Not only in Dublin at the weekend but for the whole series of conferences on Ireland’s Future, the aims are first, to add momentum to the eventual creation of a United Ireland by convening a Citizens’ Assembly ; and two, to come up with a generous offer of unity unionists can’t refuse – in both senses ; impossible to refuse because so attractive, (the smiley version) and (hint of rough stuff) because the numbers of nationalists North and south would overwhelm them in the numbers game which , let’s face it, is what referendums come down to in the end. Now it’s the Prods’ turn to become the minority but under terms northern Catholics could never have dreamt of a century ago. From the point of view of Ireland’s Future, it makes sense to take a run at it and keep going. All it needs is mass support.
On the former, on adding momentum, the organisers whoever they are, (not Sinn Fein they insist), sensibly realise that the Citizens’ Assembly they’re calling for is viable only if they have proposals to discuss. So they have obliged with a respectable tome to add to a growing list. I guess only anoraks will read it in full but many will talk the gist.
So far Ireland’s Future’s notable omission is to secure the commitment of the main parties of government. They claim that’s deliberate in order to help build a pan nationalist consensus. The governing coalition may think otherwise. Are there really any votes in it? It may suit the government parties to hang loose to see if real momentum builds up in the opinion polls. But will Sinn Fein be so patient? Assuredly not if they’re in government. Political contention particularly over progress towards unity lies ahead in advance of the next Dail election.
On the appeal to unionists, the theme of many who spoke or tweeted at the conference, there are five easily identifiable problems.
First, most of the so called generous offers are already priced in as contained within the GFA. There is not much new here. British citizenship within a united Ireland would match existing Irish citizenship within the UK. Reciprocal citizenship is a practical benefit mainly in the other jurisdiction .British citizens in a democratic united Ireland would be Irish citizens obeying its laws, paying its taxes and drawing its benefits whatever they called themselves. So no big deal about continuing to call themselves British.
Secondly another aspect of Irish magnanimity would be at the UK’s expense.
On the payment of long term pensions, about which many Irish commentators seem to expect as of right plus hopes for a very generous Golden Goodbye, they had better negotiate with the UK about that before they present it as part of their offer. Pile on the US and EU for good measure if they can secure a commitment .
Thirdly is unity affordable anyway? The wrangling continues but it’s surely easier for a state of 64 million to absorb the NI deficit than a state of 5 million.
The preservation of the Assembly is held out as an appealing prospect by nearly everybody. Ironic isn’t it when the DUP are boycotting the Assembly over the Protocol as the slippery slope to a united Ireland? Why should it be assumed that the continuity Assembly would cease to be a sectarian bear garden? Better perhaps to guarantee seats in the Dublin government to “British ” parties in a unitary state for a defined number of years and call it power sharing.
Then there’s protection for “Protestant culture “spoken of so eloquently by Jimmy Nesbitt. Nowadays this has become an elusive entity like “Catholic ethos”. But Rome Rule and the Empire are dead. Freedom of religion and even flag waving are guaranteed rights provided neither oppresses others. Secular rules ok and of a mainly social democratic character. What’s left of Protestant culture is the sense of being “us” with their fellows in GB. We dismiss the power of viscerally felt continuity at our peril. Nationalists shouldn’t need to be told that. Disillusion with the antics of UK governments since 2016 may not the factor they hope it is.
However dressed up, the British constitutional link would be severed.
Expecting unionists to join in planning a united Ireland begs the fundamental question.
What then is unionism’s appropriate response? To wait for the Irish offer they might or might not refuse? It is hard to see how generosity could be improved.
To mock the tortuous efforts to accommodate them or try to frighten them off by becoming as troublesome as nationalists were in the pre 1998 NI? Unionist attitudes are hard to read because so confused. But if they are behaving unconstitutionally over the Protocol, how would they respond to losing a border poll?
It would be perfectly logical, indeed appropriate for non nationalists to keep campaigns such as Ireland’s Future at arms’ length until forced to pay attention by an Irish government’s intervention in the process.
But there is a third way.
Nationalists should offer to engage on an open agenda on the future. While this would fool nobody about the ultimate aspiration, it should encourage unionists to present publicly an agenda for maintaining the British link and a shared future for all Ireland that all could accept. In other words it would be the fulfilment of the main body of the Good Friday Agreement, the best of both worlds, not the only part of it that is a zero sum.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London