Citizens Assembly to discuss united Ireland would be ‘pan-nationalist’
Taoiseach and Tánaiste Simon Coveney later met Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointed out that there were already several proposals for citizens’ assemblies. Photograph: Collins
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that a citizens’ assembly convened to discuss the possibility of a united Ireland would just be a “pan nationalist assembly” if it did not include any unionist representatives.
Mr Varadkar was responding in the Dáil to questions from Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny who asked if he would address the calls from the Ireland’s Future group, which recently published a letter signed by 1,000 prominent people seeking a citizens’ assembly to discuss the possibility of a united Ireland.
Mr Varadkar was cool on the idea, pointing out that there were already several proposals for citizens’ assemblies. He also suggested that a lack of unionist voices would undermine any such gathering.
“One thing we need to bear in mind and ask ourselves is whether unionists would participate in the citizens’ assembly,” Mr Varadkar said.
“One million unionists make up half the population of Northern Ireland and a significant minority on this island. Would British citizens living in Northern Ireland participate in the citizens’ assembly?
“If not, that would fundamentally change the nature of the assembly because it would seek to discuss the constitutional future of this island absent representatives of those one million people. It would then be a pan-nationalist assembly and not an assembly of all the citizens of Ireland. It would have a very different nature to that which many of us would like to see.”
Mr Varadkar also endorsed comments by the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who was highly critical of Sinn Féin, who also said that the “entire peace settlement is in crisis.”
Mr Martin said that “Sinn Féin is unfit to be in government established under Bunreacht na hÉireann because its own party demands take the place of engagement and persuasion. I would put it to the Taoiseach that for Sinn Féin, it is a legitimate tactic to collapse democratic institutions until it gets its own way.”
Mr Varadkar replied: “Deputy Martin and I disagree on a lot and clash a lot but I very much agree with his analysis and comments on this matter.”
However, Mr Kenny for Sinn Féin said: “The reality is that the Taoiseach and people in Fianna Fáil are simply out of step with public debate on Irish unity. They both continue to frame the debate in terms of what will be lost instead of what is to be gained.”
He said that the “debate on Irish unity is taking place in towns and villages across Ireland just as the Good Friday Agreement anticipated.”
The Labour leader Brendan Howlin also endorsed the idea of a citizens’ assembly on the constitutional future of Ireland. He said the Taoiseach should meet with party leaders soon to discuss the possibility.
Later the Taoiseach and Tánaiste Simon Coveney met the Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill for talks at Government Buildings.
In a statement afterwards, Ms O’Neill said that she told the Taoiseach that “urgency is required to conclude the talks if we are to restore the assembly in the coming weeks.
“Sinn Féin stands ready to re-enter talks in the coming weeks and will work with all parties and both governments to reach a fair agreement,”she said.