For Peter Adair it was Brexit; for Andrew Clarke, it was the 2012 flag protests.
“It was the first spark of disillusionment, when I realised I didn’t necessarily identify with what was around me,” says Clarke.
From Protestant, unionist backgrounds in Belfast, the two history students – Clarke at Queen’s University Belfast, and Adair at the University of Oxford – support a united Ireland and are part of the civic pro-unity organisation Ireland’s Future.
“Since Brexit, it sort of seemed like the unionist parties, and the DUP in particular, have shot themselves in the foot over their stance on that,” says Adair.
“It’s definitely made me rethink how best to sort out the problems that we have surrounding Brexit and the Border and trade and I feel like a united Ireland... would be quite a neat way to do that.”
Clarke says: “I couldn’t find a space for what I believed in within unionism. Progressive issues, same sex marriage, abortion rights, those are things that are very important to me, and I saw the DUP was the largest voice in unionism and they were vehemently against the things I believed in.”
Combined with his interest in history, “I realised I fell more into line with the more forward-thinking views that typically were found among nationalist or republican parties,” he explains. “I was able to find my own identity, and one I was comfortable with.”
On Saturday, they will be among those making their voices heard at the Ireland’s Future – Together We Can conference in the 3Arena in Dublin. Alongside them will be representatives from 10 political parties on this island, including Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, as well as representatives of civic society from trade unionists and businesspeople to musicians and actors at what will be the group’s largest event yet.
“It is a physical manifestation of the momentum” which has built around the question of unity, says Niall Murphy, a Belfast-based solicitor and the secretary of Ireland’s Future.
In 2019 Ireland’s Future brought together 1,500 people in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall for the Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland conference, at which Murphy said nationalists in Northern Ireland were now “looking to new constitutional and political horizons”.
In the three years since, this has been reinforced by a myriad of factors, including the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU and the continuing tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol. Moreover, changes in the society, politics and demographics in the North have seen Sinn Féin become the largest party, with Protestants losing their 100-year-old status as the largest religious group and more people than ever voting for parties that are neither orange nor green.
Adair describes a “drift” among young people of his background away from political unionism, primarily towards parties like Alliance, though he is a member of the SDLP.
“I feel they [Alliance] ignore the elephant in the room... I feel like their whole reason of being is not to speak up on identity issues whereas I feel identity issues are a problem and need to be addressed in the right way.”
Clarke – who makes his picks according to parties’ position on the issues that matter to him – has voted Sinn Féin and always gives transfers to Alliance, and stresses how the younger generation are voting in different ways from their parents.
“I know there’s a great taboo for a lot of unionists in voting for Sinn Féin specifically... The past matters a lot less to young people, it matters very little to me, to be honest.”
As well as Ireland’s Future, a proliferation of other conversations and groups are also exploring the constitutional question, not least the Seanad, whose Public Consultation Committee held its first meeting on the constitutional future of the island of Ireland on Friday.
“The success of this event hits you in the face immediately when you see that [Tánaiste] Leo Varadkar is speaking... It shows the discussion is now so mainstream that Fine Gael are positioning themselves as being clearly on board with this,” says political commentator and supporter of Ireland’s Future, Chris Donnelly.
“It comes naturally to Sinn Féin, it’s the raison d’être of that party, but when you’re seeing 10 parties represented on the day and the leaders of five of those parties are going to be there, it tells you there is a step change in terms of perceptions, that this is doable.
“This isn’t four green fields stuff... there’s a recognition that the heavy lifting actually has to be done now.”
This “heavy lifting” is what Ireland’s Future is about. According to its guiding principles, it was “established to advocate for, and promote, debate and discussion about Ireland’s future, including the possibility and viability of new constitutional arrangements on the island”.
Any move to such new arrangements, the body states, “requires serious thought, consideration and planning” which must be “broad, inclusive, detailed and comprehensive”.
It is not affiliated to any political party and stresses participation is welcome from people from all political backgrounds who are interested in their aims. The suggestion that it has any connection to Sinn Féin is robustly rejected by Murphy, who describes it as a “tired, lazy trope that I think any reasonable commentator can easily dismiss. There is absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact or fiction for that ridiculous assertion.”
Clarke says: “There’s always going to be that suggestion it’s a front for Sinn Féin or a front for whatever bogeyman will convince unionist voters to stay away from it. I don’t believe every conversation about a united Ireland necessarily needs to devote an hour to people who want to shrug it off or reject it.”
No unionists will attend Saturday’s event, though every elected representative of a political party on the island was invited, says Murphy. “We have been inviting unionist politicians to our events for the last number of years and we will continue to invite them.”
The rationale often put forward by unionists is that there is no point in taking part in a conversation where the outcome is predetermined. How to incorporate unionists into any unified state will be its greatest challenge.
“I get that it’s a really tricky situation for them,” says Adair, “but I think what they’re doing is polarising the situation by not joining in.
“A big reason why I got involved [was] because I really do think everybody has to join the discussion... If unionists really believe their views, I think they should argue their own case rather than just boycott the debate.
“There needs to be a bit of nuance, in that I don’t think simply absorbing the northern six counties into the southern 26 as they are will work, and I really do passionately believe that unionist, or cultural unionist voices, need to be heard on this.”
Nor will there be any speaker from the Alliance Party at Saturday’s event. Its deputy leader, Stephen Farry – who was on the panel at an Ireland’s Future event earlier this year – said the difference was that the party saw it as an event “in support of, or to endorse, a united Ireland” and participation would be “read and perceived as Alliance endorsing a united Ireland, and that’s not where we are”, he said.
“The party itself doesn’t take a view on the constitutional status and that’s a very deliberate decision... we’re not sitting back and ignoring the debate, we’re just taking part in the debate on our own terms.”
In tandem with the event, Ireland’s Future will release a document outlining its analysis regarding the economy, a health system and how constitutional change can be managed.
“It’s more than a conversation,” says Murphy. “We are now setting forth our evidence-based analysis to substantiate our position on constitutional change.”