Ireland’s Future – a lot done, more to do…

I attended the Ireland’s Future event at the SSE Arena on Saturday. They have been ticking off all the major venues in Belfast, such as the Waterfront, Ulster Hall, and now the biggest of the lot, the Odyssey. The Odyssey is in some way an appropriate name for the long journey towards reunification.

There was some frankly bizarre discussion yesterday in the open thread about the number of people who attended the event. I heard unofficially 5000 tickets were sold, and I estimate that about 3000-3500 people were there. That it did not sell out was seen by some Unionists as ‘proof’ that the event was a failure. As the person who organises the Slugger events, I am delighted when we sell 100 tickets. Selling several thousand tickets for a political event is a significant achievement, no matter what way you look at it. The organisers did miss a trick in not giving out tickets to school and university students to fill the seats and bring the average age of attendees down. The video below gives a good idea of numbers.

The event is tough to evaluate as it is unlike anything else. It is not a political rally, a summer school, a debate, or a protest event. It was a combination of panels, speeches and entertainment.

The issue I found was there was a frustrating lack of substance in the panels. They had some fantastic guests, including film director Jim Sheridan, trade Union activist Mick Wallace, DUP founding member Wallace Thompson, etc. The issue was the format of the event, which meant that the panels were very short, and each guest only had a minute or two to make their point.

The main speakers were very good. Our ‘free health service’ is often given as the main reason people would vote to stay in the Union, but Derry GP Tom Black gave a stark assessment that we now have a two-tier health service, pointing out that Kiongsbridge claims to carry out more hip and knee replacements than all of the NHS hospitals in Northern Ireland combined.

I enjoyed the event, even though at over 4 hours without an intermission, it was a challenge to the bladder and buttocks. But I keep coming back to try to understand the purpose. Is it a show of strength of nationalism? Is it an attempt at outreach? It is an attempt to open up debate around reunification. I suppose it is a bit of everything.

The success of Ireland’s Future has been mainstreaming the position that reunification is coming; it is just a matter of time. Unionism, in contrast, finds it hard to sell the status quo, especially after Brexit and 14 years of Conservative rule; the UK is a complete mess and getting worse.

Ireland’s Future should take on the board the views of Davy Adams and Wallace Thompson. Davy pointed out that it was hard to square their attempts at outreach to Unionists with one of their board members putting the boot into Unionism every week in his Irish News column. Wallace highlighted the importance of reaching out to Unionists and particularly Loyalists. Loyalists do feel marginalised and abandoned by the mainstream. Now, we can point out the poisonous role of the gangs in those communities, but if you could find some way to engage with people in those communities, it would pay off dividends in the long term.

If the goal of Ireland’s Future is outreach, then they need to consider the optics and wisdom of putting the Sinn Féin leadership in the front row. Of course, Sinn Féin is a legitimate party with a right to be part of the debate, but many Unionists have a Pavlovian response to certain figures, and they stop listening. You are always on safer ground, with people from civic society, the business world, and the arts leading the debate.

Going forward, I would like to see Ireland’s Future hold smaller events regularly nationwide. These big events have their place, but smaller, more regular events keep up the momentum. They should also embrace podcasts and YouTube more to have deeper and more substantive discussions with people. The Jim Fitzpatrick interview with Leo Varakar was good; there is no reason this format could not replicated with the content being put out on social media.

‘A Lot Done. More To Do.’ was the 2002 Fianna Fáil election slogan. I thought it was apt for the title of this post. Just like Odysseus, the journey will be long with lots of challenges, but could their goal be in sight?

You can watch the full event below. On that note, Ireland’s Future should chop the video up into smaller, more manageable chunks to put on YouTube and social media. 

YouTube video

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