This week, Prof. Colin Harvey writes exclusively for Shared Ireland.
Those advocating for constitutional change need to get on with building a robust case, and securing the framework for the votes to take place.
The debate on Irish reunification is intensifying, with a growing and dynamic civic conversation about change. Brexit has played a leading part in this trend. The north is now out of the EU, and reunification is a way back. This alters the nature of the discussion, and for many it increases the likelihood of the required referendums taking place. The understandable temptation to consider what happens next as inevitable must be treated with caution. Brutal honesty is wise. There is nearly 100 years of failure to reflect on, and much delusional wishful thinking along the way. The outcome is not predetermined and hard strategic work is needed if change is going to happen on this island.
What will really deliver a united Ireland in the next decade?
It can be stated simply. Advocates for reunification must win two referendums; one in the north, and one in the south. Getting the process started will be an achievement in itself, and timing will be significant. Too much of the debate side-steps the basic realities of the choice. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that even those formally committed to a united Ireland want to ignore the debate or wish it away in streams of meaningless waffle. Many abstract rhetorical devices are used to evade the practical work required. The job is to make now the right time for the conversation, and inject the necessary sense of urgency into the process of planning and preparation. Never forget: this is at the core of the Good Friday Agreement.
But it borders on disrespectful to expect unionists to participate in these conversations.
The intention here is to raise three matters for consideration as part of the conversation.
First, it may be obvious, but unionists will not vote for Irish reunification. The principal aim
for unionism will, quite rightly, be maintaining the Union with Britain. It is correct to ensure that any proposals for change are welcoming, and hope that a culture of mutual respect and equality emerges. But it borders on disrespectful to expect unionists to participate in these conversations. Those advocating for constitutional change need to get on with building a robust case, and securing the framework for the votes to take place. Endless and pointless distractions will not assist in that task. Only those open to persuasion can ever be persuaded. And that is where attention must be directed.
Second, the Good Friday Agreement has left us with a puzzle.
The right of self- determination belongs to the people of the island of Ireland. Yet the process is tied closely to the Secretary of State, and thus the British Government. Getting these referendums will therefore be a challenge. Where will the pressure come from? In practice, it is unlikely to happen without the Irish Government pressing for it. However, events could, in principle at least, force the hand of the British Government. If consistent evidence emerged that demonstrated majority support for reunification this could prove hard, but not impossible, to resist. Would nationalist/republican parties in the north, for example, continue to participate in power-sharing if the wish of the people for change became clear and was ignored? International pressure, especially from the US, would also be significant, as would views within the EU. Do not discount either the potential for the UK to fracture in a divisive post-Brexit world. However it happens, it is to be hoped that the parameters will be formed in dialogue with the Irish Government, the political parties in the north and civic engagement. For example, it would make considerable sense to agree a British-Irish intergovernmental framework, and build as much consensus as possible around what will be a contentious process. At this time, there must be a focus on getting the framework in place, and building an unambiguous sense of momentum around the trajectory that the island is on.
The mindset that will win is one that ‘parks egos’, and is open to evidence, comparative experience, experiment and learning. Getting advocates for reunification to set aside rivalries and work constructively together will be quite a task.
Third, harsh facts need to be accepted. Those seeking reunification have thus far failed. Full stop. The reasons must be examined rigorously, and then the correct conclusions reached. Lessons must be learned from movements that have succeeded in achieving their objectives. The pathway to success is mapped out, and the main – and formidable – task will be winning a referendum in the north in particular (although the south cannot be taken for granted). So, there must be work done on constructing an inclusive platform and creative coalition that will produce a voting majority in the north for reunification. What proposals, plans and messaging might persuade a majority to take that step? In answering the question there must be mature engagement with individuals, communities, experts and international experience that points to success. The mindset that will win is one that ‘parks egos’, and is open to evidence, comparative experience, experiment and learning. Getting advocates for reunification to set aside rivalries and work constructively together will be quite a task. But that must be done.
If things are going to be different this decade, then basic honesty is needed, and harsh reality should be faced. Ireland is still divided and remains partitioned.
A fact now underlined even further by Brexit. The united Ireland project has so far failed. Next year the north will have survived as a constitutional entity within the UK to its centenary. If a different script is to be written for the next 100 years then new strategies and tactics will be required.
Colin Harvey is a professor at Queens University Belfast and is a human rights lawyer.
Leave a Reply