Assembly on Irish unity risks being a echo chamber

It must also hear the unionist case and the argument for the status quo

Next year will mark the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act (1920) which made official the partition of Ireland. The act set up two Home Rule parliaments – one for Northern Ireland, the other for a short-lived entity called Southern Ireland, soon to replaced by the Irish Free State.

It also envisaged a Council of Ireland where issues of mutual concern could be discussed. The council was never established. The division of Ireland got off to a terrible start.

If you believe that the next 100 years cannot be like the last , then 2020 would be as good a time as any to have a Citizens’ Assembly about the future of Ireland. And Ireland’s Future – a group of over a 1,000 people drawn from Ireland and the diaspora – have called for one.

They seek to “achieve maximum consensus on a way forward”. It is an admirable sentiment, but not a neutral one. Ireland’s Future wants a united Ireland and believes that debate has “moved centre stage”. This is a questionable assertion.


The notion of a united Ireland is ripe for interrogation

Belfast solicitor Niall Murphy, one of the founders of Ireland’s Future, says that the open letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “represents a holistic overview of an island’s view that we need to talk”.

If so, where are the unionist signatories on it? A debate on a united Ireland which only seeks to agree with the proposition is not a debate at all. A citizens’ assembly set up with a pre-ordained outcome in mind, in this case a united Ireland, is not what such forums are supposed to be about. A citizens’ assembly is a courtroom not a parliament.

The assembly model, which proved to be successful when it came to the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, adopted an adversarial approach. The issue of abortion was interrogated from a philosophical, medical, legal and theological point of view.

When the assembly members opted for a liberal abortion regime at odds with opinion polls on the subject to that date, there was surprise, But their deliberations proved to be uncannily accurate in predicting the final result when the Republic voted by a margin of two to one to repeal the Eighth.

The lesson from both the abortion Citizens’ Assembly and the Constitutional Convention, which recommended a referendum on marriage equality, is that a representative sample of the public is the best indicator of the views of the people.

Who would choose this representative sample? Ideally, it would be sanctioned by the Government and the Stormont executive on a pro-rata basis (70-30 per cent in terms of population) but weighted to give disproportionate clout to the North (60:40).

In reality many in the Republic are hostile or indifferent to the proposition

In the absence of the Stormont institutions, it is hard to know where the legitimacy of such a forum would come from because without Unionist support a citizens’ assembly on the future of Ireland would be a waste of time.

It would also be a pity. The notion of a united Ireland is ripe for interrogation. Who will pay for it? How will we reconcile two radically different health services? That is even before we begin to address the issue of identity.

If the case for a united Ireland is to be put to the assembly, then the case for the retention of the status quo must also be heard.

Peter Robinson and Professor Paul Bew have urged unionists to make the case for the union and in Bew’s view the “intellectual weakness” of the case for a united Ireland. Let them make that case.

However, there is a dawning realisation in unionist circles that it is not enough anymore to keep saying no. Are there circumstances in which unionists might say yes to a united Ireland?

Could they eventually be reconciled to a scenario where they held the balance of power in perpetuity in an all-Ireland parliament, a scenario suggested by former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt?

There is also a third way to be interrogated. The power sharing and enhanced cooperation through north-south bodies envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement is now sadly in abeyance because of the closure of the Stormont institutions for almost three years.

If it does not cast its net wide enough any citizen’s assembly risks becoming an echo chamber in which proponents of a united Ireland convince themselves that people, especially in the Republic, prioritise unification in the same way that they do.

In reality many in the Republic are hostile or indifferent to the proposition. The chasm in understanding between northern and southern nationalists is something that is rarely acknowledged, but if proponents of a united Ireland want an honest debate, they are going to have to have that discussion.

Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times staff journalist. He covered the Citizens’ Assembly on abortion for The Irish Times