Ireland is in transition. A lot of previous certainties are gone. The tide of history is with those who seek to build a progressive and inclusive future. Unquestionably, Irish unity is part of that progressive and inclusive future. A united Ireland will be a stronger, better and fairer country.
The conditions for holding a referendum on Irish reunification have grown dramatically. The conversation on Irish unity is happening in households, in workplaces, in the business sector, in academia, and in communities North and south.
The Irish Government has an obligation to plan for Irish unity, to put in place the structures that will allow people to debate and discuss it in a way that is inclusive of all views. It is now time to establish an all-Ireland Citizens’ Assembly to discuss and plan for Irish unity.
Only in this way can we ensure that all perspectives are part of this discussion and that all views are heard and understood. And that, of course, includes those whose identity is British, and whose identity must rightly be protected in a united Ireland.
The results of an opinion poll that appeared on these pages last Sunday revealed some apprehension about proceeding with Irish unity on a simple majority, or 50pc plus 1 basis.
Removing the principle of a simple majority for deciding the result of a unity referendum would cast aside the democratic norm of every vote being equal. We need to see the bigger picture. A simple majority is a principle enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, and it is the established basis by which citizens have decided on important issues such as divorce, marriage equality and the Eighth Amendment.
Failure to plan for change is unsettling and daunting, especially for those who are unconvinced by the case for unity. This includes those from a unionist background and those whose identity is British.
It can be natural for some that the prospect of change can initially bring with it some trepidation, as was the case in the lead-up to each of those three significant votes for change in 1995, 2015 and 2018. But as we did then, we have to trust the will and the wisdom of the people.
As was the case with the Eighth Amendment Citizens’ Assembly, concerns can be talked through and assuaged with meaningful and purposeful dialogue at an all-Ireland Citizens’ Assembly. That is what needs to happen and I firmly believe that people will accept a majority if it comes on the back of a truly inclusive, respectful and evidence-based debate.
Brexit, the Covid pandemic, changed demographic and political realities and the prospect of Scottish Independence have all, in their own way, highlighted the need for new constitutional arrangements better suited to the realities of Ireland today.
In the last year in particular, we have seen how partition does not work and that it is not in the interests of the people of Ireland, North or south. We know that the only realistic way to realise the wishes of people in the North to be part of the EU, is through the reunification of Ireland.
As a post-pandemic world faces into new economic challenges, it is clear that an island nation, with 6.4 million inhabitants, on the edge of Europe, can no longer sustain two separate tax regimes, legal systems, competing economic development programmes, and back-to-back health and education systems. An integrated Irish economy and state is urgently required for the development of public services, investment, exports, agriculture, policing and justice, as well as in terms of inclusion and diversity. It also allows us to build an all-island National Health Service.
People in the North value the NHS, but they also know the Tories are in the process of dismantling it. The future is a National Health Service for Ireland.
We need to look at Irish unity as an unprecedented opportunity for all the people of Ireland, and most particular for the generation of young people who have been so badly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to work with others, including our partners in the European Union, to deliver on the potential of reunification. We should look to the support the EU provided to Germany at the time of its reunification as an example of the role it can play in the process of Irish reunification.
We have entered a defining period. A united Ireland is not about grafting the North on to the south. It is about creating new political structures built on diversity — an equal society not just between orange and green, but between urban and rural, old and young, men and women, LGBT and straight, old and new Irish, black and white.
An Ireland, to paraphrase Thomas Davis, which will “embrace Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter — Milesian and Cromwellian — the Irishman of a hundred generations, and the stranger who is within our gates”.
I welcome the constructive comments made by the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar when we discussed Irish unity recently on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live show, as I do the contribution of other politicians, including Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan and Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond.
We will have to work together, regardless of our political persuasion, as we embark on this process. The future of Irish people, unionist and nationalist, North and south, are bound together. Let’s come together to design an Ireland that is accommodating to all our people in all their diversity.
Mary Lou McDonald is president of Sinn Féin