A date for Irish unity

December 24, 2020

By Kieran Harrahill


As we come to the end of one of the most disruptive and challenging years of our lives, we face a future bound with many questions regarding how our island will be altered once Brexit is finally settled. Across the Irish Sea, polling on Scottish independence has seen the independence campaign build a consistent lead over those who favour retaining the union. While Boris Johnson has announced plans to develop a ‘union task force’, Northern Ireland increasingly appears to be little more than an afterthought in the minds of the Conservative and Unionist Party. While there has been much speculation about when a referendum on Irish unity will take place, there hasn’t been as much focus on what happens after a decisive vote for unity. This is something I wish to explore in this article.

A potential date that has been put forward by Niall Murphy of Ireland’s Future and Professor Colin Harvey is the 22nd/23rd of May 2023. It is difficult to think of two individuals who have done more to argue the case for preparation of the highest standard being enacted before undertaking a unity referendum. I do however disagree with the date provided for a very simple reason. I do not believe that in the time between now and May 2023 that the Irish government can implement the measures required to ensure a transition from a divided to a shared United Irish Republic. One area where this is very relevant is on the subject of healthcare. Polling indicates that healthcare will be a decisive factor among voters in the six counties of Northern Ireland in a referendum on Irish unity. In the Shared Ireland podcast series, a number of contributors have highlighted how important healthcare is in terms of influencing voters to stick with the NHS and the Union (Jeffrey Donaldson; Doug Beattie) or the need for an Irish NHS (Niall Ó Donnghaile; Colum Eastwood) to be in place in time for a referendum on unity. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Reverend Kyle Paisely was of the view that sticking with the Union was favourable because ‘It’s better the devil you know’. The use of this phrase struck me because it reminded me of the same phrase used by Labour TD Ged Nash in an interview on how he would side with Scotland remaining in the Union in 2014. A clear example of how this may play out can be seen in the slow implementation of Sláintecare in the South. The Sláintecare report was published by the Houses of the Oireachtas Committee on the future of Healthcare in May 2017. It seeks to develop ‘a universal single-tier health and social care system where everyone has equal access to services based on need, and not ability to pay’. The concept has been widely supported among parties in the South, featuring in the general election manifestos of 7 of the 8 parties elected to Dáil Eireann in 2020.

Despite Sláintecare’s popularity prior to the election, the subsequent Programme for Government has been criticised for having Sláintecare ‘completely relegated to some point in the future’. Herein lies the problem of failing to prepare for unity. It is possible that the campaign for unity will begin prior to the complete implementation of a single-tier universal healthcare system in the South. This may lead advocates of unity to claim that it will be fully operational by the time unity is achieved. However as noted by the former national director of publicity for Sinn Féin Danny Morrison, there is no way that there is ‘going to be 50% plus one unless people see the blueprint … people want to know what their health system is going to be, what their education system is going to be, where their pensions are going to come from’. If it is not proven that public services in a new, shared, united Ireland can meet the needs of citizens in the North instantly, the ‘better the devil you know’ argument may be a convincing asset for the opponents of Irish unity.

On the other hand, if Sláintecare is implemented prior to the beginning of the referendum process and is shown to provide high quality healthcare to people in the South, the argument on healthcare flips on its head. This is relevant not only to the area of health but also other public services such as higher education. If Sláintecare is received positively by GPs, medical specialists, and patients, the level of uncertainty amongst people in the North about how secure their healthcare is as well as what it will cost them in a united Ireland will be reduced. If it is also received positively among student and recently graduated nurses who see that they can make a living doing the work they have trained for in Ireland, this could stem the tide of young people leaving Northern Ireland to go to university and who do not see their future being based on this island. Central to keeping the knowledge and skills held by young people is ensuring that education and housing is affordable for all.

The argument could also be made by the advocates of Irish unity that unionists placed their faith in the hands of a Conservative party leader that stated: ‘no British Conservative government could or should sign up’ to extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea which now appears to be the case. This is not a criticism of the hope among unionists that Boris Johnson would help ease their fears surrounding identity and their place in the union. Rather, it is an illustration of Edward Carson’s old yet relevant words that Ulster and Ireland would be used as a puppet to get a Conservative into power. How could the people of Northern Ireland then trust the Conservative party to defend their healthcare services? As Glenn Bradley, a former British Army solider bluntly puts it, ‘if I’m going to go into a new Ireland, I want our NHS and by that, I mean a true NHS. The NHS, because of Tory austerity, has had the arse ripped out of it’.  

As Emma DeSouza and other prominent voices have noted, it is essential that Ireland does not have its own Brexit referendum in terms of the vote being based on misinformation and a lack of planning rather than clear research findings and sustained dialogue. For this reason, I propose that the date for a referendum on Irish unity be Friday, the where can i buy priligy in canada 6th of October 2028. This provides time for the undertaking of a Citizens’ Assembly on building a shared future for all upon this island. If it is decided at such a forum that the best means of achieving a peaceful and prosperous future is by holding a unity referendum as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement, this will provide time for the undertaking of negotiations between the British and Irish governments alongside other relevant stakeholders such as the Stormont Assembly, the European Union and the United States. These negotiations prior to a referendum would focus on the everyday matters of government such as investment, trade, and the payment of pensions as well as aspects which are unique to Anglo-Irish relations, notably how to address issues of legacy and support reconciliation within and between these islands.

Upon completing the counting of votes and the declaration that Ireland, North and South has voted for unity on Saturday, the 7th of October 2028, the island of Ireland will undergo a short transition period. One obvious area of change will be in the conversion from Sterling to Euro in Northern Ireland. Other potential aspects which will occur in this transition period include the harmonisation of services and semi-state bodies such as post offices, transport, and policing through the creation of island-wide entities.

On Tuesday, the 17th of October, Members of Parliament representing the 18 Northern Irish constituencies will sit in the House of Commons for the final time. As outlined in Article 1, section 4 of the Good Friday Agreement, the British government will ‘introduce and support’ relevant legislation to affirm the end of British governance over the island of Ireland. Similarly, on this date, Dáil Éireann and the Stormont Assembly will sit for the final time to pass relevant legislation in order to pave the way for unity.

On the eve of the 17th of October, the official unification ceremony will take place in Waterford City Hall. Some might be surprised as to why I have selected Waterford as the site for the unification ceremony. This was done for two primary reasons. It was on the 17th of October 1171 that King Henry II became the first English monarch to set foot in Ireland after landing in Waterford. This event arguably represents the genesis of the 800 years of British governance in Ireland. It is also notable that across from Waterford City Hall is 33 The Mall, where the Irish tricolour was first flown in 1848.

Celebrating German Unity in Berlin, 3rd October 1990 (Credit: Jörg Schmitt, Der Spiegel)

The focal point of the ceremony will be the signing of a treaty by the Head of State of Ireland (President) and the Head of State of the United Kingdom (Monarch). A model of the cover page of a potential treaty is presented below. To celebrate the diversity of the island of Ireland as well as celebrating our island’s place in the world, the signing ceremony will be attended by the mayor of each local authority on the island as well as every national ambassador positioned in Ireland. Deciding whether a new national flag will be required will be a much-discussed matter in the time between now and the successful undertaking of a referendum on Irish unity. I believe that lowering the tricolour and raising a new national flag in the first seconds of the 18th of October would be a poignant means of representing the beginning of a new chapter of Irish history. Similar to the 3rd of October in Germany, the 18th of October could be a third national holiday in a new, shared, Ireland after St. Patrick’s Day and the 12th of July as our National Day of Unity.

Sample Treaty Cover Page

The next major date in the nascent united republic would be the undertaking of a general election. The date I propose for this is Saturday, the 15th of December 2028. What is notable about this date is that it will be almost 110 years to the date of the last all-island general election in 1918. How Ireland will be governed in terms of the role of national government, local government and the potential for intermediary bodies is one aspect which will need clarity if a Citizen’s Assembly dealing with the future of the island of Ireland is established. I propose that a National Assembly of Ireland (Tionól Náisunta na hÉireann) would comprise of 232 Feisirí de Pharlaimint (FP)/Members of Parliament (MP). The logic for this figure is that there are currently 160 TDs elected to Dáil Éireann. Added to this would be 72 representatives elected from the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. This would mean 4 representatives per constituency in contrast to the 5 currently in place in the Stormont Assembly.

One positive aspect of this number is that it slightly overrepresents deputies from the North. Using statistics from Eurostat and the United Nations via Google search, the combined population of the entire island of Ireland is approximately 6.789 million with 1.885 million residing in Northern Ireland. This equates to just under 28% of the entire population. In terms of representation in parliament however, Northern representatives would comprise 31% of the seats in the Tionól (National Assembly). Northern Irish representation in the House of Commons currently sits at 3%. By comprising almost one-third of the national legislator, the representatives from Northern Ireland would have far more control over policy matters being introduced, debated, and implemented at a national level, compared to their position in the House of Commons currently. It is highly likely that a government could not be formed without the support of representatives from the north being included and holding positions of influence in the cabinet.

On Monday, the 8th of January 2029, a parliament representing the entirety of Ireland as an independent nation-state will sit for the first time. This date aligns closely with another important date in Irish history. It was on the 7th of January 1922 that the Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved by Dáil Éireann, establishing the Irish Free State and accepting the creation of two jurisdictions on this island.

A potential timeline for the first sitting of the parliament may include aspects that occurred during the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999. Following the issuing of writs by the Clerk of the Tionól to the elected Members, the oldest serving Deputy will fulfil the role of acting Presiding Officer, providing an opening address before the holding of a vote to elect the Presiding Officer (Cainteoir an dTionól/Speaker of the Assembly) for the parliamentary term. This will be followed by the election of Leas-Chainteoirí (Deputy Speakers). The second aspect which will occur, similar to the opening of the Scottish Parliament will be an address by the Head of State. While the President of Ireland has rarely addressed Dáil Éireann, the first sitting of an all-Ireland parliament reflects a worthy occasion to address parliament. The final aspect of the first day of Parliament will be the commencement of a debate on electing the first Head of Government of the 32 county Republic.  

First sitting of the Scottish Parliament, May 1999 (Credit: David Cheskin, The Scotsman)

One benefit of 2028 being the year of the referendum is the practical benefits that it has for the undertaking of local and European elections in May of the following year. On the 25th of May 2029, the people of the North will be able to mark their return to the European Union by casting their ballots to elect Members of the European Parliament once again. This will conclude possibly the seven most momentous months in the history of Ireland. Through peaceful and democratic means, by emphasising social dialogue among all groups and traditions on our island and by ensuring evidence-based research rather than empty rhetoric, the dream of a United Irish Republic free from the divides which hindered our growth in the past can become a reality. The only thing standing in the way of these events is the inability to plan for our shared future.

A number of aspects raised in this article needs further clarification. Of particular importance is what will take place during the 10-day transition period. How will an all-island Defence Force come into being? Will there be one all-island football league, cup, and international team? Would Primark in the North rebrand itself as Penneys? The development of the Shared Island Unit is undoubtedly a positive step by the Irish government. Developing networks for dialogue with members of the unionist community will assist in further exploring what are the thoughts, hopes and fears of an integral community and culture of our island. By illustrating how the ‘grey mists’ that coloured unionist perceptions of the South in the past are no longer relevant given the South’s transformation into a country of warmth towards those who’s culture is different to their own, our island can move away from the century long divide, end the influence of an uncaring Conservative government upon our island and create a country in which the people of Ireland, North and South, are the masters of their destiny.


Kieran Harrahill is a 3rd year PhD researcher with University College Dublin and Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. He is 24 years old and is from Co. Tipperary. Kieran has a BA in Geography and Politics and International Relations and an MSc in Environmental Policy from UCD. His research on Just Transition in the coal industry has featured in a television interview on ABC Television in Australia and has been cited in a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute. The emphasis placed in his research on ensuring that a more participatory approach is taken in environmental policy is highly relevant to a number of policy areas, including the co-creation of a new, shared and united Ireland. His Twitter handle is @kharrahill_phd


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One comment on “A date for Irish unity

  1. Barry Reynolds Dec 29, 2020

    All very good. However as a northern nationalist, I feel 2028 is too late. Remember we’ve been left behind too long already.

    Those who favour the union are experts at delay. They will push this back further.
    Once brexit is past the Jan deadline, I’d like to see the Republic and the EU strike whilst the iron is hot.

    Biden is at the start of his term.
    With the wave of goodwill and the brexit frustration still fresh, it would be an ideal opportunity to push to get an all Ireland health service etc under way.

    Added to this is the momentum that the Scottish independence movement has atm.
    There is an alignment of conditions that are rarely seen.

    Procrastination will leave us a hostage to fortune.

    Yes, all this takes time and work. Let’s push. Aim for the stars etc.

    There is a great window ahead of us. Let’s sieze it.

    Is mise lea meas
    Barry Reynolds