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What an Irish Government should seek from a new British Government on day one

When Simon Harris became Taoiseach on 9 April 2024 he promised new ideas and new energy. While he is Ireland’s youngest ever Taoiseach, he comes to the role with significant experience, as he has been a government minister since 2014. Shortly before his election he stated in a TV interview that a “United Ireland is a legitimate aspiration but not a priority.”

It would be fair to say that those of us in the North who aspire to Irish unity were somewhat perplexed by his comments at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly shortly after his election, that he’s from a generation “more familiar with Berlin and Paris than Belfast or Derry”.

We all recognise that he became Taoiseach at a time of challenge with less than a year until the next Dàil elections must take place. There are multiple issues requiring his immediate attention such as housing, immigration and the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza and Ukraine. But there is also a pressing issue closer to home, in fact it is to do with the island of Ireland itself, namely Irish unity. We must prepare now to avoid the chaos of Brexit. It is never too early to start planning and we know that a border poll in the next decade is a distinct possibility. The next Westminster election must also take place by early 2025. While we do not know which election will come first, my expectations would be that the British election will take place in late October or November, after the Conservatives have been able to monetise their position as the party of UK Government for one last time before the election. I also think it highly likely that Simon Harris will want as long as possible a time as Taoiseach to make an impact before calling the Irish election in early 2025.

The Labour party through Sue Gray, a former senior civil servant in both Whitehall and Northern Ireland, is apparently preparing a paper in preparation for government, on Anglo-Irish relations. While we do not currently know what this paper contains, we can hope that it shows a genuine desire by the incoming Labour Government to reset British-Irish relations. The once close approach taken by the two governments on a range of issues was helped by their joint membership of the EU, joint stewardship of the peace process and mutual respect. Unfortunately the Conservatives, once a sister party in Europe with Fine Gael but no more, have undermined this relationship through their reckless adoption of a hard Brexit. 

Sinn Féin have been vocal consistently about their desire for reunification, but the unity project must not be seen as the vehicle of one party. There must be a cross-party consensus in favour of preparing for and securing Irish unity, just as there was one to minimise the damage caused to Ireland by Brexit. In the event that Simon Harris is Taoiseach when the British Labour party is voted into government, he will have a unique opportunity to set the agenda on Irish-British relations with Sir Keir Starmer and his team. Harris’ Fine Gael predecessor as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave an assurance to the nationalist people in Northern Ireland when he said: “You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”

He also sought to assure unionists in Northern Ireland that he would not seek to exploit Brexit as a means of securing a United Ireland without consent. We want to see the Taoiseach, whoever he or she is, taking a constructive and engaged approach to the shared challenges and opportunities which all of us who live across Ireland face.  

In his engagements with a new British Prime Minister, there will be a need for both public and private assurances from the British. We are now more than fifty years on from the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and it is way past time that the British Government shared all the information they have on these grievous acts with the Irish Government. The families of the victims deserve to know the truth. The Irish Government should formally and publicly ask the British Government to set out the criteria which would necessitate the calling of a border poll. The incoming British Government should commit to de-escalating the challenges around immigration and instead work collaboratively with the Irish Government to find solutions which are compatible with the Good Friday Agreement and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Ireland and Britain share a unique relationship which is reflected in the Common Travel Area between the two countries. This must enable the creation of shared solutions. Never again must the British Government seek to use the border in Ireland as a point of leverage in their negotiations with the EU or as part of an election campaign tactic. 

There should be regular meetings of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, not once a decade. The British Government should commit to remaining part of the ECHR and recognise that this is necessary to maintain all parts of the Good Friday Agreement. We can assume that Keir Starmer as a barrister and former Director of Public Prosecutions, understands the importance of maintaining law and order. This does not just mean keeping criminals off the streets, it also means governments acting within the parameters of the constitution. Fine Gael consider themselves to be the party of law and order, so hopefully this can be an area where the two governments can work together. 

I was a press officer in the Northern Ireland Office (the UK Government Department) when Chris Sidoti was appointed Chair of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights Forum in 2007. This was almost a decade after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Unfortunately he was, through no fault of his own, unable to see a Bill of Rights being brought into effect for Northern Ireland. Nearly two decades later we are still waiting. Human rights must be seen as a good thing for all people, as we all share the benefits of these being recognised. So I would hope that this would also be an area where Taoiseach Harris can work together with Prime Minister Starmer. 

Keir Starmer has made no secret of his desire for Northern Ireland and Scotland to remain part of the UK. We can respect his views while pointing out that as stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement “it is for the people of Ireland alone” to decide when there will be a United Ireland. I hope that Simon Harris will be proactive in expressing his desire for Irish unity when he meets with Keir Starmer. The Good Friday Agreement helped to end three decades of violence in Northern Ireland. It also ensured that the aspiration for a United Ireland was recognised by the British Government, in an international treaty. We are long past the time when we should have to justify or explain that desiring to see Irish unity achieved through a democratic vote, is an acceptable point of view.  It is not disrespectful, offensive or destabilising to express support for a legitimate aspiration. 

I believe that reconciliation can best be achieved within Northern Ireland, between North and South, as well as between Ireland and Britain, by removing permanently the border on the island of Ireland. To those who would say that talking about a referendum on removing the border in Ireland is divisive, I would point out that the very nature of a border is to divide people. The removal of it will also remove a source of friction which has blighted relations across Ireland and Britain, since it was imposed on Ireland by the British Government more than one hundred years ago. It is through Irish unity that we can best provide the housing, education and job opportunities for all people across Ireland. A New Ireland will make it easier for us to address climate change and to deliver healthcare in a co-ordinated way and to deal with any future pandemics. In short, reunification is the best way for us to achieve a good quality of life for everyone who lives across Ireland. 

Fine Gael’s full title is ‘Fine Gael, the United Ireland Party’. Let us hope that we see this being more than just a longstanding phrase in the time ahead.