I was at the big Ireland’s Future ‘Preparing for a United Ireland:Together we can’ event at Dublin’s 3 Arena earlier this month. There was very little ‘preparing’ in the proceedings – it was more like a ‘Forward to the Promised Land’ rally, with not a voice raised in dissent. Well, maybe one: Fine Gael leader and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, while saying he believed in a united Ireland, then suggested that the existing structures of the Good Friday Agreement – internal power-sharing, North-South bodies and East-West cooperation – should be strengthened and deepened after reunification. He was booed by a section of the nearly 5,000 strong audience.
Maybe it was his remarks immediately before that which annoyed these people. He said some eminently sensible things. “There is a distinct danger that we could focus too much on a Border poll and on future constitutional models, and not enough on how we enhance engagement, build trust and create the conditions for a convincing majority for change.
“So we need to engage with unionists and that growing group who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish, and indeed those who identify as both. We also need to acknowledge the right of Northern nationalists to have equal recognition in the debate.
“We can’t build our future based on narrow majorities or on the wishes of just one community. For these reasons, I believe the objective should be to secure as large a majority as possible in both jurisdictions in any future poll. 50% plus one may be enough on paper, but won’t be a success in practice. Our only hope depends on presenting a proposal – North and South – that will be able to achieve democratic consent. This will involve compromise.
“It involves accepting a form of unification that is more inclusive and imaginative, one that can achieve the greatest measure of democratic support, and therefore legitimacy, and have the greatest chance of success. We need something that can evolve and deepen in time. And we need to remember that the next step doesn’t have to be the final word.”1
The most impressive things about the rally were the large numbers attending, and the wide range of speakers. In its accompanying glossy 130 page brochure-cum-report, Ireland’s Future said that the first phase of its campaign – “the debate on Irish reunification” – had been successful: “moving this discussion from the relative margins to the mainstream of Irish public life.” The range of speakers from every political party in the South – including non-nationalist parties like the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, the Green Party, People before Profit and the Workers Party – testified to that in spades. There were speakers from IBEC, ICTU, the Irish Farmers Association and the National Women’s Council, and diplomats from 10 countries in the audience.
It was there too in an extraordinarily uncritical editorial in the Irish Times, that pillar of the Southern establishment. This opined:”Ireland’s Future is dedicated to creating an island-wide discussion on a united Ireland in the belief that preparation is required for increasingly likely referendums. Its profile is nationalist to unionist eyes, despite its non-partisan stance and credentials, because it chooses unity over any existing or renewed United Kingdom future for Northern Ireland.”2 Ireland’s Future is surely nationalist in anybody’s, not only unionists’, eyes. If that is so, where is the evidence for its “non-partisan stance and credentials”? And where were “the wide variety of potential future Irelands raised at the meeting”? The editorial writer clearly was at a different meeting to the one I attended. As far as I could see and hear, only one potential future Ireland was on offer there: a politically united one. The other obvious option – the continuation of the existing Good Friday Agreement institutions within the UK – was not raised once. Federation, confederation and joint authority were other unmentioned possibilities.
The secretary of Ireland’s Future, Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, has angrily rejected any suggestion that his organisation is a front for Sinn Fein: “There is absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact or fiction for that ridiculous assertion”, he says.
But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Maybe we should ask ‘Cui bono?’ Because Ireland’s Future has the same aim as Sinn Fein: a politically united Ireland, with “the people of this island fully united and independent for the first time ever”. It makes the same main demands of the Irish government: an all-Ireland Citizens’ Assembly, followed by a government White Paper. It finds it similarly difficult to use the internationally recognised name Northern Ireland (except in inverted commas). It argues, like Sinn Fein, that a 50% plus one majority in a Border poll is sufficient under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and expresses dismay at “sustained and ongoing efforts to offer unionism a veto over progress, either before or after the referendums…we reject attempts to smuggle a unionist veto into the process or give unionism multiple opportunities to block change” (presumably a reference to the suggestion by people like Bertie Ahern and the late Seamus Mallon that a weighted majority in a referendum may be needed before successful unity can be achieved).
It shares the same weaknesses as Sinn Fein, weaknesses that were fully on show in the 3Arena. I did not hear a single new idea about ‘preparing’ for unity. There was nothing about the multiple and extremely complicated issues required to marry two inadequate health services. There was nothing about how two education systems that have gone their dramatically different ways in the past century (differences which the people of the two jurisdictions are almost entirely ignorant of) might be brought together. Above all, there was nothing about the major compromises necessary if a significant number of unionists, with their passionate Britishness, might be attracted to this new and united Ireland: on the symbols of that Britishness, such as membership of the Commonwealth; on continuing British involvement in a united Ireland in order to protect unionists (perhaps along the lines of the Irish involvement in the North in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement); on specific policies that might improve the North’s economy in a united country; and so on.
The event brochure was no more helpful. Apart from the obvious outline of aims and objectives, it contained a long, dense and difficult to follow account of ‘rights, citizenship and identity’; an economic chapter full of material about how woeful the North is now and how splendid it will be after unity; a health chapter claiming that an all-Ireland ‘Slaintecare’ (still very far from being implemented in the Republic) will be the “perfect foundation on which to build a world class, outstanding health service”; an article on social security by a sociologist whose statistics I have questioned in the past; an extraordinarily badly-written section on sport; and a short section (less than half the length of the section on sport) on climate change and ecology – a cynic would say that Sinn Fein are similarly careless about this, overwhelmingly the most pressing issue in the world today.
Maybe I am that cynic. One thing I am not cynical about is Sinn Fein’s capacity to organise, strategise and propagandise. As Irish Times political editor, Pat Leahy, puts it (when forecasting once again that the party will head the next Irish government): “In two decades of covering Irish politics, I have never seen anything like its message discipline. Its organisation on the ground, backed by extensive research, is formidable and its online campaigning is simultaneously vicious and effective.”3
In the North, Sinn Fein and its allies are now battering the unionists and the British on multiple fronts. In May’s Assembly election we saw the SDLP losing a significant number of voters in the form of people who wanted to ensure that Michelle O’Neill would become the first ever nationalist First Minister. Very moderate border region nationalists of my acquaintance have been provoked into campaigning by the existential threat of a new Brexit-produced border. Irish language activists have mobilised in their tens of thousands to secure an Irish Language Act. And Sinn Fein has told its activists not to get involved in the protests against the British government’s much-condemned legacy legislation because the victims and legacy groups are leading that fight very effectively as it is.
It has to be said that the Republican movement were better than their loyalist adversaries (and the British) at war and terrorism. And they are now proving to be far better at peace and politics.
So I do think we are asking the wrong question. Whether or not Sinn Fein are behind Ireland’s Future, they are doing their work for them. The five Northern Protestants, led by TV star Jimmy Nesbitt, who appeared on the programme at the 3Arena (a courageous public stand that would have been unthinkable even 10-15 years ago) must have found it far easier to align themselves alongside Ireland’s Future, with its unbloodied past, than with the party of the IRA. Similarly for the leaders of non-republican Southern parties who were on the platform. This newish, broad-based movement can thus do things on the march towards Irish unity that Sinn Fein can’t do. And that suits Sinn Fein down to the ground – they can see emerging the kind of pan-nationalist front that Gerry Adams used to dream about back in the early 1990s, this time untarnished by the violence of the past.
Indeed, Ireland’s Future could do much better if it really wanted to attract more Northern Protestants to its all-Ireland standard. Instead of effectively being Sinn Fein ‘fellow travellers’, it could put a bit of distance between it and SF by genuinely exploring some of the issues of concern to that community (such as I have outlined above). But there is little or no chance of that so long as its leadership is made up of the kind of passionately partisan Northern nationalists that it has at present, people who believe as an article of faith that tá ár lá tagtha (‘our day has come’).
1 I have some doubts about whether Varadkar’s speech, as actually delivered, contained all these paragraphs. But this was the version of his speech issued by Fine Gael.
2 ‘Ireland’s Constitutional Future: A debate worth engaging with’, 5 October
3 ‘Three tasks face Sinn Fein as it contemplates power’, 8 October
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.