4 August 2022 Edition
All voices welcome at Seanad public consultation
The Seanad’s Public Consultation Committee is undertaking a series of hearings on the constitutional future of Ireland.
This is a welcome step forward and one that is indicative of the growing momentum, interest in and focus on this important topic; an issue being debated daily, right across all aspects of Irish life, be it political, civic, academic, within the media or simply conversations in the family home, the workplace, the clubhouse or pitch side.
It is my firm hope that our committee hearings can create a crucial platform for discussing pertinent issues such as the economy, our environment, the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, education, social issues, and healthcare.
The Committee will consider issues including a referendum on constitutional change and lessons from other referendums held here and in other jurisdictions. We will also discuss key societal and economic elements of constitutional change such as culture and language, reconciliation and careful consideration of Ireland’s economic future.
Republicans will have a key role to play in engaging with these hearings, and putting forward our positive, progressive, and citizen-centred perspective on the debate about our constitutional future.
We will champion, unashamedly, the cause of Irish Unity, of a better Ireland, a more equal, fair and just Ireland. An Ireland where difference is respected and celebrated, where our language is protected, promoted, and invested in, and where people have a modern, innovative and universally accessible healthcare system. An Ireland that builds homes, builds communities and builds social solidarity.
The voices of young people, of our Traveller brothers and sisters, new communities, ethnic minority groups and refugees, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as Gaeilgeoirí and those from Gaeltacht communities, members of the unionist community and those with a British identity are all welcome as we listen, engage, discuss, and inform. Many of these groups are already engaged in these conversations and I have no doubt will welcome the opportunity to engage with the Oireachtas on an issue they feel strongly about - regardless of their position on constitutional change. It’s important all perspectives are heard.
The Seanad’s hearings will provide an important platform for this debate, right at the heart of Leinster House. For far too long, the establishment parties and indeed institutions have turned their backs on the voices, the lived experiences, and the democratic aspirations of those from the North who demand that the Good Friday Agreement provision for a referendum on constitutional change is enacted. These hearings will provide an opportunity for people from the Six Counties, Irish citizens and others, to have a say in the heart of Dublin, to penetrate the walls where some would prefer their voices aren’t heard, so it’s crucial that this opportunity is taken.
As I have always said, conversations about constitutional change are growing and ignoring this does no one any favours. Politicians burying their head in the sand and trying to dismiss this conversation as ‘divisive’ does a huge disservice to us all. Political leaders have a responsibility to show positive leadership and engage in this dialogue with respect, generosity and inclusion – that is my and Sinn Féin’s approach to this committee and our important work.
The Seanad’s initiative takes place alongside other, similar discussions. At this summer’s Féile an Phobail in Belfast, we saw debate after debate putting forward the case about the need to plan for constitutional change.
The SDLP have established their ‘New Ireland Forum’. We have seen thousands of Gaels under the banner of ‘Gaels Le Chéile’ write to An Taoiseach urging him to convene a Citizens Assembly on constitutional change.
For our part, Sinn Féin will also hold our ‘People’s Assemblies’ throughout the country in the course of the coming months and October will see a huge gathering at the Three Arena in Dublin for the ‘Together We Can’ event organised by leading civil society group ‘Ireland’s Future’.
While many challenges, not least the cost of living crisis and relentless neoliberal agenda of governments in Dublin and London that continue to bear down on people across our society, this debate offers us a hopeful course towards a better future – it is only right that the Oireachtas would be to the fore of the discussion and the planning – that’s why the Seanad’s hearings are a step in the right direction, but in isolation will not be enough.
We need more.
We need a political acceptance from Government that this debate is live, that it needs focus, coordination, resourcing and a home. That home should be in the heart of the political institutions. That is why we need an Irish Government that will act responsibly, that will adhere to the Good Friday Agreement, one that will direct the necessary resources, diplomatic endeavour and political effort to the ever-growing demand for change.
The Seanad’s platform and ultimately our voice on this matter will be an important, inclusive and, I have no doubt, representative one. I am excited for the work of this committee and keen to hear the range of views brought before it. I am confident in the drive, determination and commitment of United Irelanders out there across Irish society, who will continue to work for change – change for the better, change for us all.
• Niall Ó Donnghaile is Sinn Féin’s leader in the Seanad