The aim in any future border poll should not be 50 per cent plus one but to secure “as large as a majority as possible” both north and south, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has told a conference hosted by Ireland’s Future in Dublin on Saturday.
“I believe the objective should be to secure as large a majority as possible in both jurisdictions in any future poll,” Mr Varadkar said. “Fifty per cent plus one may be enough on paper and in law, I don’t dispute that for a moment, but a majority so narrow isn’t a recipe for success.”
He outlined a number of what he described as “models which can work” in a unitary state, which included that “Northern Ireland could continue with a devolved parliament, with cross-community power sharing, its own courts, education system, police and health service.”
Booing broke out among a section of the audience as he finished this sentence, adding that “North-South bodies and east-west co-operation would continue” and should be strengthened and deepened.
While the biggest and most important change would be that “the sovereign government would be the Irish one”, he said, the right to be Irish, British or both would continue and “in the main, symbols would not change without agreement.”
Mr Varadkar warned of the “distinct danger” of focusing “too much on a border poll” and not enough on enhancing engagement or building trust and said the future could not be built on “narrow majorities or on the wishes of just one community.”
There needed to be, he said, engagement with “unionists and that growing group who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish and indeed those who identify as both” and to “acknowledge the right of northern nationalists to have equal recognition in the debate”.
The Tánaiste was among senior political representatives from 10 political parties on the island of Ireland who spoke at the event at the 3Arena on Saturday, which was attended by what appeared to be a capacity crowd of some 5,000 people.
It is the largest gathering thus far organised by the civic pro-unity group Ireland’s Future, which aims to promote discussion on, and plan for, a united Ireland.
On Saturday it launched a new publication to coincide with the conference entitled Shaping a New and United Ireland, which includes policy papers on potential constitutional change, rights, identity and citizenship, the economy and healthcare.
The secretary of Ireland’s Future, Niall Murphy, said the event’s objective had been to raise the profile of the Irish unity debate and “the necessity for an all-island citizens assembly has now never been greater.”
As well as the Tánaiste, the speakers included the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, the Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan and the Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik, as well as actor James Nesbitt, who delivered the final address and received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.
In his address Mr Nesbitt emphasised the need for a discussion on the constitutional debate on the future of the island, saying that “a border poll may well be inevitable but if it is going to happen, let it happen after an informed debate.”
This conversation, he said, needed to be brought “out of the Dail, out of Stormont, out of Whitehall, out of academic fora and into the village halls and town halls, the church halls, the orange halls” and had to be “people-led.
“Solutions cannot be forced on those people. If we have learnt anything from history, we should have learnt that.”
He told the audience of his upbringing as a “Northern Ireland Protestant” from a small village in Co Antrim, and was applauded when he said he now holds both an Irish and a British passport and “would describe myself as an Irishman, from the north of Ireland, who in no way refutes or shies away from my Protestant culture, but it does not define me.”
Mr Nesbitt said that today, new language was needed around the terminology used to refer to unity and said “one of the great challenges and actually, one of the great opportunities, is to start getting away from language that is incendiary.”
“To many from my background, talk of a united Ireland is difficult,” he said, but added that he knew many Northern Protestants who “are considering now what the notion of a new union of Ireland might look like … It’s exciting.”
Part of the audience stood as the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, took to the podium, and she was cheered and applauded a number of times during her speech.
She said the “days of treading water are over” and it was now time to “urgently plan for constitutional change” and for unity referendums.
“Those who seek to guard and defend the status quo have had their day,” she said; change “must be orderly, democratic, peaceful and planned.”
She said it was right the Irish government was represented at the event, and repeated her party’s call for the establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly on Irish unity.
In his speech Mr Varadkar stressed the importance of finding a shared way forward and said that “thoughout our history we have all too often failed to find a solution that works for all.
“We need to acknowledge that cross-community engagement in Northern Ireland and between the North and the South remains far short of where it needs to be if we want to build a new Ireland,” the Tánaiste said.
“Our only hope depends on presenting a proposal – North and South – that will be able to achieve democratic consent. This will involve compromise.
“It means accepting a form of unification that is more inclusive and imaginative, one that can achieve the greatest measure of democratic support, and therefore legitimacy, and have the greatest chance of success,” he said.
In comment published to coincide with his participation in a discussion with other politicians at the event, the Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan proposed a series of seven “principles or protections or indeed covenants” which he said those who supported unity should agree to in order to aid the discussion with those who do not agree with them.
One of these, he said, was the principle that the people of Northern Ireland would not become “politically submerged under the control of the new state” and, consequently, “a United Ireland will guarantee that Stormont – whether under a federal system or a bicameral system – will be a house of legislature that will continue to make laws.”