It’s always good to spark a debate, and my recent column and blog ‘Planning for Irish Unity’ certainly did that. My core argument was the need to move those parties which aspire to Irish unity beyond their traditional republican rhetoric and to get them involved in the real work of planning for unity. In particular I argued that the Irish government has a duty, a constitutional imperative, to plan for unity now. Why would a government, any government, not plan for the future?
The future is not about a single step-change in which we go to bed one night in a partitioned Ireland and the next morning wake up in a united Ireland. It’s all about process. A process of change. A Process of transition. A process of transformation. It’s about agreeing how we will organize our society. It’s about how we share our future. It’s about all of us having our say and playing our part in this.
Can Sinn Féin do this on our own? The answer is obvious – no. The Irish government has a duty and a constitutional obligation to make preparations for unity. To examine the economic arguments. The cultural and social dimensions. The political dynamics. To take account of the significant shifts in population and identity demographics in the North in recent decades. To open this process up and in consultation with, and through a process of inclusive dialogue, to persuade those – unionists, nationalists and others – who have reservations about unity - that Irish unity makes sense for them, for their families and for the future.
The Irish government is best placed to create the space in which all of this can take place. Mary Lou McDonald suggested some time ago that the Irish Government establish a Forum to which all are invited and non are excluded. This dialogue could discuss the political shape of a new Ireland; a new constitution; the protections needed to assuage unionist concerns; the economic positives that will benefit all; the timeframe for a transition period and how long it should last and so much more.
It could also engage with our friends and neighbours in Europe. Almost 30 years ago the EU financially and politically supported German reunification. The EU through its negotiations on Brexit has demonstrated concern about the peace process and the future of the Good Friday Agreement. It has already accepted that in the event of Unity the North would automatically become part of the EU. This European good will can be harnessed.
All of this needs to be planned for now. Not after a referendum on Unity. As I said in my previous column, that is the one big lesson of Brexit. A referendum without a plan is stupid. I wrote; “So a referendum on unity must be set in a thoughtful inclusive process which sets out a programme of sustainable options. Including, phases of transition”.
The response to my column was both funny and serious. Funny because the SDLP sought to claim that Sinn Fein was shifting our position by calling for a plan. Serious because others haven’t been listening to what republicans have been constantly saying. The usually well informed commentator, Alex Kane said that I was “long-fingering the unity project”. He asked “is Adams preparing the ground for a row-back? Has it finally dawned on the party that Sinn Féin’s ‘ourselves alone’ approach to unity isn’t working? Are they simply buying themselves more time?”
In part, republicans must accept some responsibility for this failure by others to grasp what our approach has consistently been. So I thought it would be useful to remind readers of a few examples of Sinn Féin’s approach to the issue of Irish unity. In my first meeting with John Hume in September 1986 I put it to John that we needed to cooperate to get the British Government to set aside the Government of Ireland Act. This was the Act by which Britain claimed sovereignty in Ireland. Two years later Sinn Fein presented proposals to the SDLP during our talks in 1988 calling for an alliance of Irish political parties and opinion to achieve “maximum political unity in Ireland” to secure Irish Unity.
We called for the launch of a “concerted political campaign internationally, using Dublin government diplomatic resources, to win international support”; and we proposed a “debate, aimed at leading to dialogue” with unionists to assure them of “our full commitment to their civil and religious rights and be persuaded of the need for their participation in building an Irish society based on equality and national reconciliation.”
In 1987 Sinn Féin published Scenario for Peace. This was the public launch of our developing peace strategy. Among other initiatives it called for an all-Ireland Constitutional Conference that would seek agreement on a new constitution and system of government. We dealt with the future of unionism and once again argued for the British government to repeal The Government of Ireland Act.
In February 1992 Sinn Féin published ‘Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland’. It was a time of secret talks with the Irish and British governments, with political opinion in the USA, and private conversations with John Hume. The Sinn Féin document called for a peace process and it spelled out a strategy to achieve it. In particular, the document placed the onus for progress very much of the two governments with sovereign power and authority. It was an explicit recognition that republicans did not have the political strength on our own to effect the scale of change that was required.
Six years later, on 9 March 1998, a few weeks before the Good Friday Agreement was achieved, I set out in a keynote speech the broad outline of the sort of all-Ireland bodies and constitutional change that Sinn Féin believed were necessary in any agreement. I also said that nationalists want an “effective, peaceful, political strategy” to achieve a United Ireland. This means an alliance of Irish political parties, with the “Irish government playing a leadership role” and with a “common position worked out between Dublin, the SDLP and Sinn Féin”.
During and in the run into the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin pressed both governments on the need to end the Government of Ireland Act. In our first meeting in Downing Street we made this point clearly and in detail with British PM Tony Blair. I told him that a new Act needed to allow for an end to British rule that was least disruptive and most beneficial to all the people who live on the island of Ireland. Our point that the British Government needed to start unravelling the Act of Union by ending the Government of Ireland Act and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, was made repeatedly by us. Our hard work paid off when in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations the Government of Ireland Act was replaced by legislation which declared “that if there were majority consent for a united Ireland that wish should be given effect.”
Sinn Féin’s position was that the unionist veto had to end; consent had to apply both ways. It is not just unionist consent but nationalist and republican consent as well. This very significant break-through opened up the potential for the development of an entirely peaceful way to end the union with Britain. It is that which should be the focus of all our efforts. That has been Sinn Féin’s focus.
In 2005 we published ‘A Green Paper on Irish Unity’ in the Dáil. In my introduction I wrote: “In this discussion documents we are calling on the Irish government to publish a Green Paper and to begin the practical planning for Irish unity now.”
In June 2009, speaking in New York at a one-day conference on Irish Unity I told our audience: “Irish unity is bigger than Sinn Féin. We have no monopoly on this primary national and international issue. It is the business of everyone who desire peace and justice and freedom and prosperity for the people of Ireland. This can and will be established if we come together and plan and organise.”
Finally, speaking in the Mansion House on 21 January 2017 I said: “There is an onus on the Irish government to prepare a real plan for unity. A First Step in this would be the development of an all-party group to bring forward a Green Paper for Unity. In addition, plans should be developed for an all-island National Health Service and for all island public services through a ‘United Ireland investment and Prosperity Plan.”
So, these are just a few examples. But to ensure that there is no misunderstanding let me repeat. There needs to be planning for Irish unity. Now. There needs to be planning for a referendum on Irish Unity. Now. The Irish government has a key leadership role in this. There is a need for the rest of us – whatever our electoral differences and competitiveness on other issues - to work together for unity. And there must be a dialogue with unionism. They need to plan the future also.