Matt Carthy is a Sinn Fein MEP for the Ireland Midlands-North West constituency
Something big is happening.
Brexit has simply accelerated a debate on Irish Unity that was inevitably going to happen anyway.
Irish Unity featured during the recent Westminster election campaign in a way in which it hasn’t in living memory.
That is simply a reflection of what is occurring in communities, within civic society and among members and supporters of all the main political parties North & South with the obvious exception of the unionists.
The SDLP election campaign call for a post-Brexit Irish Unity referendum was welcome development. So too is Fianna Fáil’s assertion that they will publish their proposals on a United Ireland soon. The fact that the issue of Irish Unity even embedded itself into the Fine Gael leadership contest proves, beyond any doubt, that the sands are shifting.
Unfortunately in all instances these parties have yet to reach the point where they can advocate for Irish unity without simultaneously attacking Sinn Féin.
For our part Sinn Féin understand that we cannot win a United Ireland campaign without the support of other pro-unity parties.
They, likewise, need to recognise that Irish Unity won’t happen without Sinn Féin.
We will happily challenge, debate and argue with those parties on most current political, social economic issues – in many cases we will have fundamental disagreements.
But, on the biggest issue before our people – that of the reunification of our country – we apparently agree. So, why not work together in the knowledge that it is only by doing so that we have any prospect of delivering it.
Up to this point Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael & the SDLP have refused to accept Sinn Féin invitations to join with us in setting out a collective vision for a United Ireland. For example all have been invited to our National Conference to be held in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on 24th June. Those invitations remain unanswered.
Of course, some have cast doubts over their real desire to pursue this objective. Many fear that the rhetoric of unity is coupled with a series of excuses as to why it shouldn’t be pursued.
For many years the question of a United Ireland was met with the rhetorical question (by supposed advocates of the proposition) “But, can we afford it?”
When the economics of Unity became so obvious, helped in no small part by studies such as the Hubner report on Modelling Irish Unity, the response changed to “This isn’t the right time”. As if after over 100 years since the Easter Rising and almost 20 since the Good Friday agreement it was “too soon” to address the issue of partition.
Regardless, Brexit has put paid to that argument.
To most people it makes no political, economic or social sense to have one part of this island inside the EU and another outside.
Understandably, the prospect of the North being removed from the European Union against the will of the people living there, and a reinforcing of the border, has raised many questions about the future.
More people than ever, North and a South, are saying that we need to look now at creating new political structures that benefit all our people across the island.
It is becoming clearer that we need new constitutional arrangements that better suit the new realities of Ireland today.
Brexit has created an entirely new dynamic for the building of a new and agreed United Ireland. The argument that “this isn’t the right time” simply doesn’t stack up any longer.
For some this will just mean changing the argument. A glimpse of this was on view during the aforementioned recent Fine Gael leadership contest when the now-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cast doubt as to whether a 50%-plus-one vote would be sufficient to secure a United Ireland. This was a question previously put by Mr. Varadkar’s predecessor, John Bruton.
It is a mischievous position and blatantly so.
The Good Friday Agreement is specific and unambiguous on this point that both governments will:
recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland;
It is clear that a 50% plus one vote will secure unity. But, let’s not have it so close.
We should work together with the common objective of convincing the greatest possible number of people across Ireland that Unity is in their best interest. And let us convince those who think otherwise that they have nevertheless nothing to fear from the outcome of a referendum.
What Brexit and the election results demonstrate is that there is now an urgent need for an inclusive, constructive debate on our future.
This must include constitutional options and what a United Ireland might look like.
Unionist representatives also need to be involved in that debate. They need to influence it.
They cannot remain aloof from this discussion. Attempting to do so amounts merely to head-in-the-sand politics and does nothing to serve the interests of the people unionist parties claim to represent.
Unionists and nationalists, North and South, cannot continue to seek to live separately. Our futures are bound together.
Economy and society across the island of Ireland are intertwined. The prospect of Brexit has merely served to highlight that reality.
Back-to-back development and wasteful duplication serves nobody, in either jurisdiction.
It is unarguable that a United Ireland will act as a spur for economic growth, job creation and a society across the whole island where all our citizens can prosper.
Recent changes have presented new opportunities for building strong, enduring relations between the two historic traditions on this island.
It is the time to come together to design a pathway to a new, agreed and inclusive Ireland.
All our people, from all backgrounds and traditions, Orange and Green must be involved in that. All parties need to engage and all who advocate for Unity need to come together to develop common positions where we can.
Something big is happening.
We now have a unique opportunity to build a future beyond Partition, sectarianism and division.
It is a historic opportunity to build a society that serves the interests of all the people who share this island.
It’s an opportunity to deliver a United Ireland. Let’s seize it.