Among the chaos of this week came an interesting titbit from Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. According to Ryan our own Clare Bailey, the party leader in Northern Ireland, was behind the decision to rename the ‘united island’ unit in the Department of the Taoiseach to the ‘shared island’ unit.
Clare Bailey hasn’t confirmed whether Ryan’s comments are correct or not. If it’s true and she suggested the name ‘shared island’ because it would be more acceptable to unionists, she was right. On Sunday Politics last week Arlene Foster stated that she didn’t see the unit as a threat and distinguished it from a unit focused on constitutional change.
Is the Department of the Taoiseach a top priority for unionists and loyalists? Probably not. Whether the unit will have any practical impact to be seen. As we’ve seen in Northern Ireland, local communities and activists are the drivers of change; our politicians follow. The change from ‘united island’ to ‘shared island’ is still welcome. To talk about a shared island is to acknowledge different traditions, identities and the fact that the island has two different jurisdictions. A shared island is realistic. A shared island is the present and the future, no matter what happens constitutionally.
If Bailey did suggest the name change, it isn’t surprising. The south Belfast MLA has shown in the past that she understands the complexities and difficulties that would come with a united Ireland. Speaking at the Beyond Brexit: Ireland’s Future conference in the Waterfront Hall last year, Bailey talked about the need to tackle homelessness and inter-generational trauma if a united Ireland ever happens. She said she would not “swap one abusive system for another.” It was Bailey that pointed out that an image of British passport should have appeared on the conference’s programme.
In asking for the unit to be renamed the ‘shared island unit’, perhaps Bailey was reflecting on her own party’s engagement with loyalism and unionism. In 2018, the Green party signed up to a flag protocol on the Ormeau Road. That protocol supported the flying of union flags and Ulster flags being flown from lampposts from June to September. The Greens were both criticised and praised for their actions. The protocol is a debate for another day but it’s a clear example of the party trying to grapple with an issue that’s important to some unionists.
We aren’t united in Northern Ireland, so we must share. At least, that’s what we try and often fail to do. No doubt, every party in the Executive would argue that the ‘sharing’ in ‘power sharing’ is sarcastic.
A united Ireland is not inevitable. If it never happens, a shared island is what lies ahead of us. If a majority of people in Northern Ireland do vote to join the south, we still won’t be united. Anyone who believes that the removal of the border will lead to hands across the barricades is naive. No matter what the vote count is, there will be a sizeable minority of people on this island who identify as British and are British. We have our own national anthem, identity, culture and traditions. Northern Ireland has a growing middle ground that doesn’t align itself with orange and green. If north and south ever become one, we will have to share.
Whatever happens in the future, focusing on on the here and now allows everybody to work together towards common goals and purpose. Sharing is all we will ever have.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.