Time for an All-Ireland Forum to discuss what a unitary Irish State might look like

12 June 2019

Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday 11th June during ‘Statements on Northern Ireland’ Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin outlined his views on the need for an all-Ireland forum to discuss what a unitary Irish state might look like, saying:

I welcome reports that parties in Northern Ireland are meeting as part of a sincere effort to get the Assembly up and running again.

People in Northern Ireland need political leadership to fill the vacuum in relation to Brexit, but also for day-to-day public administration in health, education, housing, transport and other services.

It is now 866 days since the Assembly last sat.

In the same period of time, our own parliament has overseen a referendum on the 8th amendment and passed legislation to permit abortion.

Dáil Éireann passed 100 new laws in this period of time, including a crucial law to prepare Ireland for Brexit, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, protections to tenants in the rental sector, the creation of Technological Universities, improved law on domestic violence, the supervised injecting facilities act, law on admissions to schools, law on heritage, law on road traffic, various laws to improve health services, and a range of laws to support workers, jobs and enterprise.

But Stormont has been dormant.

New laws and ministerial decisions in Northern Ireland have not happened, leaving public needs unmet.

It is time for all parties to put aside any and all conditions, and to simply get the Assembly up and running again.

Beyond the bread-and-butter issues of good governance, Northern Ireland also needs political leadership on the constitutional issue.

A leading Unionist commentator, Alex Kane, has argued that Unionists need to prepare for an inevitable Border poll.

Not just Unionists. As I said last year, we all need to engage seriously with this possibility.

Underpinning Kane’s logic is the stark reality, as pointed out by Matthew O’Toole, a former Downing Street official, that Unionists have not had a majority of the vote in Northern Ireland since 2005. 

However, the absence of a “Unionist” majority at European, Assembly or local government level in Northern Ireland does not automatically means that it has been replaced by a “Nationalist” majority.

As O’Toole argues, a large and growing number of people identify with neither of these labels.

And for the first time, people in Northern Ireland are being required to weigh up the benefits of remaining in a changing British Union versus remaining in the European Union.

It is in that context that a Border poll represents a very uncertain prospect for Unionists.

Kane seeks answers to several pertinent questions.

Unlike the Brexit debacle, would an Irish Border poll be preceded by a detailed proposal on what would be the result of a Yes vote in favour?

Would there be a transition period or financial contributions from the UK?

Would a vote for a united Ireland revoke and replace the Good Friday Agreement?

What would happen to the NHS and other institutions?

We can’t answer all of his questions today, but the issues raised show why it is vital that we have much more dialogue and public debate now, rather than on the eve of a Border poll, or the morning after.

For some time, I have called for the re-establishment of an all-Ireland forum to discuss what a unitary Irish State might look like.

Any such forum should be constituted in a way that does not imply any consent for Irish unity, but which provides a space in which Unionist perspectives can be heard and understood, alongside others.

I agree with Seamus Mallon that Nationalists must aim for reconciliation within Northern Ireland, working with Unionists, to build what Mallon calls a “shared home place.”

However, that shared home space must be the whole of Ireland.

Our challenge is to imagine all of Ireland as a “shared home space” for everyone living here, including the many people from minorities or new communities.

A 50.1 per cent vote in favour of unity, or against it, would be decisive. That is the nature of voting systems. However, a much larger majority in favour of unity would be greatly desirable, which is why dialogue and detailed analysis is so vitally needed.

One detailed analysis was carried out by the trade union economist Dr Tom Healy, who makes an important observation about the standard of living enjoyed in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic.

Dr Healy concludes that “there is a rough parity of living standards on the island of Ireland”.

This is an important consideration for anyone who wishes to make the economic case for a united Ireland.

Stronger public services are an important part of the equation that explains how Northern Ireland’s living standards are kept at a similar level to those in the Republic.

Northern Ireland has a stronger welfare state than in Ireland, in terms of public housing, public transport and of course the National Health Service.

This is why we need to be able to guarantee the continued existence of the NHS in Northern Ireland. That means universal healthcare, free-of-charge at the point of need, and based on medical need not privileged access to private health insurance.

However, running a parallel system of healthcare just for six counties would be ludicrous in a unitary Irish State.

The only logical response would be the establishment of a universal healthcare system for the whole country, which we are sadly far from achieving, with Fine Gael’s reluctance to make serious progress on the SláinteCare report.

But it is not just the NHS.

All the functions of Government must be considered.

Northern Ireland has different policies in education, housing, environmental protection, commerce and social welfare, as well as very different military and policing traditions.

And local government in Northern Ireland is not organised on a six-county basis, which we cannot presume to impose.

Unifying Ireland would be a far more complex undertaking than the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and we have seen how complicated and problematic that has been.

Trying to unify Irish laws and institutions against the resistance of a large Unionist minority would be very difficult, to say the least.

But I don’t agree with the premise of one of Alex Kane’s questions, where he asks will there be “mandatory power-sharing provisions to protect and promote British and Unionist identity in a united Ireland”.

This question makes the mistake of assuming that everyone in the Republic of Ireland is automatically “Nationalist” in a comparable sense to Northern Ireland.

On the contrary, there have always been “others” across Ireland – including socialists – who do not agree with the ideology of ethnic nationalism.

And there are many different versions of Irish identity and Irish patriotism, including Ireland’s Anglo-Irish and West British identities.

There is no longer any risk of Northern Ireland being subsumed into a one-dimensional Catholic Nationalist Ireland.

Our culture and identity is much more complex and nuanced.

We should rightly celebrate our age-old traditions, and we should teach all dimensions of Irish history, culture and language in our schools, including Northern Ireland’s traditions.

For example, every schoolchild in Ireland should be given a basic introduction to Ulster Scots language and heritage.

What should bring us all together is a common interest in our island’s environment, our society and our economy. We are all in this together. By recognising everyone’s fundamental equality, we can be united as a single people.

So why not create an all-island, all-party forum to have this dialogue in a respectful and patient way, to build greater understanding between all strands of Irish politics.

I don’t expect Arlene Foster to ever vote for a united Ireland, but I do believe we can create an Irish State that honours all traditions and identities on this island.

In an agreed Ireland, our citizens will never belong to one ethnic group or nationality. We should embrace a new vision of inclusive, diverse Irishness.

Today, one in nine people living in Northern Ireland – and one in eight in Ireland – were born elsewhere.

Our island’s population is a vibrant mix of people from around the world.

By embracing this diversity, and recognising everyone’s fundamental equality, we can be united as a single people, just as Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders came together as proud citizens of independent countries.

We must forge an agreed Ireland that recognises the complexity and diversity of modern society, and which acknowledges the role of immigration and emigration in shaping Ireland.

The Labour Party itself was co-founded by three migrant workers: Connolly, Larkin and Johnson.

Johnson was no less an Irish patriot for being English-born. He had unswerving commitment to an independent, socialist Ireland, separate from Britain, on the basis that this would better serve working people.

In this decade of centenaries, it is high time that we dug deeper into the roots of our identity as people living on this island.

We must re-evaluate and acknowledge the positive contributions of the deep British influence on Ireland… in terms of our way of life, our legal system, our architecture and of course our language.

Working together, we can imagine a confident, prosperous, independent Ireland, at peace with Britain and securely part of Europe.

That is the offer we should make to everyone in Northern Ireland.

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