The recent opinion poll by the BBC indicated that a majority of people, north and south of the Irish border, believe that a reunited Ireland is the probable outcome of future political developments. If that is accurate, then there is an onus on all to ensure that this takes place as smoothly as possible.
There is much comment on the need for the Irish government to secure a unity referendum and to prepare new government structures for this eventuality. However, the two main political parties in power in the Republic fear the consequences of unity and its implications for their positions and interests. Hence the semantic dodging and dissembling over the issue. Hardly the actions of a government that was fulfilling its constitutional imperative to work for a United Ireland.
Therefore, the question has to be asked, what can the non-state sector do to further the aspiration to unity. Partition has been in existence for 100 years and although many structures, especially in the sporting and cultural fields, managed to stay intact on an all-island basis, many others did not. It was often said during the Peace Process that we needed not only to decommission arms but also the mindsets which had preached division and intolerance.
A similar need exists in relation to the societal divisions on the island of Ireland. Partitionist mindsets exist on both sides of the border, including in the Irish civil service where I regularly came up against it during my career.
One of the striking features I encountered in the preparation work for the original EU Peace Programme in the 1990s was the low percentage of Southerners who had any contact with the North at that time. Those who did and who regularly visited Northern Ireland were overwhelmingly from Dublin and the border counties. Large areas of Munster and South Connacht had little or no contact, which is astonishing on a relatively small island. It was a direct result of partitionist mindsets.
The establishment of a land border in Ireland and its subsequent longevity caused differences to develop between the two jurisdictions. This was most obvious at the state and political levels. However, these differences also percolated into civic society. While politicians may dither and slow down developments, this does not mean that the preparations for unity cannot proceed at the non-governmental level. There is much that can be done to prepare for re-unification and to challenge the partitionist mindset.
In this respect, as in many other areas, the first point of reference should be the Good Friday Agreement, a document which has been overwhelmingly endorsed democratically in both the Republic and the North.
The Good Friday Agreement recognises,
“the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both as they may so choose”.
This right of Irish citizens in the North to participate fully in Irish national organisations was to the fore in two initiatives where I was involved. Firstly, the extension of the Gaisce scheme, (the Irish equivalent of the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards). It was opened to residents of Northern Ireland, in full agreement with the Duke of Edinburgh award authorities in London, in the post GFA period. The former Senator Mary White was the driving force behind that initiative.
The second case was the hearing at the International Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne where the association football authorities in Belfast sought unsuccessfully to end the practice of the Dublin based organisation, the FAI, from selecting players who were born in Northern Ireland to play international football for the Republic. The then Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern took a personal interest in the issue.
In both cases the argument was based on the rights conferred by the GFA.
Therefore, no resident of the North should be excluded on the basis of residence from any competition or activities organised south of the border. I am not sure that we have actually achieved that goal in all cases.
Again, in the South, there is a strong need to demand that national institutions like RTÉ, where coverage north of the border is largely confined to political matters, should start acting in a 32-county capacity. Programmes like Nationwide should cover events like the Clogher Agricultural Show, the Auld Lammas Fair, etc., on a routine basis. Even simple things like including the Irish News, Belfast Newsletter, Belfast Telegraph, Derry News etc., in reviews of the papers would assist. This would help to bring civil society on either side of the border closer together.
Organisations which produce maps of Ireland with the 6 counties a blank or even on occasions disappeared all-together should be vigorously challenged. In the immediate post GFA period, the Irish Government examined the possibility of getting a much stronger representation of northern residents on State Bords and public companies. I fear that initiative has petered out some time ago.
The Republic itself now has a huge amount of external business investment. In my recent book, I quoted Irish external investment as having €93bn invested in the United States and €88bn in GB. Irish investment is overwhelmingly concentrated in Anglophone countries. Yet there is only a tiny amount of this external investment in Northern Ireland. Those wanting to see a United Ireland should be lobbying business to invest more heavily across the border on the island of Ireland. I am sure a similar position pertains in relation to business in Northern Ireland.
The above mentioned instances are only the tip of the iceberg. There needs to be an audit of non-governmental organisations and areas were the partitionist attitudes may still hold sway to see if they are complying with the terms of the GFA. This is particularly important in Northern Ireland where the commitment to parity of esteem in some cases remains an aspiration rather than fully implemented.
It would be easy to sit back and blame the Irish government and Unionism for any failure to make progress, but it would be much more profitable to be proactive and see if there are areas where the scars of Partition within civil society can be healed. This is in no way to excuse the lack of activity at a governmental level.
Ray Bassett is the former Republic of Ireland ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas