Young people have a new vision for Northern Ireland
Richard Haass needs support of the new voices of a younger generation and sustained political leadership
This is a great objective in itself. However, paradoxically, by not pursuing it, both sides are actually damaging their ultimate objectives. Firstly, whether the citizens of the Republic would want a united Ireland is a matter of debate. One thing, however, seems clear: they would only really consider unification if Northern Ireland had achieved real peace and genuine partnership.
In that light, some recent actions of Sinn Féin are genuinely confusing. Sinn Féin has become an important political force in the Republic (in addition to the North). Some of its TDs are highly effective and frequently show political judgment resonating with significant elements of the public. Therefore it is genuinely confusing to see the flags dispute, Castlederg, naming a playground after an IRA volunteer and the call for a Border poll.
These actions provoked the predictably negative reaction from unionists. The vision of a Northern Ireland at true peace with itself recedes, as does an essential prerequisite for the Republic to consider unification.
For unionism there are no equal consequences to provocative actions. The union stands secure and polls indicate no imminent change. However, loyalist violence around parades and flags has created little solidarity from the rest of the UK. Perhaps no matter for now. However, with (a) possible Scottish independence, and (b) Britain’s place in Europe being debated, potentially significant changes to the UK could follow. These could have huge and potentially negative implications for Northern Ireland. Violent attacks on security forces do little for Ulster unionism in the wider UK.
Such actions could also lead to greater disengagement by both the Republic and the rest of the UK in relation to the North. Settling for a level of containment from a distance – does that help anybody?
Building on the mood of the young people at the British-Irish Association in Cambridge and the establishment of an Ireland Funds chapter in Belfast, a wider collective of organisations is exploring whether younger voices can be brought together in some form of civic group.
Clearly many young people in Northern Ireland are already involved in political parties. Others seek alternative forms of civic leadership.
The NI Chamber of Commerce recently launched a campaign called Growing Something Brilliant which seeks to provide jobs and economic opportunity. The title looks to the future. It has that sparky Northern edge. It has no baggage, and is independent of any particular tradition or affinity.
Growing something brilliant is a great objective, not just economically – that is important – but something much bigger.
New voices and sustained leadership are needed to genuinely make it happen.
Hugo MacNeill is chairman of both the British-Irish Association and the Ireland Fund