Why are some unionists so opposed to the new arrangements for checks on products coming from the UK and entering the north of Ireland? Because, they say, this will mean an economically united Ireland. And they are right, or mainly right at least. Ireland north and south will trade as though there was no border there. You may say that economic unity is a different thing from political unity, but I think most of us realise there is a connection. The EU is as good an example as any. It started with a Common Market and has developed into a European Union.
The fact that there is to be economic unity after Brexit (despite Boris Johnson’s defiant talk) opens the door to examination of political reunification. Last night at a packed meeting in Westminster hosted by Sinn Féin MPs, Prof Colin Harvey said that there were too many people standing up and saying they favour a united Ireland sometime in their lifetime and then sitting down and doing nothing to bring it about. He’s right, but why would people do this? I’m thinking, since you ask, Virginia, of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail leaders.
They say we should be discreet about even mentioning Irish unity because they feel it would upset unionists. Are they right? It certainly would upset some unionists, but by no means all. But are they right that we should be seeking reconciliation with each other in the north, before going to talk about a border poll?
Short answer: No. Those who sing silent on the question of a border poll forget that there was a thing called the Good Friday Agreement. That introduced power-sharing, and the option of a border poll – at the SoS’s agreement – every seven years, if necessary. In other words, unionism would be recognized as a legitimate political commitment and nationalism would be equally recognized as legitimate.
But the fact is, nationalist aspirations are not being treated as of equal importance. We have a state of union with Britain, which satisfies unionists; but while we don’t have a reunification of Ireland, we’re expected not even to talk about it, let alone act. What kind of lop-sided notion of parity of aspiration is that?
There are, as I say, unionists who get mighty upset at any talk of a reunited Ireland; but the GFA says we have every right to talk, and act if the SoS is persuaded we can. That’s an absurd source to look to for permission, but let’s not get too hung up on that. The core point is that articulated by Prof Colin Harvey last night: there are too many people (tick Fine Gael, tick Fianna Fail) who speaking quickly, admit that they’re in favour of Irish reunification at some point but not now and then sit down and twiddle their thumbs. Lord, make me pure but not just yet.
Whoever forms the next Dublin government must be put under maximum pressure to set up immediately a citizens’ assembly or forum where the outline of a reunited Ireland can be created and discussed. Doing nothing is simply no longer an option.