Unionists would need guarantees in a united Ireland – Labour chairman

End of partition requires more than ‘sectarian headcount’, says Jack O’Connor

Labour Party chairman Jack O’Connor. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Labour Party chairman Jack O’Connor. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Chairman of the Labour Party Jack O’Connor will call on Saturday for a guarantee that there will be a significant number of unionist ministers in any government that is formed in the event of a united Ireland.

In a May Day speech to the trade union section of his party, Mr O’Connor will make a strong appeal that Labour continue to follow the republican tradition and principles of the 1916 leader James Connolly.

“It is imperative that we, who are informed by the legacy of Connolly, intervene to counsel against any proposition that a vibrant sustainable democracy can be constructed on the basis of a sectarian headcount, most especially one which results in a ‘50 per cent plus one’ conclusion.

“Such a result would present the very real danger of a reversal into the ‘carnival of reaction’, which he correctly predicted would accompany partition, to the power of 10,” he says.

Mr O’Connor, who has served as president of Siptu and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, says that in the event of reunification, a devolved authority should remain in Northern Ireland, with provision for an opposition and with cabinet posts being distributed 50-50 on a cross-community basis.

New constitution

In the address he will also praise a speech given by Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan in Cambridge in March that said unification would require an entirely new constitution.

“Most significantly, [Mr O’Callaghan] proposes that it would specify a requirement for ‘unionist’ ministers in all governments post unification. He also advocates the retention of the arrangements acknowledging both UK and Irish Citizenship which currently apply as well as a strengthened ‘east-west’ dimension.

“As one who has served as general president of Siptu, which organises in both jurisdictions, and also as president of congress, I strongly support these propositions. Moreover, I believe that a new constitution should specify a significant minimum requirement in terms of the number of unionist ministers and the proportion of cabinet seats they would occupy, so as to avoid any suggestion of tokenism.”

The speech will be received as asserting his party’s republican credentials. In recent months, there have been a number of addresses by senior members of the three longest-established parties on their republican traditions, which have been seen as refuting Sinn Féin’s claim of being the leading party in the republican tradition.

Mr O’Connor will also call for a common platform among trade unionists and others on the left, so as to reject any semblance of sectarian majoritarianism.

“Our task is to assert the centrality of the issues which determine the quality of life of all the people of this island,” he will say.

That will be achieved by an absolute parity of esteem, based on principles of mutual respect, individual liberty and economic and social equality, according to Mr O’Connor. He will say it might be a good idea to hold a plebiscite in the Republic to approve those principles ahead of any Border poll.

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