20 years ago this month the IRA declared its second cessation. As a result of that historic initiative all-party negotiations commenced in September 1997. After eight months of difficult negotiations the Good Friday Agreement was agreed on April 10th 1998.
The Agreement is an historic compromise between nationalists, unionists, republicans, and the British and Irish governments. It is not the republic proclaimed at Easter 1916 but it is based on the principles of equality and respect, and parity of esteem, and provides a route to further progress towards our republican objectives. The Good Friday Agreement has been described as an agreement to a journey but not to a destination. It moved beyond notion of an internal 6 county settlement. It is all-Ireland, in form and structure. It is about a new political dispensation on the island of Ireland and a new relationship between Ireland and Britain. It is also about fundamental constitutional and institutional change.
In essence, the Good Friday Agreement is about establishing a level playing field which provides an opportunity for unionists to present their case in support of the union, and for nationalists and republicans to present our case for a United Ireland. Recognising that the constitutional or national question is yet to be resolved the Agreement specifically states that “if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.”
So there you have it. For nationalists and republicans and democrats who seek to achieve a united Ireland our task must be about persuasion. If we are serious about a united Ireland then we have to agree strategies that promote it. We have to present convincing and cogent arguments in favour of Irish unity. And we have to engage with unionism and seek to persuade a section of that part of our society to support Irish unity.
At first glance agreeing the means by which the people of Ireland, north and south, can exercise our right to self-determination should be relatively straightforward. Most parties on this island say they are for Irish unity. Since partition the establishment political parties in the 26 counties have consistently promoted themselves and their policies as ‘republican’ and their desire for Irish unity being their primary objective. Fianna Fáil is ‘The Republican Party’; Fine Gael is the ‘United Ireland Party’; and Labour claim ownership of the Connolly tradition.
The reality, of course, has been very different. Their focus has been on the competing demands of electoral politics within the southern state. At differing times, usually when there is an election, they have wrapped the green flag round themselves because they know that Irish unity is popular.
Last year’s centenary celebrations for the 1916 Easter Rising were evidence of this. The vast majority of Irish people at home and abroad proudly celebrated the Rising and the Proclamation of the Republic. One result of this, and of the two elections in the North this year, and the dire consequences of Brexit, has been an increase in the debate around Irish unity. Late last year Sinn Fein produced a discussion paper on this. Others have produced detailed economic papers on the benefits of unity.
In January in the Mansion House in Dublin and last month in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast Sinn Féin also held two very successful conferences discussing the future of Ireland and the potential for Irish unity. This year also saw former Taoiseach Enda Kenny commit to holding a referendum on voting rights for Presidential elections for citizens in the North and within the Irish diaspora. The European Union has also said that following Brexit, and in the event of Irish reunification, the North would automatically become a member of the EU.
These developments and the triggering of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, for the commencement of negotiations on Brexit, has also changed the political climate in which the debate on Irish unity is now taking place.
In April I wrote to the leaders of the political parties in the Dáil about the possibility of establishing an all-party Oireachtas Committee on Irish unity. As Oireachtas members TDs and Seanadóirí have the right to establish Committees to assist in formulating legislative and political work that impact on people’s daily lives and the future direction of our county.
On that basis I proposed the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity that would bring forward proposals for what a united Ireland might look like, how we get there and how the Irish State needs to plan for reunification across all areas of the economy and society. The committee would provide a forum where party political interests could be left at the door and where the idea of a broad consensus for Irish Unity could be nurtured.
I pointed out that the cause of uniting Ireland is not the property of any one grouping or party and that consequently it is crucial that we leave party political and electoral interests at the door and embrace the idea of a broad consensus and civic movement for Irish Unity. The campaign for Irish Unity should be accessible to all and exclude nobody.
Crucially, part of the work of the Committee would be to put in place a vision for the future of the island that assures Unionists of their place in a New Ireland. It could also consider the circumstances in which a referendum on unity would be held and how it could be won. I submitted for their consideration a draft of such a Committee’s Orders of Reference, though obviously these can be amended and shaped as desired on a consensus basis.
I have yet to receive a response from the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar or from the leader of the Labour Party Brendan Howlin. However, the Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin has refused to support the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee. His excuse is that Fianna Fáil is committed to “working within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement and procedurally through the Oireachtas Committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.”
But the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is about cross border co-operation. It is not about Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement has a specific commitment to the holding of a referendum on Irish unity. The Fianna Fáil leader is against this. This stance of Micheál Martin is very disappointing. He needs to get serious about a United Ireland.
The reality is that an agreed Ireland is not inevitable. It has to be worked for. It will not happen by accident. It has to be planned for. Nationalists and republicans have to work together towards the development of a broad civic movement for Irish Unity. We have to reach out to unionists. The establishment of an Oireachtas Committee would advance these objectives by helping in the formulating of legislative and political work that impact on the future direction of our county.
There are no short cuts to Irish unity. It is a huge challenge for those of us who want to go beyond the rhetoric of a united Ireland to the actual achievement of that objective. That is the challenge facing Fianna Fáil. And the rest of us.
DRAFT ORDERS OF REFERENCE FOR OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE ON IRISH UNIFICATION
"That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, Dáil Éireann—
— the cross-community, all-island support for the Good Friday Agreement, as endorsed collectively in referenda by the people of Ireland, north and south, on the 22nd May 1998;
— the political, economic, social and cultural progress brought about by the peace process and the Agreement, benefiting all the people of Ireland;
— the important work undertaken by the North-South Ministerial Council and by the North-South Implementation Bodies under the terms of the Agreement; and
—in accordance with the Agreement, that it is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland,
— to promote all-Ireland policies and strategies, benefiting all parts of the island of Ireland;
— to actively seek to persuade all those who share the island of Ireland, through dialogue, of the advantages of Irish unification; and
— to prepare politically, economically, socially and culturally for Irish unification, identify steps and measures, including the preparation of a report, which can assist a successful transition to a united Ireland,
(a) a Special Committee (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Committee’) is hereby appointed, to be joined with a Special Committee to be appointed by Seanad Éireann, to form the Joint Committee on Irish Unification;
(b) the Committee shall present a report, with recommendations, to both Houses of the Oireachtas, in accordance with paragraphs (j) and (k);
(c) the number of members of the Committee shall not exceed 14, and the members shall be appointed as follows:
(i) four members shall be appointed by the Government,
(ii) three members appointed by Fianna Fáil,
(iii) two members appointed by Sinn Féin, and
(iv) one member each appointed by the Labour Party, Solidarity—People Before Profit, Independents4Change, the Rural Independent Group and the Social Democrats—Green Party Group;
(d) the Ceann Comhairle shall announce the names of the members appointed under paragraph (c) for the information of the Dáil on the first sitting day following their appointment;
(e) the quorum of the Joint Committee shall be seven, at least one of whom shall be a member of the Dáil, and one a member of the Seanad;
(f) the Joint Committee shall have the powers defined in Standing Order 85(1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (7), (8) and (9);
(g) Members of the Westminster Parliament elected from constituencies in Northern Ireland may attend meetings of the Joint Committee and of its sub-Committees and may take part in proceedings without having a right to vote or to move motions and amendments;
(h) the Chairman of the Joint Committee shall be a member of Dáil Éireann;
(i) the Committee shall be mandated to hold hearings in public with expert witnesses; invite and accept written submissions;
(j) the Committee shall, within six months of its initial meeting, present a final report to both Houses of the Oireachtas, for earliest possible discussion in both Houses;
(k) the Committee’s final report shall examine and identify the benefits of Irish unification, make recommendations to overcome obstacles to unification and develop a plan to achieve Irish unification, in line with the objectives of:
(i) promoting all-Ireland policies and strategies, benefiting all parts of the island of Ireland,
(ii) seeking to persuade all those who share the island of Ireland, through dialogue, of the advantages of Irish unification,
(iii) preparing politically, economically, socially and culturally for Irish unification,
(iv) identifying steps and measures which can assist a successful transition to a united Ireland;
(i) the Committee shall produce an interim report, containing also its proposed work schedule, to be debated at a meeting of the Dáil no less than one month, and no more than two months, after its establishment; and
(m) the Committee shall meet as frequently as appropriate to fulfil its remit.”