London and Belfast are fraught with uncertainty at the moment. Twas ever thus. But in Dublin even the most stubborn in the political class are beginning to take seriously the need to plan for unity in the not-too-distant future. Here, Brian Críostoir, argues for what a responsible but radical, non-sectarian approach could look like — in ten ‘easy steps’.
1. Invite all Irish citizens and all residents of Ireland to vote in the Presidential Elections
There is already a majority for this in the Irish state according to polling and the constitutional convention on the issue in 2012. But a government push could create a much bigger one. Unlike elections to Dáil Eireann, the Presidential elections are not constituency-based; everyone in the North would be able to vote, meaning Ireland would have whole-Island elections for the first time since 1918. Dublin has backed the idea in principle since 2017. A referendum on the constitutional law of this matter was due to happen back in 2019 but was postponed because of ‘Brexit turmoil’. Let’s get on with it. Britain’s diplomatic turmoil shouldn’t delay Ireland’s democratic process.
2. Ensure representation for the 6 Counties in the Seanad. Directly elect the upper
While political unity under a single jurisdiction is only one aspect of a United Ireland, it is a central one. Ireland needs to become more democratic for any reconciliation to occur. A directly elected upper house could create the conditions for a new breath of life in the Oireachtas and hasten the decline of ‘Civil War’ politics and the arcane system of nominations for the Seanad that currently exists. It would also help northern Protestants find a voice in the southern state as we work towards carving out a lasting constitutional settlement. Hostility to Dublin has increased in recent years as the southern establishment is blamed by the unionist community for the Protocol and Windsor Framework, the DUP accusing Varadkar of being ‘aggressive’ from day one. Unionists will initially boycott a Seanad election for obvious reasons. But those who want to can engage, just as is the case with nationalist representation in Westminster. In this period of non-government a small portion of the electorate in the 6 counties is represented at Westminster. But delegates to the Seanad could utilise this more permanent forum, especially given the perennial crisis of the Good Friday institutions.
3. Bring healthcare, drug manufacturing and social care into public ownership
One of the biggest non-constitutional sticking points for uniting the island is the absence of public healthcare in the south — specifically the barrier of having to pay health insurance as well as prohibitive fees of around €80 to see a GP. Not only does socialised healthcare make more sense in terms of cost effectiveness and social justice, it’s also already been demonstrated to work more efficiently since the Dublin government effectively nationalised healthcare during the pandemic. What works in times of scarcity will thrive in times of abundance. Cross-border cooperation is already in place for specialised healthcare and research has shown it can be rolled out. Both jurisdictions on the island have fledgling reproductive healthcare services, especially for abortion. Ireland’s Future produced an excellent report of both the challenges and the incredible opportunities here: An Opportunity for a World Class, All Island National Health Service.
Professor Jim Dornan is quoted in the report and sums up the emergent view that ‘The common-sense approach would be a totally harmonised all-island health service. There should be no borders in health’. Both the NHS and the HSE are suffering from long-term weaknesses and in some ways are exacerbating the others’ problems, for example with recruitment and retention of font line staff. If ever there was an obvious win-win for everyone of a united Ireland, it is health, longer life expectancy and care for our citizens when – and where – they need it most.
4. Revitalise Protestant communities in the south
Many protestants fled for the North or for Britain in the 1920s, fearing retribution, sectarian violence or cultural suppression in the newly-formed confessional Catholic state. The Irish government could offer a range of programmes, from subsidised housing and community projects to exchanges and scholarships for students, and jobs for workers and carers from Protestant communities in, for example, Belfast or Glasgow. Protestants need to see that prospect of being subsumed into a nation that rejects their social and cultural rights is nonsense.
Already Dublin has committed 2 million Euro to find Erasmus exchanges for students from the north. Tiny amounts of expenditure like this can transform lives. Where are the projects to encourage working class protestants to attend Irish universities or to study the Irish language? In recent years, educational outcomes in the south have surpassed those in the north, which has come as a surprise to those who still advocate for selective schooling in the north. It is estimated that 25% of the 27% wage gap between north and south is attributable to lower educational attainment in the six counties. And these trends are most obvious when looking at underachievement of working class protestants, particularly boys. We need an answer to this now deeply-ingrained disadvantage.
5. Synchronise election cycles so that Stormont and the Dáil have the same intervals. Make election day a shared bank holiday
Concurrent elections would help to put cross-border and cross community co-operation in sharp focus. As Sinn Féin prepare to have a go at (most likely coalition) government in the south and as senior partner in power-sharing in the north, elections in both jurisdictions could help them communicate with clarity their vision, but also hold them to account on the occasions where they argued for policies in one jurisdiction and protest against them in the other. This would also help to create impetus for Stormont to actually function. For those of us who advocate for a united Ireland we know that Stormont is not the solution, but neither do we benefit from the constant threat of direct rule and a political class on permanent paid holiday.
6. End complicity in US war crimes and restate commitment to neutrality, peace and international cooperation
Ireland has been a leader in international aid and development, through both government work, public donations, charity volunteering and work abroad. Ireland’s reputation could be bolstered by refusing to allow US warplanes to refuel at Shannon airport, which is not required by any international treaty (Ireland is not a member of NATO). A United Ireland should be free of the legacies of the British Empire, but not at the cost of integrating into the new world disorder of America airpower. In order for Ireland to be a welcoming place, all vestiges of militarism, jingoism and Irish exceptionalism must go — starting with the idea that we are a landing platform in the North Atlantic. In the long term, this also sets out our stall very clearly that whatever international support may come (from the US, or EU for example) it will not be paid for in any military quid pro quo. Ireland’s neutrality might seem like a sticking point for conservative-minded unionists and so we need to win the argument that a demilitarised state, committed to peace and diplomacy makes us stand out as an example to other small states, who are constantly pressured to forsake all sorts of sovereignty. We should not cede control over our land, sea, air, resources and (increasingly) digital data about our citizens, to suit the needs of more powerful countries.
7. End Direct Provision
How does Ireland treat non-citizens? Much of the current debate between Irish Republicans and loyalists centres around ‘identity’ and the feeling that the unionist community feels about its loss of ‘Britishness’ as its place in the United Kingdom is eroded, indeed belittled. It is essential that we grasp that there might well be a transition where some people maintain their British citizenship and reject the legitimacy of a new Irish state. We must demonstrate to those people that non-Irish citizens are equally part of our community and are afforded all the rights, dignity and sense of belonging as anyone else. If we don’t do this now, will we do it in a United Ireland?
Tony Benn once said that how a government treats its refugees is instructive of how they would treat everyone if they could get away with it. Dublin and London are in a race to the bottom for the most despicable treatment of vulnerable people fleeing war and climate chaos, whether it’s allowing fascist thugs to burn accommodation or attempting to force desperate families onto barges or flights to Rwanda. This must end. Ireland isn’t full and it should be welcoming new citizens with open arms as a society intent on a vibrant, inclusive, diverse and optimistic future.
8. A strategic programme for home-building and affordable mortgage credit
If you want evidence that successive governments do not care about the north of Ireland, take bus (there are no trains) to Donegal, where you will find thousands of crumbling houses made from poorly regulated building materials. But you don’t even need to go that far. There are over 8 000 homeless people in the south. Huge numbers of young people find rent to be a strain and home-ownership a laughable impossibility. The figures in the north are much worse. Despite having a population less than half the size, around 55 000 people are homeless. In addition, over 90% of social housing is segregated — a figure that would be extreme even in 1950s Alabama. An enormous housing programme is needed to address Ireland’s inequality and divisions. In addition, large parts of the north, west and coastal areas have no train stations, rail infrastructure or even motorway access for cars. A United Ireland needs to be physically as well as socially connected. This would have the added benefit of stemming the unsustainable centralisation of the economy in Dublin and the massive inflation in the cost of living that has come with it.
9. Modernise the constitution (using Citizens Assemblies and a directly elected convention)
De Valera’s Constitution needs an overhaul. It’s not just the outdated phrases about women in the home or the fact that social change needs to be sprinkled into it every few years on divorce and abortion. The constitution was written by elitist priests for an Ireland that honestly no longer exists. A new constitution could do new and exciting things, most importantly engage young people in determining their new society. A constitution that reflected Ireland’s modern society would give recognition and rights to women, LGBTQ+ communities, refugees, travellers, and disabled people, as well as encode protections for workers, consumers, and the environment. These issues are central to modern life, but the old constitution is silent on them. We do not just need a ‘border poll’ that extend the state to Rathlin Island. We need a radical vision for a new Ireland.
10. Publish a long-term vision
The unity debate is still lacking a focal-point and frame of reference. For example, no British secretary of state has ever made clear what the criteria should be for calling a border poll and we shouldn’t be holding our collective breath.
The Good Friday Agreement states that a unity referendum should take place if the Secretary of State believes there could be a nationalist majority. Should this be triggered by elections, or the census, advice from the Irish government or the First Minister and Deputy First Minister? The Dublin government cannot ask for clarity because it lacks its own reference points. Surely it should publish some suggested criteria and start the debate? And to do this it needs a more concrete mandate form the north – hence my previous 9 points!
It could publish a list of possible scenarios and encourage submissions for how to respond? What would a centralised government look like? What about a federal island government, or devolved government in the provinces? We should game this out.
How would citizenship work? What would be the plan for addressing deprivation in the West and North. How would rail and road infrastructure need to improve in those areas to create a de-facto United Ireland in the face of material inequality?
The Shared Island Programme has a €500 million budget for doing research in this area. But it’s bound by the timidity and rigidity of the current administration. It will take a left government to truly embrace Ireland’s shared future. Reform of health and housing were already the focus of anger at the last election and the biggest issue for the southern government. But these 10 proposals can speak to people not just in one part of the country, but across all working-class communities. All these reforms make it clear to northern Protestants that a United Ireland will be constructed by and with them, not despite them. That is the basis on which Unionists might finally feel empowered to engage in debate without conceding any ground on their principles. After all—who doesn’t want better education, health care and housing? If we want to build a ‘home for all’, we need literal homes for all, with the services people need to live in dignity.
These 10 steps are not exhaustive, but they do illustrate how the fight for working-class power and social justice in the here-and-now is directly connected to the fight for Irish unity. Forget the orange and green politics. If we want unity, we will need to build it from today.