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Justine McCarthy: Politicians on both sides of the Border have lost control of Ireland’s destiny

The political class has gagged unity conversation for too long

James Nesbitt leaned into the microphone on the stage in Dublin’s 3Arena, looked out at the audience that had just given Sinn Féin’s leader a standing ovation, and announced: “I’m bloody terrified.” After a theatrical pause, the Co Antrim-born, unionist-raised star of television crime dramas, added: “Terrified — not least because, at this stage, I’m probably Northern Ireland’s longest-serving police officer.”

It was a risky line for the closing speech at last Saturday’s gathering of 5,000 people, which was organised by the Ireland’s Future civic group and unambiguously themed “Preparing for a New and United Ireland”. But it was a risk that won an appreciative laugh and pricked 10,000 ears.

Nesbitt told of his upbringing in Broughshane, a village where about 90 per cent of the residents were Protestants, during the Troubles that barely impinged on the place. “I played in a flute band. I marched,” he said, alluding to the influence of the Orange Order. He called himself “an Irishman from the North of Ireland who, in no way, refutes or shies away from my Protestant culture” and said the term “united Ireland” is provocative to people from his background. He prefers “a union of Ireland”.

The speakers from unionist and loyalist Northern backgrounds provided the deepest insights

His speech was witty, brave and riveting. Above all, it was respectful in its avoidance of flippancy, soundbites and slogans. The Cold Feet actor had taken the measure of his audience — nestled among them Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Féin president — and talked candidly about the need to respect all opinions. Even those who hate his current television show, Bloodlands, are entitled to say so, he asserted — “though that would be rude and bloody ridiculous”.

The event was promoted as a platform for 10 political parties to debate Ireland’s reunification — and was attended by diplomats from 10 countries — but it was the speakers from unionist and loyalist Northern backgrounds who provided the deepest insights.

Andrew Clarke and Peter Adair, young men from Protestant east Belfast, discussed the North’s stultifying stasis in human rights legislation, saying: “The nightmarish thought for me is 20 or 30 more years of this.” Rev Karen Sethuraman, a Baptist minister in Belfast, wondered: “Is there something better or is this what we’re going to be forever?” Ben Collins, a former Tory government press officer from east Belfast, said: “People say talking about a Border poll is divisive but it’s not nearly as divisive as the Border that was imposed 100 years ago.”

It took courage for those people to participate in an event in Dublin dedicated to Ireland’s reunification. That they were prepared to potentially be branded traitors by their own community demonstrated their desire to be heard. Politicians who have refused to accommodate substantive public debate about a future one-Ireland because they do not want to scare “the unionist community” have, effectively, been gagging these courageous individuals. Equally, Sinn Féin supporters’ hostility to unification objectors narrows the debate. What, for instance, do the 300,000 holders of British passports who live south of the Border think about a joined-up Ireland?

Ireland’s Future has been the subject of a smear campaign by innuendo that it is, allegedly, a front for Sinn Féin. The claim does not bear scrutiny when its board includes the likes of former SDLP councillor Brian Feeney, novelist Martina Devlin, and Queens University law professor Colin Harvey. However, the party partisanship shown by many in Saturday’s audience who gave Mary Lou McDonald a standing ovation not only gave succour to the whispering campaign but will have alienated others who, with some encouragement, may wish to join the debate. As Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond observed during his contribution, there were many people in the audience whom he had blocked on Twitter.

No political party owns Ireland’s future. None has a monopoly on this State’s constitutional aspiration that the island be joined up again. Any party that hijacks an event dedicated to pursuing that ideal damages the cause. If Sinn Féin cannot recognise this cause-and-effect, it is as blind as the DUP. Much of the disaffection expressed on Saturday by those from a unionist culture arose from the intransigence of the biggest unionist party. Its continuing refusal to form an executive at Stormont and its entrenched resistance to liberalising social legislation are causing such disillusionment that former leader Arlene Foster’s immediate task under the banner of her new pro-union campaign, Together UK, will be to convince traditional unionists that maintaining the status quo is in their best interests.

Politicians have read the auguries. Change is inevitable

There is a sense now that politicians have lost control of Ireland’s destiny. Writing in the Daily Telegraph last month, Norman Tebbit, a former Tory minister whose wife was severely injured in the IRA’s bomb attack on his party’s conference in Brighton, said “it looks more likely than not that, in the not too distant future, there will be a united Ireland”. His prediction is significant in light of the Good Friday Agreement’s failure to specify the circumstances in which Westminster’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland should call a Border poll.

There have been rumours in Irish political circles that Leo Varadkar intends adopting a more proactive stance on a united Ireland after he resumes as Taoiseach on December 15th. These rumours will gather substance when Fine Gael announces a plan for unity at its ardfheis next month. This is the same party that refused to endorse Ian Marshall, a unionist Armagh farmer, for the Seanad in 2020, when Sinn Féin formally backed him. On the 3Arena stage last Saturday, Richmond was asked if his party was doing enough for unity. The Fine Gael TD’s reply was short and sweetly received. “No,” he said. Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil’s putative leader-in-waiting, was asked if he would accept an invitation to speak at one of Foster’s pro-UK events. “I will speak anywhere about a united Ireland,” he replied, to applause.

Politicians have read the auguries. Change is inevitable. A nationalist party is the biggest in Stormont. Catholics outnumbered Protestants in the North’s 2021 census. Scotland is demanding another independence referendum. Brexit has exposed Westminster’s indifference to Northern Ireland’s needs. The North’s governance structures are in a permanent state of paralysis. Something has to give.

Critics of Ireland’s Future demand to see a plan. It’s like Mastermind for slow united Irelanders. Where’s the money? What colour will the flag be? Name the tune of the new national anthem. But money and emblems are not the priority yet. The first imperative is getting to know each other after a century of being corralled in our binary boxes of nationalist/unionist, republican/loyalist, Catholic/Protestant and North/South. Stories must be told and heard about the effects of partition and why some people want rid of it and others do not. The political class on both sides of the Border has managed to gag that conversation for too long. Only after the people on this island have become acquainted with each other’s divided lives can the structural planning begin. For, in this case, Brendan Behan was correct — the first item on the agenda is the split.