Considering the future of Northern Ireland

A panel considered how to engage in a friendly and unthreatening conversation about the future constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland. This was held as part of a concluding reflection on the Holywell Trust’s series of 35 Forward Together podcast interviews.

The panel comprised author Julieann Campbell, the commentator Denis Bradley (who was co-chair of the Consultative Group on the Past and former deputy chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board) and Maureen Hetherington of the Junction, plus myself as the person who conducted interviews for the podcasts.

This podcast also includes contributions from audience members Eamonn Deane, chair of the Holywell Trust, and Declan McGonagle, a former director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.

We began by listening to extracts from earlier podcasts.  Former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mike Nesbitt called for unionism to recognise that the environment is changing: the demographics are changing, there is a rise in English and Scottish nationalism and the attitude of the DUP is causing the political environment to change.

Irish language activist Linda Ervine urged a new discussion to take place, considering a new Ireland within a close-knit British Isles, involving a closer link between Ireland and England.

Victims campaigner Alan McBride argued this is not the right time to have a discussion about Irish unity, but that the time might come in the next few years, depending on the impact of Brexit – a bad Brexit for Northern Ireland while the Irish Republic prospered through its membership of the EU could create the conditions for that discussion.

Peter Sheridan – chief executive of Co-operation Ireland and former assistant chief constable of the PSNI – said that this is the wrong time for a debate on unity, which might need to wait for five or 10 years. What is required is for everyone to be told what Irish unity would look like, not to just have a yes or no vote with inadequate information.

In his earlier podcast interview Denis Bradley said that one of the things that has changed is that the Europeans have accepted that they have a key role in determining the future of Northern Ireland, for cross-border relationships and the constitutional settlement.

Solicitor and former president of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce Philip Gilliland described Brexit as “a gift”, because it allows Protestants for the first time to discuss the constitutional settlement without it being a heresy. Brexit has demonstrated that the British don’t know or care about Northern Ireland. “It has allowed all of us to consider why we were unionists in the first place.”

In the panel debate Denis said that everything at a constitutional level has now changed. He predicted there will be another referendum on Scottish independence. “And of course we can consider Ireland re-joining the Commonwealth.” He added that it is no longer just about Protestants and Catholics, or just north and south, but about relationships across all of these islands. Brexit will force us to have a mature debate.

Denis added: “I don’t think a border poll should happen any time soon, but it shouldn’t be off the table.” A border poll being up for discussion is the only way to get unionists to discuss the future, he suggested.

In my contribution I raised doubts as to whether republicans are correct in suggesting that a unity poll would necessarily generate a majority in favour in the south, especially given the weak state of the northern economy. I argued that it is in the interests of both unionists and republicans for Northern Ireland to be an efficient and functional society – for unionists to continue to receive the financial and political support of English nationalists and for republicans to obtain the votes for unity in a referendum of people in the Republic.

Maureen suggested that much of the population in the south is not deeply committed to reunification, nor do they have much understanding of the north. Her main concern is the recovery of truth. She added that Brexit is “a brilliant opportunity” to move beyond tribal politics. We need to have an informed choice over the future, not a simple yes or no vote.

Julieann expressed the view that it is wonderful that the current situation provoked by Brexit is seen as an opportunity, not just as a negative.

Declan McGonagle argued that it is dangerous to consider only the economics of unity – we need to deal with the bigotry and divisions within our society. Eamonn Deane added that we should consider the current situation as an opportunity to create a better society.

This latest Forward Together podcast is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify. This is the very last Forward Together podcast. A complete collection of the transcribed and edited interviews will be published in the early part of next year.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.


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