What is a shared island?

I am but a mere local political commentator who occasionally gets asked to do TV and radio. Occasionally I regurgitate my annoying opinions in written form. Thanks to my involvement with an upcoming Institute of Irish Studies project, I got the opportunity to ask the Taoiseach about the new Shared Island Unit.

There were scenes on Whatsapp when I told my mum what I was doing. “Martin or Wee Higgins?” she texted, getting mixed up.

In his speech, Micheál Martin said he respected, “everyone’s right on the island to make the case for the constitutional future they wish for NI”. Along with recognising different identities, relationships and aspirations there was also a commitment to engage with women, young people and new communities.  The speech acknowledged unionists, nationalists and the neither’s. £500m is being made available for cross border projects.

I asked how the unit would reach out to unionists and how they could be reassured. The Taoiseach made it very clear that he wouldn’t be pushing for a border poll within the current term of the Dáil. He spoke of his admiration for Seamus Mallon and how he approached the issue. Significantly, I thought, he recognised that unionists need space to engage.

From a pro union/unionist perspective, I thought the speech was encouraging and positive. His answer to my question was very thoughtful. I agree with Mick here that, “Under Martin, the Irish Government is waking up to a solemn responsibility that has been neglected or ignored.”

I wrote about the Shared Island Unit back in July. It’s safe to say that it faces a difficult task. How do you define a shared island? What does an inclusive conversation look like?

The latter question seemed to dominate discussion after the speech. Micheál Martin was asked whether he’d forgotten about a united Ireland. His said he was focused on the Good Friday Agreement and that the question, for him, wasn’t territorial. The online reaction from some quarters was one of anger. How, some asked, can you engage with both communities and ignore aspirations for a united Ireland? A shared island, for some nationalists and republicans, means a future without a border.

For me, a shared island means acknowledging different traditions, identities and the fact that there are two jurisdictions. Its end goal should be better relationships and understanding. Can you have that conversation if it’s only being facilitated to bring about constitutional change? I think it would be very difficult.

A couple of years ago I said that unionists could miss out if they didn’t talk about a united Ireland. I stand by that, but I think I should have thought about forum and the distinction between political and civic unionism. Some asking for unionist engagement on the issue of unity do so in bad faith. They want people to talk so they can use their participation as evidence that a united Ireland is likely. The only unionists invited to the conversation are the ones who say the right things.

Unionists aren’t props. They fear being used and rightly so. You can see that strain of thought in Jim Allister’s response to the Taoiseach’s speech. Allister doesn’t speak for every unionist, but some will share his concerns.

It’s obvious why nationalists and republicans want the Irish government to press for a border poll.  Whatever position the Republic takes, it’s the Northern Ireland Secretary of State in Westminster who will make the decision. There are two types of border polls: a discretionary one that can be called at any time and a mandatory one[1]. The latter must be called if there’s majority support for a united Ireland in Northern Ireland.

Because of political circumstances, nationalists and republicans are currently calling for a discretionary poll. They’re not calling for a poll because they think they can win it. They have a right to do so. I’m obviously biased here, but I don’t think a discretionary border poll would help further the conversation proposed by the Taoiseach.

If a discretionary poll was called the legal reasoning behind the decision would be scrutinised and challenged. Unionists who reject the legitimacy of the poll would likely boycott it. I hate to bring the word divisive into this, because all polls are divisive by their very nature, but a discretionary poll would be very divisive.

Where do our aspirations fit in then, nationalists and republicans will ask? It’s a fair point. Can you talk about a sharing while others campaign for a united Ireland elsewhere? Can the unit survive a new government? The real test will come if Mary Lou McDonald becomes Taoiseach in five years’ time. The approach favoured by Sinn Fein doesn’t overcome the problems I’ve highlighted. Everything comes back to that key question: how do you define a shared island?

The unit poses a challenge for unionists as well. The Prime Minister is encouraging them to engage. Previous Irish governments haven’t made gestures like this. Some unionists haven’t had a conversation about a shared island before and they’re going to have to interrogate their own fears.  People need to come out from behind the walls.

I came away from yesterday’s meeting feel positive. Time will tell whether the unit is successful or not. It will be judged on its record. Everybody will be watching to see if it delivers on the high bar it’s set for itself.

[1] Though my friend and constitutional lawyer Anurag Deb would argue that there’s only one type of poll.


Dáil Éireann – Election of An Taoiseach – 27 June 2020” by Houses of the Oireachtas is licensed under CC BY

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