormous damage to business.

On the other hand, people are acutely aware that a no-deal Brexit will cause hardship. Cross-Border agriculture trade would virtually stop within 24 hours, according to a leaked UK government document prepared in Theresa May's final weeks. It warns of consumer panic, food shortages and an increased security threat within two weeks.

Among those who contributed to the discussion from the floor was Linda Ervine, an Irish language and culture activist from East Belfast who aims to connect Protestant communities with their history through the language. Ms Ervine, sister-in-law of the late David Ervine, Progressive Unionist Party leader, won applause when she said Orangeism didn't define Protestantism.

So, there is a golden opportunity to reach out to the people with whom we share this island. However, something will have to give in the Republic to make a new version of Ireland attractive to people from a unionist heritage.

Suggestions aired included a federal arrangement between these two islands involving the four nations. There was some interest in retaining Stormont, at least for a transitional period, working in tandem with Leinster House rather than Westminster.

Others favoured Ireland's readmission to the Commonwealth. As a free state, Ireland was part of the Commonwealth but stopped engaging in the 1930s and was regarded mutually as no longer a member by 1949 when it became a republic. Today, a total of 53 republics and monarchies number among members with Queen Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth, a symbolic position.

My view is that the union is on borrowed time. But before a Border poll can be contemplated, Northern Ireland's institutions need to be back in operation - input from both Belfast and Dublin is essential.

Naturally, unionists would have to be given a clear explanation regarding how new constitutional arrangements would work in their best interests. Meanwhile, it is an ongoing challenge to tear down sectarian divides.

But the North is not irredeemably divided into Orange and Green and the extremes do not represent the majority view. On the contrary, people are prepared to connect. Over to you, Mr Varadkar.

Irish Independent

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