I’m sure it was the last thing Enda Kenny expected to be asked in China but there it was. Having spoken about the role of ‘Ireland in a changing world’ a student in his audience asked about Irish unity and whether the Taoiseach has a ‘time schedule, and what progress have you made, because China is facing the same issues.’
The student was then given a potted Kennyesque history of British colonialism and the last 700 years of Irish history culminating in the Good Friday Agreement.
It was just before Easter and Kenny was in China on a trade visit. China too has its sovereignty issues. There is the long standing stand-off between it and Taiwan, and there is the increasingly tragic dispute over Tibetan sovereignty.
The shocking image two weeks ago of Jamphel Yeshi, a 27 year old Tibetan exile in India, running burning through the streets of Delhi was carried across many media outlets around the world. Yeshi set himself on fire in protest at the visit of He Jintao the Chinese President, to India. He subsequently died. Although there is some confusion over the numbers involved it appears that around thirty Tibetan men and women have set themselves alight in the last year.
This series of protests has its roots in the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the denial of the Tibetan people’s right to sovereignty.
Sovereignty also remains the key unresolved issue at the heart of the flawed relationship between the island of Ireland and our nearest neighbour.
In the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin very specifically sought and secured the scrapping of the Government of Ireland Act which had partitioned Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement created a conditional claim of sovereignty by Britain in the north. The Agreement also created a level playing field on which there is equality between the competing claims of sovereignty and which allows for a democratic debate on this issue. The British government is committed to legislate for a United Ireland if a majority in the north want it.
So while no schedule or timetable exists for Ireland to be reunited the means by which it can be done has been agreed and a road map has been legislated for.
For Irish republicans and the majority of citizens on this island Irish sovereignty, in the context of Irish reunification, remains the single most important constitutional and political issue still remaining.
Standing in the way of its resolution are those, particularly within the political establishments north and south, who see partition as a done deal – a fixed and immovable arrangement.
Unionists tell us they oppose change because they believe that Irish unity would be to their political, social and economic disadvantage and because of their professed affinity to the notion of ‘Britishness’. But nothing ever remains the same. Some unionists are now comfortable describing themselves as Irish, a minority perhaps but increasingly many others identify themselves as northern Irish. And anyway in a new pluralist Ireland surely there has to be accommodation for those who feel British.
As the process of significant change continues there will be a growing awareness of the need for these identity issues to finally resolved. For example Sinn Féin’s recent series of high profile conferences on the theme of ‘Uniting Ireland – Towards a New Republic’ attracted considerable interest outside of traditional republican circles.
In Newry and Derry unionist speakers agreed to participate. They took the opportunity to set out their objections to uniting Ireland but they also entered into a constructive dialogue. A development unthinkable only a few short years ago.
For many people uniting Ireland makes economic and administrative sense. It is no accident that the border region is the most economically disadvantaged on the island. But the duplication of services which exists because of the two jurisdictions is also a financial burden that militates against an efficiency in public services and in the creation of job opportunities and economic growth.
The Taoiseach was in China selling Ireland, or at least that part which he represents, as an investment opportunity. The previous week he was in the USA. The northern Executive is similarly engaged, speaking to the same governments and often to the same political leaders. This competition between the two states is detrimental to both.
Already there is some good work being done between the all-Ireland bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement and which the two governments and individual Ministers have themselves concluded to be advantageous to those they represent.
However finally resolving the issue of sovereignty and putting in place a new agreed Ireland that can end division on the island Ireland needs a step change. It also needs a change of mindset.
It means agreeing a political strategy to achieve what Connolly and Pearse, Clarke and Markievicz and Collins and others sought, when they stepped out on a bright Easter Monday morning 96 years ago and challenged the greatest Empire the world has ever seen.
The refusal of successive Irish governments to strategise and plan and actively campaign for an end to partition has been one of the greatest failures of the last 90 years. Partition created two conservative states on this island run by two conservative political elites.
Corruption in the north took the form of one party rule and structured discrimination and state violence. The Mahon Tribunal and other Tribunals into political and clerical abuse have revealed a different but equally perverse and cancerous corruption in this state.
It’s time to look beyond that experience. To begin afresh. To chart a new course and a new future for the people of this island. Uniting Ireland provides the opportunity to do that.
The government is to hold a constitutional convention. A brave initiative, but one which risks failing because its goals are too narrowly defined and it is too short termist in its vision.
There are significant differences of politics between the parties in the Dáil and especially between Sinn Féin and the government parties.
But it is not impossible for us to set these differences to one side and work in the common interest and in the common good for all the people of this island – for the real Ireland.
The Irish republicans of Sinn Féin are up for this challenge. We are willing to work with the Irish republicans in the other parties to advance this historic endeavour.
I am convinced it can be achieved. It needs political will and a vision of a new Ireland that appreciates that Ireland is the island and the people of the island.