Mary Lou McDonald TD, President of Sinn Fein (Uachtaran Shinn Fein) and Leader of the Opposition in Dail Eireann, says the Good Friday Agreement should be honoured.
There is a growing conversation throughout Ireland about the future. A conversation about the type of future we want to have and the country we want to live in. It is an exciting and dynamic discussion about an opportunity few have in the modern world; to build a new society shaped from the ground up by the people. The debate on Irish unity is now at the heart of the political agenda in a way it has not been since our island was divided a century ago. Partition was a disaster for Ireland, north and south. It divided our land, our people and our economy. It was imposed on the people of Ireland against our democratic wishes and at the threat of total war.
In the north, partition created a sectarian state which was maintained through repressive and coercive legislation which denied even the most fundamental democratic rights to many. In the South it created a state which failed many of those most in need and focused instead on a small circle of elites.
It may have happened one hundred years ago this year but it is not just some event from the distant past. Its legacy and impact continue to be felt and it affects the lives of people across the island every day, particularly those who live along the border. The imposition of Brexit on the people of the north against their democratically expressed wishes has brought the partition of Ireland once again into sharp relief.
The British government’s callous disregard for the democratic views of the people of the north on Brexit is a clear echo of partition and the focus it has brought on the issue of the border has led many to look again at the issue and consider new options. They are looking at the economy of Brexit Britain and making choices and considering a future that perhaps they would not have previously. Workers and families are recognising that they would have more money in their pockets in a new and united Ireland.
Independent studies from leading international economists have shown that a united Ireland would be far better off than at present. It would also attract more investment and jobs, creating new opportunities for everyone. That is the brighter future people are looking for. Now, across Ireland more and more people are getting involved in the discussion and making their voice heard. Civic society lobby groups have been campaigning and holding online events and discussions on Irish unity, meeting with political leaders and the Irish government, as well as seeking meetings with the British government which have, to date, been refused.
Recently groups of trade unionists have joined together to play their part in the conversation and to advocate for Irish unity in the interests of workers’ rights. Similar moves from other walks of life are also expected as more and more people are looking to a new future. Successive opinion polls have shown that increasing numbers of people want to see Irish unity and want an opportunity to have their say on their future. Beyond Ireland people are also looking at Irish unity as the best option.
We have seen Irish America making its voice heard with the recent advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post calling on the British government to live up to its commitment in the Good Friday Agreement by announcing its intention to hold a referendum on Irish unity to let the people have their say.
Across Europe and because of Brexit, people are increasingly aware of this part of the Good Friday Agreement and see Irish unity as the best way forward. There is also a role for the left and the Irish community in Britain in the growing discussion on Irish unity. Over many years, campaigners and progressive groups in Britain have supported Irish unity, and I value their support, particularly at times when it was not always an easy or popular position to take.
I welcome that continuing support and ask all those who support Irish unity and democracy to join with us and the growing numbers of others who are calling for the people of the north to have the opportunity to have their say on their own future. The future of the island of Ireland will be decided by the people of Ireland, north and south, but the Irish diaspora and supporters of democracy and self-determination can play their part.
It is the British government who is foot-dragging and being characteristically obstructive about implementing the unity referendum aspect of the Good Friday Agreement. Democrats and supporters of national self-determination in Britain should call on the British government to start the process of having a referendum.
Whether someone is pro-unity or pro-union, there is nothing to fear from a mature, inclusive and reasoned debate. And that is exactly the kind of debate we want to see. But preparation is needed for such a debate to take place. We saw from the disastrous debacle that is Brexit the shambles that comes when a referendum is held without proper preparation. We do not want to repeat such mistakes. People need to have access to the facts in order for them to make an informed choice. Ill-informed and malicious disinformation will not help anyone.
Preparation is not just a job for the British government; the Irish government also has a key role to play to get ready for a referendum. As a cosignatory to the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government has a responsibility to prepare for reunification. That should involve the government bringing forward a white paper on Irish unity, convening a citizens’ convention inclusive of the entire island and creating a ministerial position with responsibility for Irish unity. These preparations should begin immediately.
The public are well ahead of both the British and Irish governments on this. Now they need to see the British government take this issue seriously and prepare for it. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it is the British government’s Secretary of State for the north who has responsibility for initiating a referendum on the constitutional future of the north when he or she believes that the views of the majority have changed.
Our MPs have repeatedly pressed successive Secretaries of State to set out the criteria for triggering a referendum but answers have not been forthcoming. We are not calling for a referendum to be held tomorrow. There is a genuine need for preparation and a lead-in period to allow for a proper debate and discussion. That will require work but it is absolutely necessary.