Labour stand for a real republic across the island

Ivana Bacik TD
01 October 2022

As the oldest political party in the State, Labour aspires to achieve an agreed, united island, founded on fairness and equality for all people on the island.

We are Connollyite republicans who believe our nation would be better united.

Like our sister Party the SDLP, like us members of the PES, we also share a strong commitment to the achievement of a social Europe and a recognition of the vital importance of the European project and the EU to the future of this island.

We in Labour stand for a real republic across the island – one which values equality and redistribution more than just semantics; one which can see beyond sectarianism; one which recognises that true equality is based on pluralism.

So while we support the holding of a referendum on Unity, we believe that a huge amount of preparatory work must be done in both jurisdictions in advance of any such referendum vote.

We must learn from the mistakes of Brexit to ensure that people on both sides of the Border are clear on what it is they are voting on, and critically to ensure that a new, agreed and united island would be a state accepted by all communities on the island.

Generosity must be at the heart of any successful transition – whether the Just Transition we need on Climate Change, or the transition required to deliver a united island.

We don’t want to swap the majoritarianism of the past for a new one.

We should take inspiration from the work of the great social democratic peacemaker, John Hume, who was courageous enough to rewrite the canon of Irish nationalism by pointing out that it’s people that matter – not territories.

And because people matter, so to do their economic circumstances – you cannot eat a flag!

There is no more republican sentiment than that.

Hume was inherently critical of Irish nationalism’s failure to address unionist opposition to its unity project, in both its constitutional and republican guises – from Home Rule to the War of Independence.

We need to be careful that there is no slippage back from that.

There isn’t anything inherently natural or pre-determined about any political settlement on the island – unionist or nationalist.

But if we are to live in peace with each other, under any constitutional settlement, it requires respect and allegiance for any constitutional arrangement.

In 2022, there are no planters and there are no Gaels. There are only those who by accident of birth or act of choice call this island home.

The most recent electoral contest in the North demonstrated a rejection of the orange-green binary at a scale never seen before.

So you can be British Irish in the same way that you can be Nigerian Irish and Polish Irish – or indeed Czech Irish as in my own case.

Our national identity is not set in 1916.

It is a living breathing phenomenon, unrecognisable today from what it as a century ago and will be different again in another century.

Demographic changes make it even more imperative that we abide by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, our political guiding star.

The principle of Consent is at the core of that Agreement.

That may be the legal test but the moral test is greater still.

The consent of the maximum number possible, from all traditions, new and old, must be our goal in seeking a shared future on this island.

In order to abide by the principle of Consent, we must recognise that we have yet to do the work necessary to enable the making of informed choices in any referendum about the future of the island, on both sides of the border; to protect our island’s most marginalised communities from the consequences of a hasty campaign, or the vanity project of any one group seeking ideological victory.

In terms of timing, for what it’s worth, I think the thirtieth anniversary suggestion, set out by former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is not an unreasonable one.

We believe that in advance of holding any referendum, an all-island citizens’ assembly or assemblies, approved by the Stormont Assembly as well as the Oireachtas, must be constituted.

This is because ultimately, whatever proposals for the future of our island are arrived at, if they are to serve as an ‘offer’, they have to enjoy broad political support across the entire island.

That being the case, there will need to be considerable work done in assembling the arguments for change, and the solutions to the issues that will inevitably arise from doing so, in advance of the debate around creation of such assemblies.

The Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit has been a hugely positive initiative in this regard – and other welcome initiatives are also examining some of the practical issues involved in developing the groundwork preparatory for holding a citizens’ assembly or indeed a referendum.

The preparatory work in advance of establishing the assembly/assemblies needs to be an All of Government agenda.

The best way to go about this is to revive the old Green and White Paper tradition of assembling the evidence and identifying both problems and solutions before proceeding.

The Green Paper brings together the broad range of issues and the White Paper focuses on possible solutions.

This process should be adopted by Government, to identify the issues that require discussion and deliberation at open and visible citizens’ assemblies.

Once this process is complete, then the process of establishing the citizens’ assemblies through legislative systems can get underway.

Finally, we must recognise that many people will vote in a unity referendum on issues of identity, but others will vote on economic and social issues.

While the obvious issues of symbolism regarding an anthem or a flag can dominate debate, there are much more challenging questions that require deliberation. What does an all-island national development plan for infrastructure look like?

How will we deal with the economics of any new arrangements?

What will housing, health and education systems look like?

Not just slogans, realistic and affordable solutions must be offered.

It is easy to talk about a new Ireland – but that Ireland will be built on the foundations of our current systems.

When we dream of a new Ireland – a fair and equal Ireland – we must be realistic about our current infrastructure which is inadequate to meet the real needs of communities on so many fronts – on the climate emergency, the cost of living crisis, on housing, on childcare – this infrastructure has suffered from the hegemony of the two-party system of the past century.
A Chairde, there is much work to be done in the debate on the future of our island, and Labour will approach it constructively.

Arguably ours is the only tradition that has ever enjoyed significant cross community support. Our history also affords us the opportunity to make a unique contribution to this debate – and that is what we will do.

And I hope that my words today will provide some grounds for reflection about our shared future on this island.

Speech delivered by Labour leader, Ivana Bacik to Ireland’s Future conference on Saturday 1st October

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