Forum on Irish unity must be ‘genuinely open’ regarding outcome

Simon Coveney says unionists will shun any assembly with unity as foregone conclusion

The Government would not support a citizens' assembly being established to discuss what a united Ireland might look like, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

The Ireland’s Future group has called on the Government to facilitate an assembly on Irish unity.

Addressing the third event in the Department of the Taoiseach’s Shared Island dialogue series, Mr Coveney said an assembly that had its sole end point of a united Ireland would not attract unionist support.

“We can’t have a predetermined outcome,” he said. “There is an argument that we need to set up a citizens’ assembly to have a conversation around the reunification of Ireland. If that’s a point, it will be very hard to get everybody into that conversation.”

He suggested it might lead to a “warped perspective and not a balanced one in the context of outcomes”. Any assembly on the future of Ireland would have to be genuinely open with no predetermined outcome, he said.

He was responding to a question from Patricia MacBride, one of the founders of Ireland’s Future. She said the group had published a number of documents and facilitated discussions around what a united Ireland might look like over the past two years.

She asked the Minister if the Government would facilitate such an all-island citizens’ assembly looking at advancing the shared island initiative*.

Not forced

Mr Coveney, in response, said the Shared Island dialogue series was set up to “invite a conversation and not to force it” and that it was discussing many areas of mutual concern.

He stressed that the Government had an “open mind on how to add to that and an all-Ireland citizens’ assembly is one way of doing that.” However, he added that such a forum would be only as good as the people who participated.

The challenge, he said, is to find a structure that everybody would be willing to buy in to so the conversations that are taking place in Ireland at present are reflected.

“How do we create a perspective that is inclusive and where people’s perspectives are not dismissed by a majority of others?” he asked.

“The really important question is how we can set up a structure that all communities will be represented and that allows people to speak freely though those conversations might be difficult and strained.”

The Shared Island dialogue series was set up by Taoiseach Micheál Martin to foster civic dialogue based on by the Belfast Agreement. Some 120 civic groups joined the latest online gathering, Civil Society: Catalyst for Connection and Understanding on a Shared Island.

Scenarios

Actor James Nesbitt said he was not advocating for one outcome or another about the constitutional future of Ireland.

However, he said an “informed debate based on empirical evidence needs to happen to examine what the health services, sport and so on would look like in various scenarios”.

Mr Nesbitt, chancellor of Ulster University, said he had presided over many graduation ceremonies recently. "The difficulties that plagued my generation and many generations past never come up in conversation," he said.

“We are at an important moment where we can begin to escape all that. I really do think that we are allowed to have this debate in the public domain even if it at times it seems that our politicians are not.”

He said the discussion about the future of Ireland needed to be brought out of the Dáil, Stormont and Westminster and academic forums and into town halls, church halls and Orange halls as any change had to be people-led.

"My point is that any change must be people-led and solutions cannot be forced on these people. Solutions must emerge from a public discussion about the future constitutional governance of this island and its relationship with our friends in the rest of the British isles and the European Union. "

*This article was amended on March 26th, 2021