United Ireland referendum should be called when ‘peace walls’ no longer needed - Senator

More barricades dividing communities than when Belfast Agreement signed

A referendum on a united Ireland should be considered when the so-called peace walls dividing republican and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland are no longer necessary, a debate on the Belfast Agreement has heard.

Fianna Fáil Senator Robbie Gallagher said he was saddened that "there are more peace walls separating the two communities in Northern Ireland than there were when the agreement was signed in 1998".

The walls, predominantly in Belfast but also in other areas of the North including Derry and Portadown are located in flashpoint areas between the two communities to prevent violence.

Speaking in the Seanad Mr Gallagher said “the Good Friday Agreement has silenced the guns and silenced the bombs and for that we are extremely grateful.

“Now we move onto the next phase when we can get to a point when there is no longer a need for the peace walls dividing the two communities.

“Perhaps then the time will be right to have a conversation about our future together on this island.”

He was speaking during debate on a Fianna Fáil motion reaffirming commitment to the agreement, and to the Shared Ireland Initiative on the future of the island.

The motion introduced by Fianna Fáil Donegal Senator Niall Blaney also recognised the birthright under the agreement for all people in the North to identify themselves as either Irish or British or both.

Mr Blaney said “Northern Ireland’s problems are much more complex than Irish unity but some don’t want to admit that”.

The peace process cannot continue without the support and consent of Sinn Féin, which “must be a part of the solution not a cause of the problems”.

He said Sinn Féin “are part of a large majority which wish for a united Ireland.

It is simply a fact we have to mind a minority on the island as well.”

Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said he resented “any suggestion that my party haven’t stretched ourselves and haven’t been part of that engagement” with unionists. He said his own family home had been attacked and he had “engaged with unionists and loyalists when times were much more difficult”.

Green Party Senator Vincent P Martin said Garda Commissioner Drew Harris had shown "true republicanism" to lead An Garda and not allowing bitterness to fester after his father, an RUC officer was killed by the IRA.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Colm Brophy said everyone has the right to advocate for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland.

He said the Government will continue to listen to everyone on the issue but he said the agreement “also means that we do not need to be defined solely by our different perspectives on constitutional issues on this island”.

Mr Brophy also referred to reports of unilateral UK legislation to deal with the legacy of the Troubles and the British government’s proposals for significant changes to the Stormont Agreement framework.

“The Government has made clear that these must be discussed and agreed by both Governments and the parties to the Northern Ireland Executive. Crucially, victims and survivors must be at the heart of that process.”

Independent Senator Michael McDowell said “the two largest parties are in a competitive struggle to achieve ownership of the First Minister’s position and in that political vein it makes sense to polarise rather than to reconcile”.

Independent Ronan Mullen suggested that the desire for a united Ireland may not be as strong in the younger generation as it is among the older.

Labour Senator Mark Wall said the question of when a referendum should be held allows some parties to avoid what a united Ireland would look like including an all-island health service and school system and how to ensure such a State would have the allegiance of all communities.

Independent Senator Frances Black said the possibility of constitutional change is being discussed “in all quarters for first time ever and this is a conversation that is being led by civil society” and is not an issue just for politicians.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times