On 1 November, a group initiated and co-ordinated by Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy under the banner, Ireland’s Future, published a letter to the Taoiseach. The letter was signed by 1,000 public figures drawn, as The Irish Times (IT) put it “from all sections of civic society, North and South, and among the Irish diaspora”. The list did not include any elected political representatives. Again according to the IT, “Murphy stresses that the group is not party political, nor nationalist …a coalition who share a concern about rights… and the conversation around constitutional change on this island.”
The letter stated: “We believe that a new conversation is now required about our shared future on the island of Ireland. The Government needs to plan for this.” Specifically: “We ask for the Government to establish a Citizens’ Assembly reflecting the views of citizens North and South or a Forum to discuss the future and achieve maximum consensus on a way forward.”
In the Dáil on 26 November, the Taoiseach’s overall reaction was lukewarm. On timing, he was emollient: “It is a sensitive time now, however, because we are only two weeks or so away from Westminster elections… The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are not functioning and the Brexit withdrawal agreement is in the balance. We might find ourselves in a very different place in two or three months’ time, in a more stable situation and a better political environment to progress these kinds of ideas.”
He then poured colder water on the proposal: “One thing we need to bear in mind and ask ourselves is whether unionists would participate… Would British citizens living in Northern Ireland participate… If not… it would then be a pan-nationalist assembly and not an assembly of all the citizens of Ireland.”
Some commentators argue that the proposal is not merely premature but positively dangerous. According to Stephen Collins in the IT on 29 November: “Ulster unionism is currently is a bad place thanks to the political miscalculations of the Democratic Unionist Party. Abandoned by their allies in the House of Commons, unionists are facing an uncertain future with trepidation. The last thing nationalists should be doing is attempting to exploit their anxieties. That is precisely what the latest campaign for a united Ireland is designed to do.”
And later in the same piece: “Surely the whole point of the peace process was that an agreed Ireland, rather than the domination of one side by another, had replaced the traditional nationalist aspiration of united Ireland.”
His fellow IT commentator, Newton Emerson had aired the latter point a day earlier: “Reconciliation is not a precondition for unification but it is intended to be a constantly ongoing process, so it is plainly envisaged as preceding unity or at least occurring in parallel with it. In short, the Belfast Agreement’s road to a united Ireland is a united Northern Ireland.”
But Emerson pushed back against the notion that Unionist involvement should be a pre-condition for a unity debate as creating a new form of constitutional veto. That would be “…a poisoned chalice for unionists, who would be drawn into the dead-end of maintaining the union by sullen silence.” Nor indeed should reconciliation be another Unionist veto. “…it is not in unionism’s interests for the North to be a permanently dysfunctional society.” If there is to be a citizens’ assembly: “The least that should be considered… should be an option to this effect: that defined goals for reconciliation should precede unification, perhaps beginning with the integrated schools and housing promised 21 years ago.”
An interesting feature of all of these contributions and indeed of the Good Friday Agreement itself (in its provisions for a border poll) is that constitutional evolution can travel in one direction only; towards greater unity in some form on the island of Ireland. It is like a car with no reverse gear. Unionists don’t hold the ignition key or determine the direction of the journey, but they have a firm hand on the brakes and they do have influence over the pace and route. It may not seem in unionists’ interests to exist in a “permanently dysfunctional society”, but if the definition of a functional society is one that makes a united Ireland more likely, well maybe “sullen silence” and tightening the grip on the brakes have their attractions. On the other hand, shaping change rather than merely resisting it has attractions too.
Is there any scope for the broad options to be more symmetric by installing a reverse gear alongside the forward one. Okay, persuading nationalists to abandon aspirations to Irish unity altogether might be a stretch. But, just as nationalists might seek to persuade unionists to embrace some form of Irish unity, is there any possibility that nationalists might be persuaded to reconcile themselves more cheerfully than sullenly to the constitutional status quo and to happier co-existence with the other “community” in the North?
While not the party’s official website. Conservative Home is the “house” forum of the Tory party. Subject to the proviso: “Our party, right or wrong”, the site accommodates the full diversity of opinion under the Tory umbrella even if such diversity is narrower these days.
On 25 October, shortly after Boris Johnson agreed to a revised draft EU withdrawal agreement over the heads of his DUP “partners” in government, the site’s editor, former Tory MP, Paul Goodman opined on the state of the Union and how it might be improved.
“It is undeniable that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, whether you support it or not, leaves Northern Ireland just a little bit more detached from Great Britain — at the least. The Government needs some countervailing moves to strengthen the Union… … without breaching any commitments it has entered into it should seek to persuade Scotland and Northern Ireland to stay.”
Mr. Goodman proposed several ways to strengthen the connection. Among them: rebranding the Northern Ireland Office as “UK Government in Northern Ireland”, giving the Department a higher public profile and branding all UK spending there “prominently”. “As a persuader, the department could campaign on the benefits of the all-UK economy — a far bigger animal in Northern Ireland than the north-south economy.” Corporation tax could be “slashed” to the Republic’s level — or lower. The capacity and quality of road networks around Belfast Harbour and Cairnryan Port could be upgraded as part of a UK-wide infrastructure programme to link the Union’s constituent parts more closely.
Of course, Mr. Goodman’s menu is intended to reinforce the affiliation of those in the North already committed to the Union by reassuring them of the “mother ship’s” commitment to them, any flicker of greater nationalist equanimity being a bonus. At least one proposal would be alienating (provocative even) to nationalists. “Make the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 a UK-wide bank holiday — it falls on the 5th May 2021 — so that its impact and significance is felt across the entire country.”
And another is straightforwardly bizarre: “Make at least one of England’s home cricket test matches each summer and coverage of the men’s and women’s Cricket World Cup final and semi-finals, as well as women’s national football tournaments, available on free-to-air TV…” Does he really believe that affording greater public visibility on the performance of “England” teams will, of itself, improve attitudes to Union membership across the North?
But, if the content of Mr. Goodman’s menu is off key, there is something in the concept. In the half century since the troubles began, mainstream unionism’s position on constitutional dialogue has been characterised by defensive mindset and rearguard action. It is hard to imagine a package that would reconcile nationalists to the bosom of the union, but an imaginative agenda for greater reconciliation is surely not beyond the realm of the possible. Participation in and presenting its own discussion checklist to an all-island Citizen’s Assembly might not be a bad start. After all, if Unionists can promote reconciliation within Northern Ireland, that could as easily be a buffer against as a stepping stone to Irish unity. And what signal does it send if they don’t make that effort?