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Emma de Souza: My generation deserves to have its say on Irish unity now

Attempts to quell calls for constitutional change worryingly represent significant divergences from the text of the Good Friday Agreement

The unavoidable fallout of Brexit may very well see the question of reunification raised at the polls sooner than many anticipated. A new poll by LucidTalk for the Sunday Times shows that a majority in Northern Ireland want a border poll within the next five years.

Of those surveyed 47 per cent would back remaining in the UK, while 42 per cent would vote for a United Ireland with 11 per cent undecided. Brexit has acted as a catalyst to conversations over constitutional change after the majority will of the people of Northern Ireland- which was to remain within the EU, was set aside by Westminster.

Following the 2016 Brexit referendum terms like “the border”, “Backstop” and “NI Protocol” have since become mainstays in the regional vernacular. Not dissimilarly, according to Google analytics within the UK, at the time of the referendum, public interest in the term “border poll” increased by 97 per cent and the term is one many of us have become accustomed to hearing on a regular basis.

The question is- are we definitively on the path to reunification? Northern Ireland was never intended to be a long-term solution, rather - it was a compromise, a temporary measure aimed at addressing a conundrum - what about Northern Unionists? It’s a conundrum that we - the future generations - are now tasked with resolving.

In 1998 the people of this island voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday Agreement, which included a mechanism to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. There are those however who would seek to deny younger generations this right - the generation who were the beneficiary’s of the Good Friday Agreement, and who voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the EU. Equally, there are new generations in the Republic who have successfully ushered in seismic societal changes, shirking the once-conservative shroud that historically dominated Irish society, to forge out a new rights-based society. When do they deserve their say?

There are valuable positions on all sides which all need to be heard, but some attempts to quell calls for constitutional change worryingly represent significant divergences from the text of the Good Friday Agreement. Two key disparities which I’ve noted are the possibility of moving away from a 50+1 percentage majority, which forms the basis of the principle of consent, and seeking unionist support to have this conversation. There is an inherent contradiction in expecting unanimous support from a community whose fundamental principle is preservation of the Union. This kind of pre-emptive support is unattainable, unreasonable and unrealistic. It also, unsurprisingly, doesn’t align with the Good Friday Agreement. It also implies that there aren’t those within the unionist community already willing to join the conversation-it’s their future too.

Much has been made of the “others” in this conversation, a vague label applied onto those also referred to as the “undecided” or “pursuadables”. Since the Good Friday Agreement, this once-alternative grouping has been on-the-rise- now forming the majority in Northern Ireland

Whatever term you wish to use when referring to this broad demographic, both Unionism and Nationalism will be vying for their support, and both are undoubtedly in danger of alienating many of them with overzealous triumphalism. This will always be an inevitability when one’s societal norm is to consider the expression of a view on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as tantamount to a declaration of one’s entire political, national, and even religious beliefs. In short, to some, you are therefore free to be classed as either a unionist or nationalist - anything short of those two isn’t an actual position.

Outside the lens of binary decision making, individuals can of course hold a view on the constitutional question and not ascribe to either Unionism or Nationalism as a political ideology - none of this is mutually exclusive. Key to success in a referendum on unity will be understanding this reality and respecting the diversity of this broad community.

It took the SNP two years to develop a detailed plan on Scottish independence. In the case of Ireland, this process is likely to be much longer. Every household on the island of Ireland received a copy of the Good Friday Agreement before heading to the polls. A similar approach should be undertaken in a referendum on the border. A detailed plan covering healthcare, housing, education, and all the key questions examining what a unified Ireland would look like will take considerable time and resources, but is absolutely invaluable and essential in making the most informed and beneficial choices concerning the future of our island. The drawing up of such a pivotal plan should not be left to political parties, and no-one-party should be seen as the leader of a United Ireland. Instead, a coalition of community leaders, encompassing civic society and academia should guide the way.

A process where all of us can participate in creating a new-yet-familiar Ireland where all traditions are accounted for and valued is a progressive step into the next chapter of reconciliation. Compromise has always served as intrinsic facets of progress and peace-making in our shared history, it is in the spirit of generosity and kindness that this conversation should be entered.

Article 3 of Bunreacht na hÉireann establishes 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”. Seeking the realisation of this aspiration should not be seen as divisive, but as a legitimate constitutional right.

Much will be made of the slender lead that Unionism has in this poll. One must be cognisant that as with any poll, this is just a snapshot but that 42 per cent would back a United Ireland without any plan, or detail, should sharpen minds as should the further evidence that those who remain undecided will in fact be the deciders.

Whilst some politicians have been vocal in their opposition to conversations on the prospect of a border poll, politics cannot stifle the conversations happening in communities, and ever-more commonly these recent months- in our households. At some point, those politicians will too need to join these conversations. What this poll shows us is that there is an appetite for people to have their say over the constitutional future of this island and five years, isn’t a lot of time, it’s time to prepare.

Emma de Souza is a writer and citizen’s rights campaigner

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