Durkan challenges nationalism on unity and calls for a Northern Assembly in United Ireland

Addressing the ‘Phil’ at Trinity College Dublin tonight Mark Durkan (full speech here) has said nationalists throughout Ireland have the right to ask all their parties how they intend now to advance unity while underpinning and respecting the Good Friday Agreement. He has also argued for the retention of a regional Assembly in the North.

All of us who are nationally minded democrats on this island should develop and agree an attitude about unity which can be neither dismissed as a nationalist fantasy or denounced as a unionist nightmare.

I believe we have a shared duty to assure nationalists throughout the island that we have a coherent, competent approach to persuading for unity without jeopardising the Agreement we now have. Equally, we have a shared duty to reassure unionists that we have a vision that does not threaten them or subvert the Agreement – and would not trap their identity or thwart their interests.

We have explored and touched on such things before in both the Forum for a New Ireland and then, in a different context, the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in the 1994-’96 period. We have unfinished business from that Forum. It was working on a paper which, among other points, espoused the goal of unity by consent. This paper was never produced because Sinn Fein rejected the principle of unity by consent and denounced it as simply a Unionist veto. They then denied and prevented a democratic nationalist consensus on unity.

However, they have now implicitly embraced the principle of consent in accepting the Good Friday Agreement and agreeing an end to the IRA.

The SDLP would call on all parties to return to the mode of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation or a smaller strategic commission to build a consensus and develop understanding that were previously frustrated.

We could agree a scenario for unity that can begin with retaining a regional Assembly in the North with whatever cross-community protections are still agreed to be needed. But one where we use the review process to adjust the scope of such devolution in the context of the strong Northern presence in the United Ireland parliament as compared with its small presence in the UK Parliament.

A model of a united Ireland that also retains and sustains the British-Irish frameworks contained in the Agreement. Just as North-South arrangements are especially valued by nationalists in the North but benefit all, so too for unionists with British-Irish structures in a United Ireland.

This would demonstrate to Unionism that the Agreement did not just challenge and change them but nationalism going forward too.