Open letter began with ‘recurring theme’ around denial of rights in North
Brexit ‘changed everything’ and dialogue on reunification of Ireland now ‘centre stage’
Prof Colin Harvey is one of more than 1,000 signatures on an open letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press
In 2017, Niall Murphy found himself having the same conversation over and over again.
There was a “recurring theme” around the denial of rights in the North – “the very explicit frustrations within the nationalist community in terms of how politics was being conducted”.
“It was what I was hearing in the school car park when I was dropping my children at school, it was what I was hearing in court before the judge came out, it was what I was hearing at the sideline of a football pitch.”
One of Belfast’s best-known solicitors, he did what solicitors do – he wrote a letter. That first communication, in December 2017, was an open letter in the Irish News from 200 Northern nationalists to the Taoiseach urging him to “give voice” to concerns around Brexit, the collapse of powersharing at Stormont and the undermining of rights.
The group, Ireland’s Future, write again in today’s Irish Times. In a letter signed by more than 1,000 people – two-thirds in the Republic of Ireland – they appeal to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to begin a conversation “about our shared future on the island of Ireland”.
“The Government needs to plan for this,” they write.
The signatures are drawn from all sections of civic society, North and South, and among the Irish diaspora. Deliberately, there are no elected political representatives. Murphy stresses that the group is not party political, nor nationalist, and instead is a coalition of individuals who share a concern about rights – not least those of Irish citizens in the North post-Brexit – and the conversation around constitutional change on this island.
About 20 people are at the core of Ireland’s Future; while Murphy is the spokesman, they include Gerry Carlile, Conor Patterson, Anna McHugh, Brian Feeney, Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh, Martina Devlin, Niall Keenan, Brian Loughran, Louise Clarke, Prof Colin Harvey, Tony Shivers, Frances Black, Paddy Cullivan, Patricia Mac Bride, Maighréad Ní Chonghaile, Chris Donnelly, Lorcán Collins and Brendan Mulgrew.
“We think, respectfully,” says Murphy, “that this correspondence and the signatories to it represent a holistic overview of an island’s view that we need to talk.
“What’s wrong with conversation, what’s wrong with planning, what’s wrong with having a plan? The most appropriate way to do that is through a Citizens’Assembly.”
The context to this is, of course, Brexit. It has “changed everything”, the letter states; among the consequences are that the “discussion about the reunification of Ireland has moved centre stage”.
Any Border poll should not be the “knee jerk that was the Brexit referendum”, stresses Murphy. Instead they want “mature, reasoned debate informed by the leaders of the State”.
“We want to avoid the madness that has convulsed Britain’s body politic. Britain did not prepare, Britain put a flippant notion to an unprepared society and we feel that there are demographic and economic imperatives which are going to arise which should be planned and prepared for rather than responded to on an ad hoc fashion.”
Within this, says Murphy, it is important that unionist concerns are heard. Privately, conversations are happening, “and whereas there might not be the confidence to articulate that out loud yet, we need to create a space where that can be done sensitively and constructively”.
“Ultimately, in a new Ireland unionism is going to be there, they’re our neighbours, they own this place too, and they need to be accommodated,” he says.
“I would like to hear a warm embrace for the unionist tradition in an all-island constitutional entity.”