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6 October 2023

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Republicans need to better understand Protestants and Unionists

The democratic logic is now inescapable; the moment has arrived; it is time to establish a Citizens' Assembly on Irish unity. If political unionism has a positive vision to share, it should do so as we seek to build a new Ireland for all.

In a significant editorial column, the Irish News edition on 25 September stated: “Brexit has supercharged the debate on Irish unity. Talk about a border poll is now firmly in the political mainstream." 

It was an important intervention which objectively confirms what has been happening in plain sight throughout Ireland. 

Brexit has been a game changer for relations between Britain, Ireland, Europe, and the rest of the world. 

Those who pushed for the hardest Brexit possible have become the architects of the fragmentation of the once-vaunted ‘United Kingdom’.

English Tory interests trumped every other consideration and unionist support for their reckless agenda has now catastrophically backfired on the DUP.

The political and economic fall out, alongside changing demographics in the north have had a major influence on public opinion.

The ground is shifting. Political aspirations and expectations are changing.

This new impetus for Irish unity is a product of these realignments which in turn throw up unprecedented challenges for how all this change should be managed. 

That got expression in a very concrete way during the recent event organised by Sinn Féin’s ‘Commission on the Future of Ireland’ in Derry City. 

The Commission’s purpose is to encourage grass roots conversations about the achievement of Irish unity. Established in July 2022, it has now organised a total of eight very successful People’s Assemblies and sectoral events throughout Ireland. The next will be in Waterford on 12 October. 

The Derry meeting addressed the theme ‘Exploring northern Protestant identities and culture in a shared future’. The chair and two panellists were women from Protestant and unionist backgrounds in the Derry area. 

Their contributions were thoughtful, forthright and challenging. Notably the two panellists said that no unionist politicians were giving leadership at this time. However, they also viewed the contemporary political decisions and behaviour of republicans as a measure for how they believed their identities, rights and aspirations would be treated in a future united Ireland. 

Understanding and engaging Protestant identities and culture is one of the most important discussions which needs to occur as we look to the future and potential constitutional change. 

Sinn Féin has a vision for the future and a strategy to bring about Irish unity. 

Our political project takes its inspiration from the ‘Spirit of 1798’ and the United Irishmen and women. We are Irish republicans in the Wolfe Tone tradition; implacably anti-sectarian; committed to equality, rights, and national independence; dedicated to the unity of all our people – Catholic, Protestant, dissenter, and others. That is the essence of true, modern-day republicanism. 

The conversation in Derry was based upon the conviction that republicans have to listen to, and learn from, our Protestant and unionist fellow citizens.

Those from Protestant or civic unionist, or political unionist, backgrounds do not constitute a monolith.

But republicans need Protestant citizens to help us better understand the diversity of Protestant identity and culture in all its forms. 

This is a period for us all to begin freeing up our thinking; to start challenging old orthodoxies and preconceptions; to push back against boundaries and barriers: to be brave. 

Republicans carry a responsibility to engage with Protestants and unionists and to understand their current concerns. These concerns and suspicions are real; for many shaped by hurt caused by the IRA during the conflict. 

But perhaps today they are also directly influenced by an insecurity fuelled by the growth and popularity of Sinn Féin across Ireland, and associated surge in support for Irish unity. 

Of course, the momentum for Irish unity does not make it inevitable, but its achievement is now more likely than ever before. A Pandora’s Box has been opened. 

The future of the island is now in the melting pot. And although Sinn Féin believes that Irish unity is the best democratic option, republicans do not claim to have all the answers. 

Constitutional change is a complex undertaking. It needs to be got right. 

Our political landscape is complicated due to the legacy of colonialism in Ireland, and consequences of sectarianism, both past and present. 

We need to be honest with each other. Our communal relationships are broken. Partition as a strategy to divide has worked. Our identities and cultural traditions are contested. However, diversity should be a cause of celebration, not contention.

Unconditional dialogue is the key to developing new understandings, addressing concerns, and removing both psychological and physical barriers.

We may never agree about the past. So maybe it’s time we accepted that as a reality, and instead invest positive energy in trying to agree on the future. 

That is, a future within a new constitutional framework which guarantees equality, respect, and rights for all identities, cultural traditions, political opinions, and ethnic backgrounds. 

Therefore, just as the Irish News editorial advocates, processes should be put in place to allow for thorough and thoughtful planning on constitutional change to formally begin, and for the proponents of reunification to respectfully persuade those with whom we share this island to choose a new constitutional settlement through the exercise of self-determination. 

The Tory government is politically dysfunctional. This government ‘got Brexit done’, and it has no interest in the north of Ireland or any of the people who live here.

In these circumstances, the Irish government has an absolute political responsibility to lead out on planning the transition for Irish unity. 

The democratic logic is now inescapable; the moment has arrived; it is time to establish a Citizens' Assembly on Irish unity. 

If political unionism has a positive vision to share, it should do so as we seek to build a new Ireland for all.

It cannot however be allowed to veto progress as democratic, nationalists and republicans seek to build a new Ireland for all.

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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures

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