Sinn Fein MEP, Matt Carthy was speaking at the D’arcy Magee Summer School in Carlingford, Co. Louth last night;
“The attempted imposition of Brexit on the North against the wishes of the majority living there who voted to remain within the EU, highlighted the undemocratic nature of Partition.
“After decades of lecturing republicans about ‘the principle of consent’ the refusal of the British Government to respect the expressed will of a majority of voters in the Six Counties should not be lost on anybody.
“Brexit has swept away many previous assumptions about the constitutional, political and economic status quo in Ireland. All of us now have an obligation to examine new constitutional, political and economic arrangements that better suit Ireland’s needs in 2017.
“The challenge of Brexit, puts an onus on all political parties North and South as well as the media to create space for a real debate on the prospects of a united Ireland in the future.
“As Britain jettisoned its previous relationship with Europe and became increasingly insular and isolated, the appeal of being part of a new and outward-looking Ireland would prove ever more attractive to young people from a unionist background.
“Some commentators and politicians had recently sought to cast doubt on whether a 50% plus-one vote would be sufficient to secure a United Ireland.
“This is both mischievous and dangerous. The Good Friday Agreement is specific and unambiguous on this point.
“I believe that all those in favour of Irish unity should work together with the common objective of convincing the greatest possible number of people across Ireland that Unity is in their best interest.
“There is now an urgent need for a constructive, inclusive 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.
“The British identity of many people in the North can and must be accommodated in an agreed, united Ireland.
“This may involve constitutional and political safeguards including protections for the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the North.
“Economy and society across the island of Ireland are intertwined. The prospect of Brexit has merely served to highlight that reality. It is 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.
I have bolded some of the bits in Carthy’s remarks that I would like to unpack as a potential way forward for republicans on the United Ireland file.
First, the 50 plus 1 issue. I have listened to commentators such as Fintan O’Toole articulate their view that such a result would not be desirable in a political context. What I read into O’Toole’s remarks was not something about the legality of such a result, on this there is no question about what the threshold for a victory is. However, much like the inevitability logic, what needs to be guarded against is viewing 50.1% as the simple end goal.
In many ways, a vote for a United Ireland is a much about those who will vote against it as those who support it. For those who oppose it, we have a duty to ensure that we are ready the day after a vote in favour with proposals/concrete actions that can be taken to reassure them that their voices will be heard and that they still have a place in our community. Republicans will deliver on a United Ireland, but taking on this task with all the ideas and commonsense we can muster. If we pursue a Brexiter type strategy where we get a win and then are caught with our pants down in the months that follow, then we will have rubbished any progress that will have been made during a campaign.
So, when we talk about not seeking 50 plus 1, I am not talking about simply percentages, I am talking about a mindset and an approach. An approach that doesn’t view things in sectional ways or puts groups apart. This is the way in which we actually deliver a United Ireland.
Then, we have another part of a strategy which is seeking Unionist engagement for a “new Ireland.” On the face of it, it’s a welcome thing to see people seeking dialogue with Unionism, however as an actual strategy it is flawed. It is unlikely that Unionism will do any real engagement in this debate before a vote is held. Think about it for a moment, would the Remain campaign have engaged with Vote Leave on how the UK should exit the EU before June 23rd? Indeed, would Sinn Fein engage in a debate about strengthening the United Kingdom? Unionism will be mustering their strength to argue for the status quo and why a United Ireland is a bad idea. Seeking this substantive engagement before a vote is putting the kart before the horse.
But how then do Republicans seek to assuage Unionist concerns without substantive engagement?
- Prepare for a referendum like you have already won it. Have a serious of principles that a United Ireland can be based on (a covenant for want of a better term) which is signed up to by the leaders of the main parties but most importantly the Taoiseach.
- A list of draft proposals for continued association with the UK. This will be difficult for some on the Yes side to agree too, but it’s too important for community cohesion to ignore. Issues around this is something akin to the Nordic Council/Link into the Commonwealth for N.Ireland/Maintenance of Stormont in a (this is important) federal Ireland with a power sharing administration in Belfast.
- A recognition that this process will not be decided by Sinn Fein/SDLP alone, the main talks will be between the British and Irish governments with the relevant parties consulted as to how this process will be completed with transition periods and new arrangements to be decided in these talks. I have lost count of how many Unionists I have spoken to, who genuinely think it will be Gerry Adams they will have to negotiate with. Parties like Sinn Fein, are only one piece of this jigsaw and it will be the Irish government that the formal talks happen with.
- A statement that the equality provisions outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and the relevant legislation protecting sections of the community will continue in a United Ireland.
In essence, our mission statement for this will work has already been outlined by Edward Carson who when speaking about the new state he envisioned said;
They must forget faction and section …… If Ulster does what I ask her to do, and what I hope and believe she will do, in setting up an example and a precedent of good government, fair government, honest government, and a government not for sections or factions, but for all.
This was everything that the eventual Unionist government went on to not do in their reign.
These are just some ideas I have on this issue and others will no doubt have their own proposals. Hopefully, we can now get a move on with some new ideas on the table.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs