Adams: Rights and respect key to ‘convincing unionists’ on Irish unity

Gerry Adams tells Belfast Sinn Féin event of need for new approach to Irish unity debate

Sinn Féin leaders   Michelle O’Neill,  Mary Lou McDonald and  Gerry Adams all spoke at a Belfast conference, An Agreed Future, at the Waterfront Hall. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Sinn Féin leaders Michelle O’Neill, Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams all spoke at a Belfast conference, An Agreed Future, at the Waterfront Hall. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has told a conference in Belfast a new approach is needed to convince unionists of the merits of Irish unity.

At a Sinn Féin-organised event titled An Agreed Future at the Waterfront Hall on Saturday, Mr Adams said republicans are “neither naive or insensitive to the opposition of unionists to the concept, never mind the reality, of Irish unity”.

He said there was a need for a new approach to the Irish unity debate, focused on the rights of and “crucial” respect for different identities, including the safeguarding of British citizenship and recognition of the unionist identity.

He again called for the Orange Order leadership to meet with Sinn Féin’s leadership on these issues.

“Our task must be to ensure that it is a shared future which looks after every citizen, and in which everyone accepts the right of the other to be Irish or British - to be unionist or nationalist or republican,” he said.

He added: “The days of leaving the debate on a united Ireland for another time are over. It can’t be done. The debate has already begun. The changes - demographic, political, social and economic - are happening as we speak.”

‘Unimaginable’ transformation

Ahead of next week’s deadline to restore a powersharing executive at Stormont, Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill said the recent Assembly and Westminster election results have “activated a transformation unimaginable to the founders of the Northern state”.

She told delegates Brexit is “incompatible” with the Belfast Agreement.

On her vision for Irish unity, she added: “We must advocate for it, campaign for it and win the debate for it.

“But Sinn Féin do not own the debate or the idea of a united Ireland. It belongs to everyone who shares this island together.”

Nationalist commentator Chris Donnelly said republicans needed to use the Irish Constitution “to show how we would protect the British identity in a new Ireland”.

Newsletter deputy editor and unionist commentator Ben Lowry spoke of his desire to remain as part of a 65 million-strong UK population.

“A lot of people here [in Northern Ireland] who are apolitical are instinctively British,” he added.

“That is a very deep-seated problem.”

Sinn Féin Midlands North West MEP Matt Carthy said those claiming a “50-per-cent-plus-one” vote would not be sufficient to deliver a united Ireland were wrong.

Mr Carthy told delegates the Belfast Agreement is “specific and unambiguous on this point”.

“It is clear that a 50-per-cent-plus-one vote will secure unity,” he said.

“But, let’s not have it so close.

‘In their best interest’

“We should work together to convince the greatest possible number of people across Ireland that unity is in their best interest.”

The panel event was organised by Sinn Féin to discuss Irish unity in the context of Brexit and the results of the Assembly and Westminster elections in the North, where it increased its vote share and seat numbers.

Mr Carthy said unionists need to be involved in the debate and also challenged Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the SDLP to start engaging more with Sinn Féin.

He called on the parties to “work together in the knowledge that it is only by doing so that we have any prospect of delivering it”.

Economic sense

Former British Labour Party special adviser Kevin Meagher spoke of Irish unity making economic sense.

Referencing the UK-wide EU membership referendum result, he said: “If 52 per cent is the benchmark for major constitutional change for the whole of the UK, then 50-plus-one should be enough for Ireland.”

Deputy Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald spoke of there not being a universally agreed account of Ireland’s history, and of the multiple narratives in the debate.

She said Irish unity was being spoken about more in recent times by the Government in the Republic. Regarding a White Paper on the possibility of reunification which Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said would be published before November, she said “they need to get on with that”.

“This is not just a debate about this part of Ireland,” she added.

“This is our chance to create a new Ireland.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood wrote via Twitter: “Sinn Féin talking about an Agreed Ireland. Not sure they realise, but that was the Good Friday Agreement,” he wrote.