By the time you read this the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will have played a fleeting visit to the North. The last time he was here it was to speak at a DUP party conference. On that occasion he joined with them in calling for the backstop to be ditched.
The North was one of his stops on a quick tour of his increasingly disunited ‘United Kingdom’. In Scotland, in almost the same breath, he said that the withdrawal agreement is ‘dead,’ while repeating his claim that a deal with the EU is still possible. The EU has ruled out any renegotiation. Downing Street is spinning that Johnson will not negotiate with EU leaders unless they agree to scrap the backstop and reopen the withdrawal agreement. Perhaps that’s why, in a breach of the usual protocol, he hasn’t yet spoken to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
At the same time Mr. Johnson’s Brexit ‘war cabinet,’ and his new team of gung-ho Brexiteer Ministers, have not been disguising their belief that a no-deal crash out of the EU on October 31st is almost certain. They have been ramping up the rhetoric and the preparations for a no-deal.
After meeting Mr. Johnson, Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, bluntly said that she believes he is set on an "almost inevitable path to a no-deal Brexit".
Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill have been equally blunt. The Sinn Féin leader set out the republican analysis of the current state of play, including the Stormont Talks, in a keynote speech in Belfast on Tuesday morning in advance of the British PM’s visit.
The rights of citizens, including those rights available in every other state on these islands, must be respected; the Good Friday Agreement must be honoured; and in the event of a no-deal Brexit the people of the North should be given an opportunity to vote for which union they want to be a part of in a unity referendum.
She’s right. Fifty years after the Battle of the Bogside, the Belfast Pogroms and the refusal of the Unionist regime at Stormont to implement basic civil rights for citizens, the issue of rights, equality and respect - that were denied to our parents and grandparents, and previous generations - is central to any deal, and must be delivered.
In the two and a half years since the institutions collapsed Sinn Féin has engaged in a serious effort to restore them. Last year, after a long and difficult negotiation we reached an agreement with the DUP, which that party promptly walked away from.Since then talks have stuttered along. However, as Mary Lou explained on Tuesday morning, a report last week from our negotiations team to our national leadership has concluded that little progress has been made.
Mary Lou said: “The outstanding issues remain the outstanding issues. They are not intractable and do not give any section of the community a win over another section of the community. This is not a game in which a score is kept. Marriage equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters does not denigrate the rights of others to marry. Respecting the rights of Irish speakers does not diminish anyone’s sense of Britishness. Resolving the past and promoting reconciliation is a threat to no one”.
For its part the DUP continues to ignore the democratic majority in the North who voted to remain in the 2016 referendum. It is clear that some within its ranks believe that a no-deal Brexit and a hard border are the best way to maintain the Union. This is folly and citizens across this island will pay a heavy price for it.
A report published two weeks by the North’s Department for the Economy predicts up to 40,000 jobs are at risk in the event of a no-deal Brexit. An Irish government report predicted between 50-55,000 jobs could be lost in the southern state. This is a huge number of job losses for our small island.
Last month a confidential British government study was published by the British Parliament’s Brexit select committee. It identified 142 areas of co-operation between the 26 counties and the North, and between the island of Ireland and Britain. They cover health, like cancer services, education, agriculture, agri-foods, the environment and much more. Almost every facet of our lives on this island are now intertwined. All of this and the future of the Good Friday Agreement and of the political institutions are at risk.
Sinn Féin is a united Ireland party. This objective is at the heart of everything we believe and do. With James Connolly we believe that the national and the social are two sides of the same coin and that a real republic on the island of Ireland requires an end to partition.
There has always been a significant strand of political opinion across the island – bigger than Sinn Féin – which believes in Irish unity. Brexit has created the political context in which Irish unity is now a regular topic of conversation. What would it entail? When should a referendum on unity be called? Can the island of Ireland afford unity? What of the British subvention? What sort of new structures – guarantees are needed? And many more questions are being asked.
Last week, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the MacGill Summer School that he believes that more and more people in the North, in the event of a no deal Brexit, “will come to question the union”. I welcome his belated realisation that a hard Brexit, against the wishes of people in the North, which takes away their European citizenship, and undermines the Good Friday Agreement, will increase interest in and support for Irish Unity.
However, what does Mr. Varadkar intend doing with this new found understanding? Currently he says that producing a White Paper or establishing a Forum on Unity would fuel the accusation that the Irish government is exploiting Brexit. The reality is that it is the responsibility of governments to plan for different eventualities. That is one of their main functions. Or it should be. That is the basis of three years of preparing for Brexit. Why should any Irish government apologise or make excuses for preparing for potential constitutional change that already enjoys widespread popular support? It is common sense.
The government has to begin planning for unity. As Mary Lou said on Tuesday the Irish government has to create “the environment for the necessary conversation and discussion to take place. Look at the steps needed to make unity attractive, economically viable, and welcoming for unionists, and those non-unionists, who have concerns about it. A Forum which is open to all strands of political opinion on this island can only be a good initiative”.
The fact is that a growing number of people, including many from a unionist background, who wish to remain within the EU – who want to be Europeans - are now seriously considering unity as an option. We should not underestimate the opposition to an end to the Union. Winning a referendum on Unity will be a huge challenge. But that is where the focus of all democrats needs to be. The Irish government has a responsibility to give leadership on this. Now is the time to plan for the future.