1 July 2017
Unionists have nothing to fear from a united Ireland
It is time that – together – we designed a pathway to a new, agreed and inclusive Ireland, one that is accommodating to all our people in all their diversity
MORE THAN EVER, there is a need for an inclusive, constructive debate on the constitutional future of this island.
Crucially, unionist representatives need to be involved in this discussion and to influence it.
Simply refusing to engage in a debate that is happening around them ill serves the interests of the people unionist parties represent.
Sinn Féin has been holding a series of events on ‘Towards A United Ireland’, so I was particularly heartened by the presence at last weekend’s event in Belfast of Ben Lowry, deputy editor of the Belfast News Letter and a unionist.
Ben argued the case for a continuation of the Union and was greeted with respect and attention by the Belfast audience and his contribution was valued.
He follows fellow unionist commentator Alex Kane and others in engaging with Sinn Féin on the subject of a united Ireland while remaining unapologetically unionist.
It is surely time the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and other unionist organisations (such as the Orange Order) followed their example.
● Unionist commentator Alex Kane addresses – and challenges – republicans at a Sinn Féin ‘United Ireland’ conference in Dublin’s Mansion House in January
Identity will be protected and respected
It is not that we in Sinn Féin are naive enough to think that we can persuade these organisations to endorse the proposition of a united Ireland when a poll on the subject is held. But we do realise that WE have a responsibility to convince them that they have nothing to fear from an outcome that isn’t their preference.
We have to convince them that their culture, identity and place in society will be protected and respected in the new Ireland we are trying to create.
The Northern Protestant community has influenced the history of Ireland and must influence its future.
British identity can and must be accommodated in an agreed, united Ireland.
This may involve constitutional and political safeguards and guarantees.
Kevin Meagher, a former adviser to British Secretary of State for the North Shaun Woodward, put it well last Saturday in Belfast, saying:
“For unionists, this is not a process where Orangemen are expected to become GAA enthusiasts. Remember the Twelfth in a united Ireland. Wear the sash your father wore. Have a British passport as well as an Irish one. Toast the Queen.”
To maximise a sense of security for the unionist community, in an-all Ireland context, we need to be imaginative.
We should be open to transitional arrangements including continued devolution to Stormont within an all-Ireland structure.
As Britain jettisons its previous relationship with Europe and becomes increasingly insular and isolated, the appeal of being part of a new and outward-looking Ireland will prove ever more attractive to young people from a unionist background.
That unionists are uniquely part of the Irish political make-up was demonstrated very clearly in the British reaction to Theresa May’s political negotiations with the DUP.
Unlike the rest of Ireland, most people in Britain had, up to this point, probably never heard of the DUP.
Over recent weeks, the great British public have got a crash-course education on the party and what’s clear is that for most of them, the DUP appear deeply, well . . . foreign. And so they are.
Ulster unionism is an Irish political phenomenon which generally makes little or no impact on the consciousness of the general British public.
To properly secure their own long-term interests, it is nationalist Ireland, not Theresa May, who unionist representatives need to negotiate with.
The future of Irish people – unionists and nationalists, North and South, are bound together.
Economy and society across the island of Ireland are intertwined. The prospect of Brexit has merely served to highlight that.
A new, inclusive Ireland
It is time that – together – we designed a pathway to a new, agreed and inclusive Ireland, one that is accommodating to all our people in all their diversity.
Meanwhile, it is equally important that those who already believe in a united Ireland come together to develop common positions where possible.
On this, Kevin Meagher also had advice for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil when he said:
“For the South, stop ignoring reality. You signed up for the prospect of national unity in the Good Friday Agreement. Three-quarters of people there want to see it happen.
“It’s time the Dublin political class started actively planning for the day that this island comes together again.”
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have so far refused to accept Sinn Féin invitations to join us in setting out a collective vision for a united Ireland
Sinn Féin understands we cannot win a united Ireland campaign without the support of other pro-unity parties. They, likewise, need to recognise that Irish unity won’t happen without Sinn Féin.
We will happily challenge, debate and argue with those parties on most current political, social economic issues. In many cases, we will have fundamental disagreements.
But, on the biggest issue before our people – that of the reunification of our country – we apparently agree.
So why not work together in the knowledge that it is only by doing so that we have any prospect of delivering it?
All those in favour of a united Ireland should work together with the common objective of convincing the greatest possible number of people across the island that unity is in their best interest.
And let us convince those who think otherwise that they have nevertheless nothing to fear from the outcome of a referendum on the issue.
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An initiative for dialogue
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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures