The Irish Times view on Ireland’s constitutional future: a debate worth engaging with

The argument that Northern Ireland is better off in the UK now has to be won on evidence and merit in a new setting of multiple political minorities

Speaking at the Ireland’s Future meeting in Dublin last weekend, the actor James Nesbitt said a town hall rather than an institutional approach to a possible united Ireland is needed. It should be people-led and not a forced solution. As a Protestant Northerner he prefers to speak about “a new union of Ireland” than a united one, based on the common ground of a shared island home.

It is a tribute to the organisers that such a thoughtful speech should finish off this gathering of some 5,000 people who heard from most of the island’s political parties and leaders, and an impressive range of civil society ones too. Ireland’s Future is dedicated to creating an island-wide discussion on a united Ireland in the belief that preparation is required for increasingly likely referendums. Its profile is nationalist to unionist eyes, despite its non-partisan stance and credentials, because it chooses unity over any existing or renewed United Kingdom future for Northern Ireland. Its events are boycotted by unionist parties and leaders who refuse to join a conversation with precisely the outcome they wish to avoid. The Alliance party, too, refused to participate because its end goal would prejudice that party’s proclaimed neutrality on unity. The political and civic leaders who spoke nevertheless recognise that a deepening public debate on a possible united Ireland is happening.

There are many reasons to expect such decisions will need to be made within the next decade, including growing pressures in Northern Ireland and mounting political and economic instability in the United Kingdom after Brexit. The UK’s fateful decision in 2016 to withdraw from the European Union without a coherent plan for its future has a clear lesson for Ireland on the need to prepare for any comparable existential choice on this side of the Irish Sea. Within these parameters a wide variety of potential future Irelands was raised at the meeting. They included the possibility that a devolved Northern Ireland might continue after unification, mentioned by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan. Others spoke of the need to include women, working class people and ethnic minorities in these discussions.

Cultural and sporting links need strengthening, alongside joint economic and educational structures across the island. It is widely recognised that health, housing and welfare issues will be prioritised by voters in any unity referendums, so that unity and social renewal are linked. That being so, there is ample scope and a more pressing need for unionists to engage in such a broad-ranging public discussion. Their argument that Northern Ireland is better off in the UK now has to be won on evidence and merit in a new setting of multiple political minorities.