If John Hume were alive today "he would be warning us" that preparations for any referendum on Irish unity must include "powerful, objective analysis" of all the issues raised, former president Mary McAleese has said.
Ms McAleese said this included everything from "fears over identity, to governance and representation from flags and emblems to the island's relationship with the United Kingdom, from economics to esoterics".
In this, she reminded listeners Mr Hume would be speaking from a position of experience “as the man who ... planned and honed the shape of the Good Friday Agreement over many years of difficult negotiations”.
However, she said he would be “pleased to see the army of scholars and new institutions that is mustering to provide the acreage of careful analysis that will be required”.
Ms McAleese was delivering the opening address on Thursday at the Hume inaugural European conference on Leadership for Peaceful Change.
The two-day conference, which is being delivered virtually because of Covid-19 restrictions, is co-hosted by the John and Pat Hume Foundation and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute.
Mr Hume, who died in 2020, was a co-founder of the SDLP and one of the architects of the North’s peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
In her address, Ms McAleese spoke of Hume as the "new [Daniel] O'Connell" and a strong believer in the European project, for whom the values of the European Union had had a "seminal influence ... on Northern Ireland's pathway to peace".
Unaware of Brexit
His illness in the years before his death, she said, meant he was unaware of Brexit “but had he been he would surely have been keenly aware of the collateral damage it could inflict on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process”.
Brexit, she said, had “altered one of the main pillars John rightly saw as essential to the peace process” and “set a future agenda very different to the one envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement”.
It was, she said, "a matter of deep regret that the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union without any consideration of the crucial contribution EU membership was making to a Northern Ireland still in the fragile early chapters of building a shared future of equal citizenship within Northern Ireland and a culture of comfortable, good-neighbourly co-operation between North and South".
The absence of that everyday contact at European level is “an irreplaceable loss that somehow needs to be backfilled, for already there is evidence of its baleful consequences”.
The younger generation, “some not fully cognisant of the awful cost of peace, is now left to pick up the pieces”, she said.
“Now is the time to remember who he was, what he did, why he did it, what we owe him and how we can continue to be the hands, hearts and minds of his work.”
Mr Hume, she said, was “first and foremost a parliamentarian”. The Northern Ireland Assembly was part of his vision for the future and “every effort must be made through dialogue and consensus to see that it continues, stabilises and realises the promise and principles of the Good Friday Agreement”.
The prospect of Northern Ireland regaining EU membership as a result of Irish unity was an “important new element” in the debate “given the strength of cross-community support in Northern Ireland for remaining in the European Union and for liberal social policies more consonant with European values”, Ms McAleese said.