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We need serious, but broad, focus on fate of partition

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It is hard to move about these days without some reference to the growing prospect of a united Ireland, and a referendum on both sides of the border on that issue before this decade ends.

For some ardent nationalists, north and south, the end of the border seems very likely if not inevitable, while for embattled unionists, the partition of this island can certainly persist long into the future.

Yet there are growing indicators that some people, in the middle of both sides in this debate, may well be open to persuasion to back one side or the other. The past few weeks have seen the pace of debate on the issue pick up for the first time since the political entity of Northern Ireland was created 101 years ago.

Last month we had the Northern Ireland census confirming the expected outcome that the Catholic/nationalist population finally but very slightly out-numbers the Protestant/unionist community. We have noted here before that this outcome is remarkable because, history tells us the six counties of Northern Ireland becoming a political entity within the United Kingdom was always based on retaining a unionist majority.

The North census findings now confirm that real change is finally in the air for constitutional structures on the island of Ireland. But, it must equally be stressed, that any such constitutional changes need not necessarily be about a binary choice between maintaining partition or moving swiftly towards a united Ireland.

The zealots on both traditionalist sides of the partition cleavage would have us believe the future is about a continued six-county North – or an all-­island 32-county integrated unit. And the popular fervour in the southern jurisdiction for a single united entity appears strong and growing stronger.

Or, is it really? Six out of 10 people back a united Ireland, a survey for this publication’s sister paper revealed yesterday. But only half that number would pay extra tax for it.

That dichotomy tells us that Irish people – south and north – should be careful what they atavistically wish for and also think through the many options before us. We must also face the long list of necessary “harmonisation measures”, from policing, to car prices, to health and social care, to political structures, to identity and flags and emblems.

Along the way, it is worth posing a central question: Does it absolutely have to be: nail the partition door permanently closed – or abolish the border as soon as possible? Let’s recall that this Ireland of north and south has existed for a century – and was anything up to a half a century in the making before that.

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The old classical Latin phrase: “Festine lente” comes to mind. Literally translated it means “make haste slowly”. A better translation is the old folksy maxim: “The more hurry the less speed.”

We need to meticulously look at all aspects of this one, remembering that any change turns on the need to unite a large majority of all the people on this island – not just the territory.

Let’s recall John Hume’s maxim: the people are divided – not the land.


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