Prospective government to set up a unit “to work towards a consensus on a shared island”…

Well, it seems something is finally moving in the Republic. There are several documents running about amongst the Dublin press, but from a Northern point of view, this could be the most interesting (time will tell if it is actually important).

In the Irish Times, they report that a new unit is to be set up in the Taoiseach’s office, “to work towards a consensus on a shared island.”:

“This unit will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected.”

The idea has been bandied around in Dublin as a United Ireland Unit, but here is the pluralist voice of Micheál Martin, who has been a critical not of cross border institutions but the abandonment of North-South as a priority for the two governments.

What’s most notable in this analysis is the sheer dearth of ideas brought forward by any of the three cardinal points in this part internal, part international relationship. Brexit alone means the Republic must get closer to NI if only to protect its own interests.

Sinn Féin’s boost in southern popularity comes along with some buy-in amongst some opinion formers that Unity is not far around the corner and that the government needs to project it’s own views of what that might look like.

But data from Liverpool University’s election survey from last December suggests up to 20% of the population are not interested in the constitutional issue. Posturing, and the polarisation it begets, is wearing (and not in a good way).

Rumours of the imminent arrival of UI are a result of it being Sinn Féin’s raison d’etre. There’s no plan and no sense that any of the new non-unionist (unlike Scotland) are remotely interested in selling anything as disruptive as the end of partition.

The new unit could serve a new Lemass-like class of activism in more tangible shared interests (the sort not predetermined by identity) in growing the island’s cake using shared opportunities for small businesses on both sides of the border.

It could try to tap into Stormont’s newfound confidence and relative popularity arising from its handling of the Covid 19 crisis, and the small bump in May’s budget (albeit it came without much detail or a recognisable PfG).

As we’ve seen from the disjunctures in public health (with in the UK, never mind the jurisdictions on the island), there is also huge scope across policy areas for feeding bodies like the North-South Ministerial Council with the work of building co-operation.

Brexit, conveniently forgotten under the stresses and strains of Covid 19, may come back with a vengeance if the ultimate result is a no-deal, and producers in both parts of the island have to deal with state aid and a cliff drop in prices for beef and chicken.

What are the contingencies? Where are those conversations now? Or are they even happening at all?

With Northern Ireland remaining inside both the UK Customs Union and the EU Customs Code it could be in a unique position to drive an all-island economy in its own better interests. That will need willing partners to make it happen.

Talk is cheap, and this unit won’t have long to prove its worth. They need to start by building bridges (or mending old ones that have fallen into disrepair through the political neglect of the last ten years).

That means ramping up engagement with NI  (nationalists are feeling as ignored/betrayed as unionists) with a view to expanding a broader sense of common purpose, with key departments like Foreign Affairs and Trade and Enterprise bringing real agency.

The return on such engagement will be successes (and failures) in places where we least expect them. It’s an opportunity to plant seeds, and frame and then reframe in order to build a virtuous spiral rather than endlessly decrying our mutual inefficiencies.

Or that oppressive sense of the last few years of ‘there’s nothing out there really’ as Anna Burns describes it in her novel Milkman other than the old enmities and embedded narratives to fall back on.

Time to choose stories that grow life and allow us to breath and to grow and to flourish.

Chain bridge, Zhangjiajie” by cattan2011 is licensed under CC BY

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