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Belfast Agreement not a postdated cheque for Irish unity

Managing crises together on a small island is not just sensible, it is essential

Belfast city: A large and growing number of people, people with and without a settled constitutional preference, have grown tired of a politics defined solely in the terms of the past.

The English comedian Harry Enfield had a sketch in the 1990s involving a character named “William Ulsterman”, a comically intransigent northerner who takes angry offence when offered a canapé by a baffled party host. Twenty-odd years on, it still resonates; people not born when it was broadcast share it on social media.

The stereotype of the staunch, unyielding Northern Ireland politician has an enduring hold on the imagination, including south of the Border. Looking at recent history and current politics, you might ask is the stereotype wrong and can we really face engaging with it. You might also say – and some of you are saying – please, let’s not talk about the future too much. In case it looks like the past.

Northern Ireland is in a period of flux because external events – most notably Britain’s brutally managed departure from the European Union – have revealed the internal shortcomings in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict society and politics. A large and growing number of people here, people with and without a settled constitutional preference, have grown tired of a politics that is defined solely in the terms of the past. They’ve grown tired of angry assertion by leaders who trade on zero-sum identity, and elevate identity above practically everything else. For these reasons, among others, a shamefully high number of our young people – even in “good” economic times – leave and do not countenance returning.

For many of them, the prospect of constitutional change, of a “new” or united Ireland in some form, is less about righting an historic wrong or claiming an historic victory than it is about living in a more functional polity. To the legitimate question “what about making Northern Ireland work?” might come the legitimate answer “what if constitutional change is the best way of making Northern Ireland, and indeed all of Ireland, work?”

Nuanced exploration

If there is a teleological tendency among some advocates of Irish unity to imply that the unstoppable direction of history is inevitably their direction, there is an equal tendency among opponents to seek to delegitimise even the most careful, nuanced exploration of what removing the international border on this island might mean. The latter position is as unhelpful as the former. The Belfast Agreement is not a postdated cheque for Irish unity, but nor is it an amulet to be waved at anyone who wants to set out ideas in good faith.

They’ve grown tired of angry assertion by leaders who elevate identity above practically everything else

I don’t know precisely when a Border poll will happen, but I am relatively sure that its date has been moved forward as a result of the events of the past few years. I agree with those who say the precise date of a Border poll is less important than the context in which it takes place and the practical vision that would be on offer. But it is surreal to argue that even the fundamental reordering of the UK state currently taking place is not a reasonable basis on which to ask questions about whether this island might choose to order itself differently, even in the long term.

My own party has been engaged in a process of careful conversation about the future with people from all backgrounds and will soon be launching a New Ireland Commission to progress and discuss a range of questions. We will be actively seeking dissent and challenge. We will seek responses from people who disagree with the premise of our questions.

The weight of our history, the gravity of what is at stake, and the tactful desire not to upset can sometimes stop people from explaining why they think change is worth considering. One powerful reason is that managing crises together on a small island isn’t just sensible, it is essential.

Quarantine loopholes

We are currently facing both a pandemic and a slow-burning ecological crisis that will ultimately change all of our lives. On this island, the pandemic has seen a confusing mix of poor communication, contradictory instruction, cross-Border arbitrage in restrictions and enormous quarantine loopholes. Yes, the UK has rolled out vaccine supplies more quickly – but that does not in itself cancel out the multiple ways in which the presence of the Border has made it harder to keep people safe during this crisis.

The pandemic has seen poor communication, contradictory instruction, cross-Border arbitrage in restrictions and enormous quarantine loopholes

Meanwhile, wildfires burn in both Killarney and the Mournes, and while the Irish Coast Guard offered invaluable assistance in Co Down, the episode served to highlight the ecological integration of an island that has no integrated approach to climate mitigation, biodiversity or conservation. A range of common EU directives, including on water quality, no longer apply in the North. What does that mean for Carlingford Lough? North-South Ministerial Council meetings are helpful, but are only as useful as the actions agreed and ministerial willingness brought to them. Last week’s agriculture and environment meeting was boycotted by the DUP.

The social democrat in me believes passionately in the expansion of free healthcare throughout the island, the ex-UK treasury official in me knows there is real work to be done on the required fiscal transition. A baseline of agreed, identifiable spending in Northern Ireland would be a start.

But in listing practical reasons for change, there returns the question of identity and whether change will be worth it if a large number of people feel alienated and excluded from a new state. It is not just a reasonable but an essential moral question to ask – and one to which there is no easy answer. We haven’t fully answered it yet in our current dispensation.

Part of the answer will lie in what the historian Roy Foster called for at the end of his book, Modern Ireland: “a more relaxed and inclusive definition of Irishness.” An Irishness that could either encompass, or sit companionably and equally alongside Britishness, on an island that doesn’t need a border to guarantee, or protect against, intimacy and closeness with the island of Britain.

Matthew O’Toole is SDLP member of the Legislative Assembly for the Belfast South constituency