Guest contributor Ben Collins discusses the theme of his forthcoming book, Irish Unity: Time To Prepare.
The results of the Northern Ireland census 2021 are seismic in the sense that a state which was created specifically to have a permanent Protestant and Unionist majority, now has neither. This will not automatically lead to a United Ireland. To achieve that we need to convince a majority of those who vote in a border poll, which I think is likely to take place at some point in the next decade.
While I had always felt Irish, as someone who came from a Unionist and Presbyterian background, I did not think it was possible to consider a United Ireland during The Troubles. The Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Ireland and personally it enabled me to consider the benefits of reunification. It was not until I was in my twenties that I became aware of the true meaning of the Irish Tricolour. It was not the ‘green, white and gold’ but rather the green of nationalism, the orange of unionism with white representing peace between the two main traditions on the island.
I first came up with the idea that I wanted to write a book on Irish unity back in June 2012, just before the London Olympics. The idea of a pluralist outward looking reunified Ireland really appealed to me. Gradually I began to realise that I did not need to be Catholic, play Gaelic games, speak Irish or support the Provisional IRA to be in favour of Irish unity.
I lived and worked in Scotland for eight and a half years. During that time I was able to develop my thinking on unity without living through the oppressive political atmosphere of Northern Ireland which existed at the time. The SNP’s call for fiscal autonomy in the early 2000s really appealed to me and I was instinctively supportive of the campaign for Scottish independence when the referendum took place in 2014, even after I’d moved back to Belfast.
The beauty of the Good Friday Agreement was that you could be Irish, British, European or all three. Borders were irrelevant and effectively did not exist for many people across Ireland. That all changed with the UK vote (or more correctly the vote of England and Wales) to leave the European Union. My long term aspiration for Irish unity, suddenly became an urgent necessity. Since 2000 I had worked in jobs with a strong focus on political communications across the UK and the day after the EU referendum I remember thinking that I had to do something about it. I decided to give greater focus to writing of the book but the political situation kept changing. When I started planning the book David Cameron was British prime minister, then Theresa May took over, followed by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss was appointed just as I was putting the finishing touches to it. This is one very small example of how all of us who have been affected by Brexit, have lived through significant change and uncertainty over the last six years. It has been incredibly destabilising for all of Ireland and put the peace process under huge pressure.
I was adamant that I didn’t want to get involved in Twitter wars and instead focused my attention on putting down some detailed thoughts on how we could secure Irish unity. There were learning points that we could take from other places to help with preparing for reunification. It became obvious at an early stage that there was no plan to deliver Brexit and the rationale for leaving the European Union did not exist.
There was so much I could include in the book, on what is a complex and politically sensitive topic. I decided that I would address the issue in three parts. First of all to cover the circumstances which would lead to a border poll being called. We are living through those right now. Secondly I would explain how I believe a border poll can be won and also give my views on some of the key challenges which we will face during the campaign. The final part focuses on how we ensure that we make a success of a vote for Irish unity.
The reason why my book is called Irish Unity: Time to Prepare is because it is crucial that we plan and prepare now, to avoid the chaos of Brexit. While I know family members and close friends who voted for Brexit I have yet to find anyone who thinks that it is going well. I want to ensure that across Ireland we have an informed discussion about constitutional change which is evidence based. This can help to guarantee that the campaign itself focuses on facts and our preferred outcomes, rather than voters being distracted by emotive issues. At the time of a border poll we need to know what is on offer in terms of the health service, what will happen to pensions, how will we ensure that our all-Ireland economy continues to grow? What can we do to provide opportunities for our young people so that they do not feel forced to leave this island to go elsewhere? How can we work together to address the climate crisis, provide energy and food security in an ever more turbulent world?
The Good Friday Agreement and the European Convention on Human Rights both provide a framework for safeguarding and protecting all communities. Northern Ireland is now a region of multiple minorities. We know that civic unionism is already engaging on the issue of what Irish unity means, in private conversations and occasionally publicly. Political unionism rarely takes part in these discussions. While they don’t have a veto on progress we do need to put a package of proposals in place to provide peace and prosperity for all our citizens in a New Ireland. Providing sufficient housing on a mixed tenure basis where you have those living in social housing beside those in affordable or privately owned housing is needed. The ‘unity dividend’ must include public services provided seamlessly on an all-Ireland basis for the benefit of everyone who lives across Ireland.
Dates for your diary…
Irish Unity: Time to Prepare is out on October 5th.
Ben is speaking at the Ireland’s Future event in 3 Arena Dublin on Saturday October 1st.
He will be speaking at our irishborderpoll.com debate in London hosted by the Battle of Ideas on Saturday October 15th – From IndyRef2 To A Border Poll: Are We Afraid Of Democracy?
On Monday October 17th, Ben will be speaking at our irishborderpoll.com event, Time For Irish Unity?, in the Wilson Room at Portcullis House, Parliament in London at 7pm. Every North of Ireland Party with MPs has been invited onto the panel. All welcome.