Active north-south cooperation would be the intelligent unionist response to Sinn Fein’s vision of unity out of Brexit

There has been a delayed reaction of critical comment on the Oireacthas report on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in the light of Brexit. The report called for special status for Northern Ireland within the EU but coupled it with a drive to work for unionist consent to a united Ireland. This would include a new New Ireland Forum of the type held in the early 1980s which recognised unionist Britishness but was repudiated by Fianna Fail and boycotted by the unionist parties.

It comes as no surprise that this coupling has been made and that it has been criticised by unionists and the Alliance party. So far, so predictable. But Leo Varadkar made a more interesting case at Queen’s last week. The Union would actually be strengthened by a solution involving the whole UK having a close relationship with the single market, a point highlighted by Henry McDonald in the Belfast Telegraph. While the repudiation of a border in the Irish Sea removed one obstacle to intelligent north-south debate it exposed the big one – unity – as well as the resulting vacuum in the Brexit debate.

In the QBOL website in a two part article, Professor John Barry has analysed the joint report as “Irish nationalism talking to itself” (and incidentally making some heroic neo-liberal assumptions of the affordability of unity).

Here perhaps the report reveals itself as an Irish Nationalist document. It assumes at various points in the report that it is only unionists who have to be persuaded as unionists are the ones maintaining support for the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK.

t used to be a classic Irish republican slogan-cum-bad arithmetic to state ‘26+6=1’, now this has been replaced in this report with ‘1998 Agreement + Brexit = Irish Unity’.  To the bad adding up of the former we now have a report which is effectively nationalist and republican Ireland talking to itself. The lack of alternative perspectives, a rigorous challenging of the ‘inevitable logic’ of a United Ireland as a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ reminds me of social media dialogue when one can ‘defriend’ and remove those that disagree with you.

Rather than this report being a serious argument for Irish Unity (though it has certainly prepared the ground for future and perhaps improved arguments and evidence), it is either aimed at achieving unity amongst those across the island wishing for the reunification of Ireland, and/or basically a pre-nuptial agreement between Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin in advance of a future coalition government.

Different indeed opposite views of the interaction between Brexit and Irish unity are second in line  in hampering the chances of effective north-south cooperation on planning the post -Brexit  relationship,  the first being the absence of a coherent British plan for the future.     We hope to get an inkling of that in a week or so.

But it can be perfectly well argued that a positive approach to north-south cooperation  in managing through  Brexit would give unionism the broader base and more confident appeal it needs for longer term survival. The DUP  are in an excellent position to influence the debate at Westminster on behalf of  Northern Ireland’s real interests. It would act as a  dramatic and powerful catalyst in cutting through Sinn Fein’s boycott tactics and restoring the Assembly. The trouble is, no one has the imagination or confidence  to adopt  this approach.

The higher profile of the unity debate can’t simply be brushed aside or merely complained about. It has emboldened Gerry Adams to demand a unity strategy from both the main parties in the Republic, looking ahead to the shape of a future government whether a minority or a majority coalition, with Sinn Fein as a potential partner. While this may be bravado on Adams’ part, it exploits a genuine problem for the two main government parties, of how to weigh the aspiration for unity through the complexities of Brexit, while at the same time competing to lead the next government. Sinn Fein seem to think a bolder position on unity is a winner as a response to Brexit. Are they right?




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London