Last week, for only the second time since the foundation of the northern state there was a significant cross community vote on an issue of political importance. The first time was in 1998 when the people of the north - Unionists, republicans, and nationalists voted for the Good Friday Agreement.
Unionists, republicans and nationalists repeated that extraordinary vote in the Brexit referendum with an equally definitive vote to remain within the EU.
The crisis that the Brexit vote in Britain has caused is reverberating across these islands, within the European Union and beyond. The divorce proceedings that Brexit has initiated will not be straightforward. There is a huge entanglement of EU law with British law, and this includes the north, which has to be separated out. The EU is inextricably connected with every sector of life in the north, including the economy, farming, tourism, the health service, climate change, infrastructure, community supports and investment, equality and workers’ rights law, and much, much more.
Untangling this will be a massive undertaking.
It has also emerged that the Assembly may have to give its legislative consent to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 which gives domestic effect to EU law. This too presents possibilities.
So the constitutional lawyers and courts are likely to be busy in the time ahead as they try to sort this particular issue out.
In one important respect the outcome of the Brexit referendum is a vindication of Sinn Féin’s long standing criticism of the democratic deficit at the heart of the EU and of the two-tier nature of its structures and the social and economic inequalities that are part of it.
In 1972, Sinn Féin and other progressives campaigned against membership of the EEC.
Over the decades since then, we have modified our position to one of critical engagement. This position was formally adopted by our Ard Fheis in 1999. We said then that we were keenly aware of the dangers for Ireland as more and more decisions were ceded to unaccountable structures in the EU.
So, we also set out our objectives; the reform and restructuring of the EU; the decentralising of power; the promotion of state democracy and economic and social justice; and the creation of a 32 county political and economic identity within the EU.
Reform of the EU has been necessary for decades now. The unaccountable nature of much of the EU bureaucracy, and a decision making process that is often distant from citizens, was part of the reason for the Brexit vote.
The treatment of Greece and the imposition of austerity policies on that state and others, also led to anger and frustration at the EU institutions.
The current crisis therefore presents an opportunity to advance the reform project – to transform the EU into something better. Irish republicans want a different kind of European Union. A Union that is democratically accountable and transparent, and responds to the needs and desires of its citizens - a social EU; a Union of equals, of partnership and solidarity, in which member states, at times of adversity, work together in the spirit of co-operation.
The current crisis also presents a historic opportunity to end the injustice of partition and to build a new Ireland.
The British government has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the people of the north in any future negotiations with the EU. Their policy has been rejected by the people.
Citizens in the six counties voted to remain within the EU. The British and the Irish governments must accept that vote. It should be upheld.
Some will say – and I heard this from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the Dáil on Monday – that we are bound by a so-called United Kingdom vote. No we’re not. Sinn Féin stands by the vote of the people of the north.
We stand for the needs of the Irish nation before those of Britain. That means that the Irish government has to think nationally – not in 26 county terms, but for the island of Ireland. It needs an island wide vision.
As a co-equal guarantor of the agreement, the Irish government has a responsibility to defend the Good Friday Agreement and its political institutions. It has to now agree the maximum cooperation between it and the Executive and to support the right of Ministers in the North to deal directly with the EU institutions.
The Democratic Unionist Party should also respect the remain vote. The majority of people, including many unionists, rejected its exit policy. The DUP should accept this – although I’m not holding my breath.
The vote of the Scottish people is what is now determining the political approach of the Scottish government to the EU and to the British government. The Scottish First Minister and her Cabinet have decided to put into action their plan to negotiate with the EU and to prepare for a referendum on Scottish independence.
The vote in the north is what will determine Sinn Féin’s approach. And it is this context that Sinn Féin is calling for a referendum on Irish unity.
Inevitably all of the usual suspects have lined up to tell us it’s the wrong time; it can’t be won. The Irish government and Fianna Fáil are quick to talk about respecting the rights of the people of Scotland but not those of citizens on this island.
Irish republicans believe that partition is at the root of the divisions that exist between the people of the north and between the two parts of our island. The Brexit vote has demonstrated that citizens in the north are able to step beyond partition – to set aside sectarian politics and take decisions based on rational argument.
I believe the same can be achieved in any debate on Irish unity,
Moreover, we should not lose sight of the fact that the demographics of the north have also dramatically changed in recent years.
The north was created on what was believed to be a permanent two thirds unionist/British majority. But the last census figures revealed that the issue of identity is no longer as fixed as it once was.
Only 40% of people stated that they had a British only identity. A quarter (25%) stated that they had an Irish only identity while just over a fifth (21%) had a Northern Irish only identity. That’s 46% of citizens in the north identifying with some form of Irishness. And others not will to take any position.
The people of England and Wales have taken their decision. They are leaving the EU. If those citizens in the north who voted to remain want to achieve that goal – if they want to stay within the EU - it can only happen in the context of the island of Ireland. That’s a huge challenge for all of us in the time ahead. This week we are seeing the opening exchanges in this debate.