Shared Island: United Ireland question edges into mainstream political debate

Government’s shared island initiative owes more to Lemass than De Valera

A former customs guard hut on the Border, near Newry. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

A former customs guard hut on the Border, near Newry. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

“To restore the Unity and Independence of Ireland as a Republic.”

This is the first aim of Fianna Fáil as outlined in the “Corú” – the constitution and rules of the party. For much of the party’s history, it was interpreted simply as a pious aspiration towards a united Ireland, to which party leaders were required to pay lip service, while contenting themselves with governing and competing to govern the State in which the party was organised.

Now more than two decades after the Belfast Agreement which brought peace – of a sort – to the North and enshrined the principle of consent in the Republic’s Constitution, the changing politics and society of Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the spectre of Brexit, have edged the question of a united Ireland into the mainstream of political debate.

The question has become a sharp dividing line between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the one hand, and Sinn Féin on the other. Sinn Féin’s unambiguous policy is for a united Ireland and the party wants a referendum, on both sides of the Border, within five years. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have shied away from the immediacy of the Sinn Féin demands, and have tended to view the possibility of a united Ireland as a much more long-term project.

But politics demands answers today, so rather than leave the space entirely to their rivals, the two parties have adopted a “shared island” policy in Government, dedicated to building better relations and deeper co-operation with the Northern administration. The principle vehicle is a new Shared Island Unit in the Department of the Taoiseach.

The policy is largely the product of Micheál Martin’s desire to combine the traditional united Ireland impulses of Fianna Fáil with his judgment about the precarious state of the North and the stalling of the progress evident in the years after the Belfast Agreement, as Sinn Féin and the DUP consolidated their hold on power in the North and politics there became a tight, suspicious, partisan zero-sum game.

The shared island initiative is not a united Ireland policy – it might be the prelude to one, but there’s no guarantee of that, either. It owes more to Seán Lemass’s outreach than Éamon de Valera’s fourth green field approach.

Martin had been privately – and occasionally publicly – critical of Fine Gael’s management of the Northern Ireland issue under Enda Kenny, and what he saw as its joint “hands-off” approach with the British government since the early days of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Under Varadkar, his criticism became more pronounced and pointed. While he believed that the “disengagement” – as he put it – under Kenny was doing nothing to stop the deterioration in Northern politics on the ground, he was alarmed that Varadkar was actively damaging relations between unionists and Dublin by his management of Brexit.

Tectonic plates

When Varadkar told a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting that Brexit was causing the “tectonic plates” of Irish politics to move and that support for Irish unity was growing, Martin responded in a speech at Queen’s University: “We also have to have a renewed understanding in Dublin that grandstanding about tectonic plates and historic wrongs can undermine good faith,” he said.

Martin’s view is that an improvement of relations between Dublin and Stormont, and a better relationship between Dublin and unionism in general, is essential before a united Ireland is ever likely to come on the agenda.

In the Dáil this summer, shortly after becoming Taoiseach, Martin had a revealing clash with the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. She wanted to know his plans for pushing forward with an agenda for constitutional change. Would he set up an Oireachtas committee on Irish unity? Would he convene an all-Ireland citizens’ assembly? “Will he initiate the process for a referendum and get clarity on what the thresholds for triggering such a referendum might be?”

Martin’s response revealed the chasm that separates him and McDonald on the issue. He did not believe, he said, that a Border poll was wise, accusing McDonald of a “territorial majoritarian approach” in contrast to his “more consensus approach”. A Border poll, he said, would be too divisive and too partisan.

He believes that building co-operation should be done by deliberately not talking about the constitutional question, but rather by working together on practical everyday issues of government and administration. In the same Queen’s speech in 2018, he advocated: “We need less talk about who holds what piece of power and more talk about what they do with that power.

“For every meeting we have about structures, we should have far more about working to improve health services, modernise infrastructure and create a new economic era for Northern Ireland and the Border region.”

Shared initiative

This appears to be the approach that underpins the new “shared” initiative – a conscious decision to avoid talking about the constitutional issue allied to a determination to co-operate with the Stormont administration and the British government on practical matters. The words “united Ireland” appear nowhere in the programme for government. Instead there are commitments to protect the all-Ireland economy and to co-operate on Brexit issues.

There are pledges to work with the Northern Executive and the British government on a range of practical issues – co-operation on law enforcement; planning; climate action; infrastructure (“the A5, the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water Bridge . . . the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway”); connectivity; electricity grids; river basin management; third-level education and research; public health; a sail training project for young people; school exchanges; and so on and so on. It couldn’t be more nuts and bolts if it tried.

The unit is headed up by Aingeal O’Donoghue, a senior civil servant from the Department of Foreign Affairs who has been seconded to the Department of the Taoiseach in recent years to work on European Union issues. She only took up the post this week, so work is at a very early stage. But O’Donoghue is highly regarded around government Buildings and the appointment of such a senior official to head up the Unit suggests it will be a high priority for the new administration. The secretary-general of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, the most powerful official in the State by some distance, is also said to take an interest in the issue.

Within Government there is some scepticism that the new unit represents all that much of a departure from existing policy, however. Some of the commitments in the current programme for government for cross-Border projects were also mentioned in the last programme in 2016. “It looks like a Department of Foreign Affairs list to me,” says one official. And the Department of Foreign Affairs has had such lists since the time of the Belfast Agreement.

There is also the obvious question of whether unionists will meaningfully engage with the cross-Border initiatives outlined in the programme for government, and which will be actively pursued by the new unit. Just because it doesn’t say united Ireland on the tin doesn’t mean that the DUP will welcome it with open arms. That is likely to be the biggest challenge facing the plan.

“It’s all grand,” says another person who has worked on cross-Border issues in the past. “But I don’t know how receptive the Northern audience will actually be.”