With the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland mere weeks away, conversations around the future of its status are once again at the fore of our political discourse.
Despite all the contemporary difficulties we face on this island, and indeed across these islands, 23 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there is a clear sense of hope for a better future.
We should be optimistic about our shared future across this island, even if we do not necessarily agree on what constitutional form that future should take.
Regardless of whether one supports a united Ireland or not, Brexit and Covid-19 have undoubtedly highlighted that increased co-operation is to everyone’s benefit.
We cannot have discussions regarding a new Ireland, however, without acknowledging that tensions are on the rise in the North where riots and violence have returned to the streets. Though this does not indicate a return of the Troubles, any violence is hugely concerning.
When we have discussions about Ireland’s future, we must recognise that such talk strikes a note of fear in many communities. While we should not apologise for a desire to achieve a united Ireland, we also cannot ignore or discount these concerns.
The newly established Shared Island Unit of the Irish government, which prioritises open and honest discussions between communities, is an important vehicle for us to listen to the fears of certain groups regarding our future, to address them and promote meaningful dialogue. This is how we will build the engagement which is key to building a truly shared island.
The Good Friday Agreement must be the cornerstone of any engagement. The goal of “partnership, equality and mutual respect” is as relevant today as it was 23 years ago. We must maximise the use of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, including the North South Ministerial Council, the British Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. These institutions provide vital outlets not just for north-south discussions but also east-west, which are ever more important given the UK’s exit from the EU.
Regardless of what constitutional future one aspires to, there is work to be done to build engagement.
If the time comes for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to declare that a border poll is required, this work should be the foundation for detailed and formulaic planning on what a new Ireland should be.
A united Ireland will not simply see Northern Ireland assimilate into today’s Ireland. No discussion can be off the table as no aspect of the future of the island can go unaddressed.
I believe an electoral commission with an external chairperson should be established, creating a citizens’ assembly with individuals from across the island in order to shape what a new Ireland will look like. The resulting work should be debated and amended by a parliamentary committee from each of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Oireachtas and Westminster before returning to the citizens’ assembly for the finalisation of a vision for a new Ireland. This vision should then go to the people by referendum in each existing jurisdiction.
Discussions will need to be had on what a new Ireland will look like in practice. A crucial starting point is who will pay for a united Ireland? Whether there is a phased reduction in the UK subvention to Northern Ireland of about £10 billion per year or whether Ireland will fund this cost must be discussed. Regardless, we must convince the Irish taxpayer that any initial cost of a united Ireland will be worth it.
The fate of an economy can change dramatically over time. When Northern Ireland was created, it was the economic driving force of the island. Clearly, the tide has shifted and while the Northern economy has lagged, the Irish economy has grown exponentially, largely due to EU membership. Continuing EU membership will be essential for any new Ireland.
Conversations are also needed on what our political, education and healthcare systems will look like in a new Ireland. Should we reserve positions in our parliament for those from the North? Will our education system continue as it or become blended with that of Northern Ireland? The NHS is hugely important in Northern Ireland; affinity transcends any political identity. A new Ireland will need a healthcare system that draws on the strong points of existing systems and ensures a level of care that is enhanced from the status quo.
There is clearly a huge amount of work to be done. The priority must be placed on growing relationships and building trust on our island. The work will not be easy, it will require patience, compromise and imagination but it can be achieved.
Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD for the Dublin-Rathdown constituency