If Northern Ireland’s Tectonic Plates are Shifting, it is Time to Prepare

17 June 2018

Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin, responding to reported remarks by the Taoiseach during the week that the “tectonic plates” in Northern Ireland are shifting, has repeated his call for a Forum, involving political and civic society, to discuss how nationalism could facilitate an agreed Ireland in the event of a border poll in favour of unifying Ireland.

Mr Howlin repeated his point that “a border poll would be premature regardless of the outcome if the implications have not been adequately considered, particularly by people here in Ireland.”

“There seems to be a contradiction between the Taoiseach’s remarks about shifting plates and his dismissal, last week, of the prospect of a majority voting for unity. Not for the first time, the Taoiseach has commented without really thinking about the issue. Others, such as Peter Robinson, have given the issue more serious consideration.

“If you believe as I do that Brexit will undermine the coherence of the UK, this becomes an issue of real politics. A Government led by Jeremy Corbyn could call a border poll in its first weeks in office. We, in Ireland, need to develop serious position on this possibility. The most fundamental difficulty will not be financial but will be the cultural shift required to accommodate up to one million from Northern Ireland who regard themselves as more British or distinctly Northern Irish rather than Irish 

“Sinn Féin are undermining the issue of a border poll by suggesting that it is a solution to every problem, and we heard that again yesterday from Mary Lou McDonald. On the contrary, there is a need for real North-South engagement, involving a wide range of people, before a poll would be anything other than divisive and a sectarian head-count. 

“I have been making this point for some months now. It is time to discuss what an agreed united Ireland might look like. How would we accommodate the British traditions in our national symbols? Could we create a new Irish identity that could bridge our different traditions, just as Australia, Canada and New Zealand have done? Are we ready to discuss Ireland perhaps rejoining the Commonwealth?

“My proposal to the Irish people is to set up a similar forum to those that were held in the 1980s and 90s to discuss these issues. But I am open to ideas about other ways of fostering meaningful dialogue, which ultimately needs to involve citizens talking to citizens, and civil society organisations from both sides of the border engaging with each other, as indeed many of them already do.

“It would be wrong to just wait-and-see. We’ve already seen what happened in the UK when a referendum was held without adequate preparation. Sooner or later, there will be a border poll held in Northern Ireland. While holding the poll is not the priority, deepening North-South dialogue on these issues is vital.

“As Peter Robinson has suggested, we need clarity on who would be sitting around the table, and with what mandate, if ever there was a vote for unification.

“And we also have to be prepared for the possibility of a close vote. Only through substantial preparation can we prevent such a result from being deeply divisive. We need to have enough understanding and sympathy for those who favour remaining in the UK that we can reach out to them, and reassure them that an agreed Ireland will be agreed by them, and can provide them with an Ireland that they would want to call home.”

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