Ben Collins has worked in political communications across the UK and Ireland for two decades.
I was raised as a Presbyterian in a strongly pro-British and unionist household, so I understand the attachment to country and crown that many unionists feel. Good friends of mine and family members voted for Brexit in the genuine belief that it would make things better. There is no pleasure in seeing the dysfunction unfold at Westminster since the surprise vote to leave the European Union. But there is a better way, a guaranteed option which allows Northern Ireland to rejoin the European Union. The region was taken out of the EU despite voting to remain, due to the votes of England and Wales. We have the ability to vote for a different future. Irish unity is the escape hatch from the chaos of Brexit. Both the EU and the UK government have committed to allowing Northern Ireland to seamlessly rejoin the EU in the event that the region votes for Irish unity. There will be no accession process just immediate re-entry. We need to prepare and plan now in advance of a border poll which I believe is likely to take place within the next decade. That’s why I wrote and published a book Irish Unity: Time to Prepare with Luath Press.
This is not about one side declaring victory over another. It is about identifying the best future for all citizens who live across the island of Ireland. We are now a quarter century on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It has secured peace, however imperfect, for Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement and the European Convention on Human Rights provide safeguards for all citizens across Ireland. They provide a framework for ensuring that British and unionist citizens will have their rights protected in the event of a vote in favour of reunification.
I am proud to be from East Belfast and still call it home, after living and working across the UK and Ireland for two decades. Those of us who lived through the Troubles cannot easily forget the carnage and trauma which was suffered by so many. We should not forget the past, we should learn from it and focus our gaze on building peace and prosperity for all citizens who live across this island. The Irish Republic has seen significant economic growth and liberalisation of social policies such as the right to divorce, a woman’s right to choose and equal marriage. But Northern Ireland has yet to realise the economic potential which we hoped would materialise after the Good Friday Agreement. The gains on social policy which are enjoyed across the rest of the UK and Ireland, which many want to see in Northern Ireland, are only slowly being delivered by the UK Parliament. Ironically unionist politicians who claim that they want Northern Ireland to be an integral part of the UK, are opposed to citizens who live in the region, having the same social rights as those who live in Britain.
Partition has been a disaster for the island of Ireland. It created two states where the minorities in both suffered discrimination. The border imposed on Ireland by the British government literally divided the island. Removing the border will end the source of division, but it will not in itself end division. We need to provide people with hope and a pathway to prosperity. You do not need to be an economist to know that two things is more expensive and less efficient than one thing. All too often on this small island we duplicate things because of partition. For me sovereignty is not a flag on a pole, it is food on the table and a roof over your head.
I understand how frustrated people are by Brexit and our unionist brothers and sisters feel badly let down by the UK government agreeing to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The problem with Brexit is that a border has to go somewhere, either on the island of Ireland which goes against the ethos of the Good Friday Agreement or in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain. The only alternative to this would be if the UK government agreed to maintain full alignment with the European Single Market on its rules and regulations. But then what would the point of Brexit be?
I believe that we can do so much better. Educational attainment is not where it should be across Northern Ireland, our health service is under huge strain and we have not even entered the peak season for winter illnesses. The UK government under new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has signalled its desire to do a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU. And yet the DUP have refused to form a government during a cost of living crisis. Let’s not forget that before the Assembly election we already had a climate crisis and a housing emergency. It is astounding that a political party would choose to use the citizens of Northern Ireland as leverage, in an attempt to get the UK government to overturn an international treaty which it had negotiated and was voted into force by the UK Parliament.
On 10th April next year it will be the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. That should be a time when we celebrate peace and prosperity. It should be an opportunity for all of Ireland to show the world that we are at peace and also to attract inward investment. But it is highly likely that unless reform is made to the governance arrangements at Stormont, that we will continue to drift as a region with no functioning government. Stable government helps to attract inward investment. We do not have that. From 1st April next year all of the UK, including Northern Ireland, will have a Corporation Tax rate of 25%, whereas the Irish Republic will have a rate of 12.5%. That is another disincentive for investment in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland was created specifically to ensure a permanent Protestant and unionist majority. That has now gone. In the most recent election in May this year unionism secured a minority of seats as it did in the European and Westminster elections in 2019. As it did also in the 2017 Assembly election. Opinion polls have shown increasing support for Irish unity compared to those taken before the vote to leave the EU. We do not know whether the majority in Northern Ireland want to reunify with the rest of Ireland. In fact we do not even know the criteria which must be met to justify the Secretary of State in calling a referendum. The UK Labour Shadow Secretary of State Peter Kyle MP has said that in government Labour will clarify the criteria which must be met to call a border poll. That is welcome news and we hope that the metrics used are fair and transparent. I realise that the prospect of reunification is unsettling for some. It is through planning and preparing now in advance of a border poll, that we can seek to address those concerns. I want us to have an evidence-based discussion around the merits of Irish unity. Those that want to remain part of the UK should also engage in this constitutional conversation and set out what they see as the benefits of the Union. Then let’s decide through solely democratic and peaceful means what our future should be.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.