Gerry Adams becomes the first Sinn Fein leader to address the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Swansea this morning. He will use rational, pragmatic and economic arguments to urge them to join in the historic endeavour to bring about the reunification of the people of Ireland and promises that Orange marches will have their place in a new Ireland albeit on the basis of respect and cooperation.He will say that the Irish question as it has been described by some is not simply one for the Irish but that the peoples of Britain have a duty to themselves, to unionists in particular, to the Irish in general and even to the world to stand up and speak their opinion on the issue of the reunification of Ireland.
Appealing to unionists, Adams will promise to…
address the genuine fears and concerns of unionists in a meaningful way. We need to look at what they mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts. We need to look at ways in which the unionist people can find their place in a new Ireland. In other words it needs to be their United Ireland.
He will eschew any notion of revenge or humiliation. He will say that…
Sinn Féins vision of a new Ireland is of a shared Ireland, an integrated Ireland, an Ireland in which unionists have equal ownership; an Ireland in which there will be respect for cultural diversity, and a place in which there is political, social, economic and cultural equality. There is no desire on the part of Irish republicans to conquer or humiliate unionists. There can be no place for revenge in the thinking or vocabulary of Irish Republicanism.
He also says that Nationalists and republicans want our rights, but we do not seek to deny the rights of anybody else. The real distinction that we have always drawn is between justice and privilege. Justice for all and privilege for none.
The Sinn Fein leader will couch his argument in pragmatic terms:
There are also common sense economic and social and environmental and health and many other reasons why Irish reunification makes sense over partition. The reality is that the economy of the North is too small to exist in isolation. The economies of both parts of the island are interlinked and interdependent. The delivery of public services is restricted and inefficient. There are two competing industrial development bodies seeking inward investment, with no coordination in supporting local industries. We have two arts councils and two sports councils and three tourists bodies. This is not efficient.
The overall theme of the Assembly meeting in Swansea is tackling the recession and Adams will deny that this is a reason for postponing reunification:
There are some who suggest that because we live in a period of severe economic difficulty that Irish reunification should be put off for the foreseeable future. In fact the opposite is the case. There is now a need, more than ever, for the island economy to be brought into being in the fullest sense, and for the political and administrative structures to be instituted with that in mind. Many in the business community, north and south, already recognise this fact. And all the indications are that the European Union also understands how the needs of Ireland can best be met by treating it as an island rather than as two entities on an island.
He will conclude that Geography does not necessarily determine politics, but neither can it be ignored in assessing what is the most effective approach to meeting the challenges of economic development and satisfying the needs of communities.
The border can become irrelevant for most practical and commercial considerations and meet the practical considerations outlined above without necessarily being removed. We have, I hope, come a long way since an old left-wing friend, reflecting the poverty of thought at least on the British Left, argued that Ireland should be united because its an island, innit.
The geography of the island may lend itself to different arrangements for Northern Ireland, even as part of the UK. For instance, there have been suggestions that the rate of tax on fuel should be varied to bring them into line with the south and so take the profit out of (republican) petrol smuggling. There have been arguments for aligning corporate tax regimes throughout the island. Sometime back a unionist was quoted, at the then British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body that he opposed north-south co-operation as a unionist but welcomed them as a businessman.
From these extracts, there appears to be a great deal of work to do in the detail of how Britishness can be accommodated in a new Ireland. Some years back, at a meeting of the British-Irish Body, the then Labour MP Harry Barnes tackled this question by asking if it might mean a new constitution, flag and capital city Armagh was, from memory, suggested. If there were a united Ireland, it would probably have to be more than Dublin plus.
I am personally neutral on the issue I have no selfish strategic or economic interest so to speak – as long as it done by consent. But Adams will probably have to wait a long time before the suspicions and divisions engendered by the Troubles subside and will, in my view, have to address the need for greater unity within Northern Ireland before anything else becomes likely. I would also say, as a long-term supporter, that a key issue is integrated education as well as desegregating housing.
I wonder what impact the sort of non-triumphalist approach outlined above by Adams might have had a generation ago. Sunningdale for slow learners and all that. But we are where we are, politically as well as geographically.
Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.