Noel Whelan: It is not an act of aggression to want a united Ireland

The Government has a constitutional prerogative to support Irish unity

For decades those of us who profess an ambition for a united Ireland have been told to hold our whist for fear we might upset unionist sensitivities or threaten the ongoing peace process. This week that pattern was taken to a new level with the suggestion from the Democratic Unionist Party that for politicians in the Republic to dare to speak in support of a united Ireland is somehow an aggressive act.

Last Tuesday when interviewing Arlene Foster RTÉ’s Tommie Gorman suggested to her that the Irish Government was not exploiting Brexit to push for a 32-county Ireland “by the back door”.

Foster replied: “You say it’s not about a united Ireland. Why then did Simon [Coveney] use this moment in time to talk about his aspiration for a united Ireland in his political lifetime?... I think that’s quite aggressive.”

The adjective aggressive is not one which pairs well with the name Simon Coveney. The Tánaiste is well able for the rough and tumble of political debate, but is if anything too calm in his overall political approach. He is even unfairly caricatured at times as subdued.


There is nothing aggressive about Coveney, and there was certainly nothing aggressive about his recent remarks about on a united Ireland.

Foster was relying on media reports of what Coveney said to the Oireachtas Committee on Implementing the Good Friday Agreement two weeks ago. It is an awful pity that before her interview Foster didn’t take the time to see for herself what Coveney actually said at the committee or at least to have a staffer look at it.

True meaning

Indeed, it would do the DUP well even now to revisit his contribution on the player on the Oireachtas website, and to appreciate it in its context for its true meaning and effect.

This was Coveney’s first outing before the committee, and involved a lengthy opening statement and extended exchanges with the members which lasted over two hours. There was much with which the DUP would have agreed in what Coveney had to say at the committee about the need to restore devolved institutions and to tackle legacy issues for victims of the Troubles. There is much the DUP could learn from Coveney’s exposition on the cross-Border implications of a hard Brexit.

The comments about a united Ireland which, when taken out of context, caused such upset to the DUP came about an hour into the exchanges. The Tánaiste was asked by Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly about previous remarks Leo Varadkar had made in an interview with BBC Northern Ireland which had been interpreted to suggest that support for unity in a Border poll would have to be greater than 50 per cent before the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would change.

Cross-community support

Coveney explained that “what the Taoiseach was getting at was not wanting to promote the idea that as soon as we can achieve the prospect of 50 per cent plus one, that we go for it” without addressing the need for broad cross-community support.

Coveney then said: “I am a constitutional nationalist, I am totally unapologetic about that, I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime, if possible in my political lifetime.”

Importantly, Coveney went on to say: “But we need to do that in a way that learns the lessons of the past so that actually we don’t send a signal to unionists communities that in the future you will be the minority and you’ll suffer in the same way that many nationalist did in the past. It needs to be a much more generous approach than that, and that is what the Taoiseach was talking about.”

Coveney’s remarks were clearly framed within the context of the Good Friday Agreement. Whether a united Ireland happens in his lifetime is a matter for decision by the people of Northern Ireland. Of course, the duration of his political lifetime will be decided by the voters of Cork South Central.

Wilful disregard

In her interview, Foster also accused Coveney of disrespecting the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Yet it is she who displays a wilful disregard of the Republic’s constitutional context.

Coveney, as a member of our Government, is not merely entitled to express his wish for a united Ireland but, indeed, the Government has a constitutional prerogative to support Irish unity.

The then attorney general Rory Brady put the constitutional position well as follows in 2008. “Unity may have been redefined by the new articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, but it has remained as a constitutional imperative. The guarantee that violence will not be used to effect constitutional change is merely one commitment. In parallel to that, and of equal importance, is the duty to give effect to the firm will of the Irish nation to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland.”