Working towards Irish Unity

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Opinion

Change-is-coming-CROP

Change is coming. Prepare for it.

A guest post by author Ben Collins.

It is often said that two things in life are inevitable, death and taxes. I would like to add a third, embarking on constitutional change without planning beforehand leads to disaster. There is significant political change happening in Northern Ireland and we want to avoid the chaos of Brexit. For the second election in a row Sinn Féin, a party in favour of Irish unity has received the largest number of votes and seats in the region. https://www.rte.ie/news/2023/0521/1384788-ni-elections-analysis/  We must now put a plan in place setting out how a newly reunited Ireland will come into existence and what this will mean for all who live across the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland was carved out of the island of Ireland in 1921 by the British government, to ensure that it had a permanent Protestant and pro-British majority. It now has neither, as the 2021 Northern Ireland census showed that there are now more Catholics in the region than Protestants, for the first time in its history. https://www.nisra.gov.uk/system/files/statistics/census-2021-main-statistics-for-northern-ireland-phase-1-statistical-bulletin-religion.pdf  This on its own does not guarantee that we will see the reunification of Ireland. But it does highlight the need to prepare now for Irish unity.

We have recently seen the coronation of King Charles III in London. He is a British monarch who wants friendly relations between Britain and Ireland. He has previously spoken of his desire to visit all 32 counties of Ireland. https://www.independent.ie/world-news/prince-charles-says-uk-ireland-friendship-will-endure-as-he-plans-to-visit-all-32-counties/37888211.html His late mother Queen Elizabeth II led by example on reconciliation between the two islands when she visited Dublin in 2011 and paid her respects to those who died in the fight for Irish freedom at the Garden of Remembrance. 

Sinn Fein are now the largest party in Northern Ireland and they also consistently have the highest support in opinion polls in the Republic of Ireland. https://www.irishecho.com/2023/3/polls-put-sinn-fein-out-ahead  The next general election in Ireland, expected in fall 2024, is likely to see a Sinn Féin led coalition government with Irish unity as a prime objective. The UK Labour party is on course to win the next UK election, which is due by Jan 2025. Their Northern Ireland spokesperson has stated that Labour in government will set out the criteria which will trigger the calling of a referendum on Irish unity. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-63024056#:~:text=There%20are%20no%20set%20criteria,part%20of%20a%20united%20Ireland%22.  

If the voters of Britain wish to pursue an ill-defined project such as Brexit, to supposedly reclaim their sovereignty, that is their right. For me sovereignty is not a flag on a pole, it is food on the table and a roof over your head. No part of Ireland should have been forced to leave the European Union by votes in Britain. Everyone who live across Ireland should be allowed to embrace our European destiny. Preparing now for Irish unity will help to deliver this.

I believe that there is a strong possibility that there will be a referendum on Irish unity within the next decade and that it can be won by a cross-party coalition of those who favour the reunification of Ireland. None of this will be easy and we must have a plan in place beforehand which sets out what Irish unity means. Peace and prosperity for all who live across Ireland must be the twin objectives of any plan. While we are a quarter century on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, many people still remember the trauma and violence which happened beforehand. The referendum campaign should be an evidence-based conversation about which option, Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK or reuniting Ireland, will provide the best future for all. The Irish unity plan must clearly set out how the rights of all minorities will be protected and their place in Ireland cherished.

While it will be for the people of Ireland alone to decide on this future, others will have an important role to play. We know that the Biden administration is committed to safeguarding the peace and supporting prosperity through investment. The European Union has also shown by its words and actions that it is fully committed to the success of Ireland. Irish unity will facilitate a reset of relations between Ireland and Britain. This will help to remove the friction to the relationship which was caused by Brexit. Just as Sinn Féin have shown the possibilities of a new beginning through their attendance at the coronation of King Charles, despite being avowed Irish Republicans, so the British monarch is playing his part. He included the indigenous languages of Irish, Welsh and Scots Gaelic in his coronation service. In 1997 he oversaw the handing back of Hong Kong to China, so he has previous experience of presiding over the return of British territory to another country. While his time as King will be shorter than his late mother served as Head of State, he will have an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy through his continued relationship-building with Ireland, both before and after its reunification. 

Ben Collins is a writer based in Belfast and the author of Irish Unity: Time to Prepare (Luath Press).