Speech by Joan Burton to the Oxford Union on Irish Unity.

22 November 2018

Speech by Joan Burton TD, addressing the Oxford Union on the motion ‘The House Believes Ireland is Ready for Reunification’. 22nd November 2018;

The United States has Mount Rushmore in the legendary Black Hills of Dakota where the sculptures of famous Presidents are carved into the rock face.

Perhaps in the future, Ireland will create its own Mount Rushmore to celebrate the pioneers of national reunification.

Perhaps some surprising figures from England might rank as worthy candidates for inclusion?

These are the people whose actions became victims of that notorious beast of political life, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Step forward Mr. Nigel Farage the great Panjandrum of Brexit.

Today we witness how a narrow referendum result has set the different parts of the United Kingdom on an internal collision course and opened up the age-old argument that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.

Surely too Mr. Boris Johnson, a former President of this august Union, has a good claim for inclusion as an architect of Ireland’s Reunification.

Is it not his overweening and bumptious ambition that fuelled the flames of English nationalism to the point that the word United would be excised from the name the United Kingdom only to be transferred across the Irish Sea to find a happy home in the name of Ireland United.

There is now a new factor in Anglo Irish politics, quietly but universally acknowledged.

England’s Brexiteers, all of them proud unionists in name, have done more to advance the case for a United Ireland than the IRA achieved in 3 decades of sordid terrorism.

In Ireland, we watch every day the unfolding of Brexit with a kind of macabre fascination.

The underlying dynamic seems to come from a resurgent English nationalism that blithely ignores and is insensitive to the concerns of other components of the United Kingdom.  

We wonder about the scale of collateral damage that may be inflicted on us North and South.

And from that, there are inevitable repercussions among all sections of society in Northern Ireland who question the intrinsic value of participation in a Union that cannot offer the long-term assurance of respect let alone prosperity and stability.

Equally, we hear with apprehension the siren calls of nationalist extremists that England’s time of difficulty is their moment of opportunity.

I come from an Irish socialist tradition that despised the Partition of Ireland because, as James Connolly predicted, it would result in a ‘carnival of reaction’, a destructive division and sectarian hostility.

We know from tragic experience that this sectarian division continues to leave its unique trail of destruction.

So, let me say right that my own advocacy of a United Ireland has no truck with any crude sectarian headcount that forensically examines each census for evidence that a Catholic nationalist majority is gradually emerging in the population and will in time, perhaps sooner rather than later, will produce a voting majority to endorse a United Ireland.

In my view, that attitude comes from the same Boris Johnson school of political tactics that seeks a simple numerical majority for a political outcome with no care or consideration for its long-term consequences, intended or otherwise.

That latent sectarian calculation is both wrong-headed and irresponsible.

It is wrong-headed because the evidence that a Catholic population majority in the North of Ireland is self -evidently, a majority for unification is paltry, to say the least.

 For one thing, religious allegiance is no barometer at all of the political outlook.

Nor indeed is family background indicative of continuing faith. The census numbers, both North and South, show declining adherence to the traditional faith allegiance.

Indeed, in the Irish Republic, a majority of voters in 2 recent referendums have delivered a stinging rebuke to Cardinals and Bishops on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

The days of Home Rule meaning Rome Rule are well and truly gone.

There is a time-worn political gag about a citizen’s reply to a census official.  The reply ‘’I’m an atheist” immediately produced  a supplementary question: 

“Well, Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”

Sadly, that attitude is more deeply entrenched that is often admitted.

During one recent UK election, a Sinn Fein candidate made a shamefully sectarian pitch through a notorious leaflet declaring that Catholics are now in a majority in the constituency –

 “Catholic 46.9 percent, Protestant 45.6 percent – Make the Change, Make History”.

That individual failed to get elected but his pitch does still reflect the underlying message of his party’s current campaign for an early border poll.

We have the numbers so we want the result no matter what it could mean in community discord or economic disruption.

Thankfully the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 offers us both safeguards and a roadmap to enable the delicate issues to be teased out and resolved.

It Is, I believe, important that people in the UK fully appreciate what is bluntly stated in that document.

There was derision in Ireland when Mr. Boris Johnson, yes him again, remarked that the border between the 2 parts of Ireland is no different to the border between Camden and Islington, an astonishing admission of ignorance from a former Foreign Secretary.

In fact, the Good Friday Agreement says the exact opposite which is why it offers the roadmap to a post Brexit settlement.

That agreement recognises ‘that it is for the people of Ireland alone, to exercise their right to self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland if that is their wish….”.

And it goes on to: “affirm that if in the future the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right to self-determination…to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish”.


That clause sets Northern Ireland miles apart from Camden, Islington or Oxford.

Moreover, it offers a clear peaceful mechanism to fundamentally change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

What is at issue now is the manner by which that mechanism, that includes a so-called border poll, should be put to use.

I believe it would be destructive and premature to rush this in a manner that might deepen community divisions.

In Spielberg’s movie Abraham Lincoln there is a scene where Lincoln remarks that he well knows where his true north is, where he wants to bring his country.

But he has to have regard to the rivers, mountains, and swamps that have to be navigated on that journey.

We in Ireland have to be equally cognisant of how we navigate our way in the coming years.

 An excess of zeal may well destroy the very thing we most desire.

The kind of unity Ireland needs is more the unity of people rather than the delusion of a united territory.

We amended our own constitution by a massive vote to set aside the claim to territorial unity and replace it with an ambition of a united people ‘’ in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”

Ulster has produced many fine poets among them the late John Hewitt

John confronted the issue of identity head-on in one famous declaration

“I am an Ulsterman, I am British, I am Irish and I am European. Anyone who demeans any one part of me demeans me as a person”

It is that sentiment that we need to keep in mind in these turbulent times.

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