Viewpoints on a New Ireland

A New Union: A New Society



Executive Summary

A series of reports has been published this year examining the prospects for Irish reunification. The first two reports were the ‘Economic Effects of an All Island Economy’ and a consultative document, ‘A New Union’.  The latter report is now revised and available online as ‘A New Union: A New Society’ at


As part of the revisions to the New Union report, interviews were conducted with senior political and community figures in Northern Ireland.  We are now publishing a summary of comments from those interviews, which provide important insights from unionist, independent and nationalist/republican points of view regarding the prospects and opportunities for Northern Ireland / the north of Ireland.


The interviews were conducted on a simple premise: if we ignore community identities, is there a set of common values that we could unite around and from which build a more tolerant and effective society?  To a large extent, the answer was ‘yes’.  A set of values was put forward with notable consistency: our politicians and community leaders are looking for reconciliation; respect; truth; honesty; tolerance; fairness; equality; and justice.  There are clearly discussions to be had about what those terms mean in practice, but the results of the interviews suggest that if we can be focused on the future and on the values that we share, then we could find ways forward.  That simple truth applies whether we move towards a reunified Ireland, or if Northern Ireland remains part of the UK.


Interviewees do more than give their opinions on the values needed in society: they also provide an intriguing insight into how the Northern Ireland Executive operated – and in some cases failed to do so effectively.  They tell us what went wrong and what needs to be corrected for the future.


The interviews also assist in another conversation: about how as a society we can prepare for what is probably an inevitable referendum on Irish reunification.  It is a conversation that many unionists are beginning to prepare for.  The whole of northern society should do so.





Reconciliation is at the heart of making progress in Northern Ireland: that applies equally whether the future of the north is as a province within the United Kingdom, or is reunified as part of a united Ireland.  An unreconciled Northern Ireland would likely be a continuing source of grievance.  Simply ‘absorbing’ the north into the Republic would not achieve reconciliation.


There is now widespread support for clarifying what a united Ireland would look like – Peter Robinson has made the point that just voting for reunification in a border poll without the electorate knowing what they have voted for would risk a repeat of the Brexit mistakes.


Advocates of a united Ireland have a responsibility to put forward options for how it would be structured.  A common concern is over health provision.  Reunification of Ireland can perhaps not be given serious consideration until a plan is put forward and agreed on how to restructure the health service across the island, based on the principles of the NHS – but working better than the NHS currently works in Northern Ireland.


The PUL communities of Northern Ireland would have to buy into reunification – they must feel they would be welcomed, accommodated and to a large extent satisfied by the arrangements in a united Ireland.  This should not be impossible – Protestants, for the most part, live very happily today in the Republic.  Some continue to march in Orange Order parades in the Republic.  Reunification does not require a majority in the PUL communities to vote for it, but if a majority are unreconciled within a reunified Ireland it represents a serious potential problem.


If reunification appears to the PUL communities to be mostly a Sinn Fein project, it is unlikely to be successful.  Reunification is a medium or long-term objective, which must be argued through using an evidence-based approach.  It must involve the Irish government reaching out to Protestants in the north and the institutions of the south improving their connections to the north.  The Department of Foreign Affairs provides an example of how to do this.


Brexit is shifting opinions in favour of reunification, but reunification remains a project that requires patience and tolerance.   If, as many of us predict, Brexit proves damaging to the UK, and Northern Ireland in particular, this is likely to aid the case for a united Ireland.  But a failure of Brexit could also encourage the UK government to reduce the annual financial subvention to Northern Ireland, creating a further dynamic that reduces the ties of the United Kingdom.


Paul Gosling, report author


Thanks are given to all the interviewees, who generously gave their time and enthusiasm, and to research colleague Pat McArt and research co-ordinator Colm McKenna.


Whether in the foreseeable future Northern Ireland decides to become part of a united Ireland, or whether it continues as part of the UK, there must be a similar path to progress.  A Northern Ireland that is a devolved part of the UK must achieve proper, generous reconciliation between different identities.  This is equally true – arguably even more so – should Northern Ireland become part of a reunified Ireland.


The Good Friday Agreement was intended as the basis for creating a shared society, in which communities became integrated and reconciled.  They would move on from the past.  There was an expectation that there would be a peace dividend, which would create jobs and higher incomes.  The failure of that ambition is illustrated by the gap between the employment rate (the percentage of working age adults in employment) in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement.  In some respects, Northern Ireland has fallen further behind Great Britain economically in the past 20 years, when the expectation was that the gap would close.


Peter Sheridan made the interesting proposal that a Department for Reconciliation should have been established by the Executive.  Certainly the focus on reconciliation by the Executive was inadequate and arguably abandoned, with a willingness instead to accept what might be regarded as ‘separate development’.


In 2010, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published “From a ‘shared future’ to ‘cohesion, sharing and integration’”.  This pointed out the damage caused by replacing the objective of reconciliation with the lesser one of cohesion.  Mutual accommodation had become the aim, rather than tackling the roots and continuation of sectarianism.  As one of our interviewees, lawyer Philip Gilliland, observed, voluntary segregation is not good enough.  As a society, we need to heal.  And that healing must encompass the whole of the island.


There is an interesting parallel here.  Former deputy first minister Mark Durkan told us that one of the most regrettable reverses in the devolution process in Northern Ireland was the ending of the Civic Forum.  It had been seen – particularly by the Women’s Coalition – that the strengthening of civic society was an important step towards binding Northern Ireland together, while also creating a broader and more effective system of political accountability, which went beyond party politics.


In the Republic, the role of the Citizens’ Assembly was hugely influential in putting forward an amendment to the constitution regarding abortion.  A broader civic engagement has proved to be a progressive move in the Republic, and it is to be hugely regretted that Northern Ireland has moved away from this.


Stephen Farry made an important observation in his interview with us, pointing out that it was the slow progress towards full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that led to increased electoral support for the more hard line political parties.  History cannot be reversed, but the current enforced period of reflection is a good moment to consider whether some elements of the Good Friday Agreement that have been abandoned should be re-evaluated, such as the Civic Forum (or a possible replacement citizens’ assembly).


It is to be hugely welcomed that the DUP is itself going through a period of reflection.  We have included a summary of points made by former DUP finance minister Mervyn Storey, who expressed a willingness for greater compromise in future government.  He was not the only senior DUP member that we spoke with and it is clear that the DUP is very aware that it must be more inclusive in government if the Executive is to resume and work in the future.  One of the points made by Mervyn Storey – and from others outside the DUP – was that he was unsure who really made decisions in Sinn Fein and this undermined trust within the Executive.


Part of the purpose of this report was to ask key influencers from different backgrounds what their core values were.  The hope is that if we can focus on values, rather the community identities, it might be possible to make progress.  It was heartening to have engagement from almost the entire political spectrum.


A number of values were expressed repeatedly.  These values were ‘reconciliation’, ‘respect’, ‘honesty’, ‘truth’, ‘rule of law’, ‘inclusion’, ‘equality’ and ‘justice’.  Significantly, almost everyone said it was essential that government must be ‘future focused’ and concentrate on delivering agreed outcomes.  It might be hoped that establishing a government around those values might assist with progress and stability.


There were some points of disagreement.  Some said that ‘trust’ was essential, whereas Máirtín Ó Muilleoir suggested that it was possible to have government without mutual trust, providing there was agreement.  However, this is presumably the reason why Stephen Farry referred to the Executive as having become a “transactional clearing house”, with the key decisions taken outside of the room and just being rubber stamped in the Executive.  It is important to stress, though, that Claire Sugden reported that this was not her experience when she was on the Executive in a later period.  While Stephen Farry felt the minority parties were not treated with respect on the Executive, Claire Sugden felt that as the sole MLA from outside the two main parties, that she was well treated and regarded.


A view was also expressed that there were times when the two main parties got on better in private than they did in public.  This, it would seem, may have been counter-productive.  Both the main parties have had difficulty in bringing their party supporters with them at difficult times.  Our society can only make progress if there is genuine reconciliation.  For that to happen, there has to be the “brave leadership” that Claire Sugden called for.  It requires for the parties to be clear that they are against sectarianism and support social integration, including in schools and housing.  We seem to be a long way from achieving that.  It also requires the main parties to be unapologetic to their supporters about their commitment to work in partnership and to heal divisions.


Isolation within separate communities is not assisting reconciliation: it is also financially unsustainable.  How long will the UK government – and taxpayers (particularly in England) – be willing to finance such a large subvention to Northern Ireland?  Much of that subvention is the cost of the social division and service duplication that continues to mark Northern Ireland.


Ironically, while the choice between UK or UI represents the division between the DUP (and TUV and UUP) with Sinn Fein (and the SDLP), the symptoms of that division must be addressed irrespective of whether the north becomes part of an all-island Ireland, or continues to be Northern Ireland.  For unionists, the costs of division must be addressed if the UK is to continue to be willing to pick up the bill.  For republicans, they must demonstrate their capacity to be effective (and more effective than in the past) in government if they are to be in government in the south and to influence the debate around the reunification of Ireland.


One point made by several interviewees is that Sinn Fein cannot be the successful advocates of a united Ireland.  History prevents them winning over many of the people that need to be won over.  As Peter Robinson hinted in a recent Queen’s University lecture, the future requires a more reasoned debate over the future of Ireland than was achieved over Brexit.  A compromise that keeps everyone happy with relation to the future of Northern Ireland is impossible.  But to achieve the ‘settled’ outcome that will lead to an effective all-island state must require a significant number of Protestants, former unionists, to believe it is the best solution.  Those people need to be won over by evidence.


A New Ireland?


There was widespread agreement amongst those we interviewed that it would be unacceptable to expect Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland as it stands.  While its new social liberalism is widely welcomed across the north, its heavily criticised health system is unpopular in Northern Ireland.  The housing crisis in the south is another negative.  And while regional policy in the Republic is arguably better than that in the north, it is not effective enough.


“I think it is particular valuable that the report points out that future arrangements in any new all island Irish State should draw from best practice in either jurisdiction, such as health in the North and economics and education in the Republic,” commented Ray Bassett.  “The NHS is needed in a united Ireland,” said Claire Sugden.  “We must have an NHS, free at the point of delivery,” echoed Stephen Farry.


Andy Pollak suggested: “The idea of an all-island health service is worth considering seriously. I believe this would be a practical and mutually beneficial ‘pilot’ project to see how wider all-island governance could work in the longer term.”


As one leading political commentator (privately) put it: “If you just called a referendum it would be lost because no one knows at present what they’re voting for: a unitary state, a federal state, a confederal state, the continuation of Stormont subordinate to the Dáil? What would the currency be? What would happen to health care? Would I have to pay €100 to go to A & E? What would the question(s) be in the referendum?”



The role of the Irish government


It is essential that there is a good relationship between the Irish state and the people and institutions of Northern Ireland.  That applies irrespective to the constitutional situation of Northern Ireland.  Brexit has created unhelpful, negatives stresses to those relationships.  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is making efforts to improve relationships with civic society in the north.  But as Jane Morrice observed: “We need to improve the outreach from the south to unionists and Protestants in the north.  This needs to be taken seriously – very seriously.  Tokenism is not enough.”  The election of Ian Marshall to the Senate is excellent and indicative of much more that needs to be done.


It would be helpful if many more people – the unionist population – looked to the Taoiseach as an advocate for their interests.  As Máirtín Ó Muilleoir expressed it, “We need more ‘Irish unionists’ – unionists who see themselves as Irish.”  In truth, many unionists – as Claire Sugden elegantly explained – are comfortable as being both unionist and Irish, including by supporting the Irish rugby and cricket teams.


But for this progress to happen, change is needed in the south, to embrace not merely all the people of the north, but also to acknowledge the history of people of the north and the positive role of Protestants.  “The rest of Ireland does not understand about the role of Presbyterianism, for example its role in creating the United States,” explained Philip Gilliland, who is an historian as well as a lawyer.  “This needs to be an all-Ireland conversation.  Catholic Ireland needs to be proud of the Ulster Scots’ contribution and welcome them into the family. That would be an historic meeting of minds.  How do we get more people in Ireland educated about the Presbyterian role?  Paisley was correct: two tribes have to get on.  This is a ten year conversation.  Protestant Ulster needs to go to Dublin to talk.”


This progress must go beyond government.  It should be noted, though, the warm praise from Bishop Ken Good for the generosity from the Department of Foreign Affairs in supporting the Church of Ireland.  Jane Morrice made the profound observation that other Irish institutions must begin to see themselves as relevant to the whole of Ireland, including the north, if the people of Northern Ireland are to see the Republic as relevant to them.  “The institutions in the Republic need to reflect more of the northern culture, for example, RTE,” she argued, persuasively.  “RTE does not have much presence in the north and its broadcasts are not easily accessible in Northern Ireland.  This restricts the level of knowledge and understanding in the north of the Republic’s state and government.”


This report has argued that Northern Ireland is better-off as part of a reunified Ireland.  But this is not a short-term project.  While one recent opinion poll commissioned by the BBC showed significant support for a united Ireland, this is not a consistent result of all polls.  And there remains much uncertainty around what people would be voting for.  There needs to be an informed, open, debate on the merits of UK or UI.  That debate should begin now.  However, an immediate border poll might be to the benefit of those unionists who are strongly opposed to reunification and would like an early referendum that they are more likely to win and which might put the issue into a closed cupboard for several years.


It is instructive that most opinion leaders spoken with said that they did not have a clear picture what a united Ireland would look like.  Mark Durkan had both a vision and a route map towards achieving it.  His plan includes clarity that Northern Ireland would become part of the existing Republic of Ireland, as a new constitution created too much uncertainty around whether votes within the Republic would find that much change unacceptable.  He also believes that there must be bold measures to protect British identities.  These include the right to continue to hold a British nationality and identity after reunification.  Presumably that right could be passed down the generations.


Part of the useful ongoing debate would focus on whether the Republic should become federated, with the continuation of Stormont – and whether Stormont should be for the existing six counties, or the nine counties of Ulster.  If the latter, should there also be assemblies for the other provinces?  Would Stormont, and other possible assemblies, have the existing or lesser powers?


There are also issues around community identities that this report has attempted to steer away from.  These include flags, emblems, parades, relationships with the British Crown, the role of the President, languages.  If these could be discussed as part of an early theoretical debate, rather than later on as part of a real decision-making process, the level of contention and tension might be reduced.


Perhaps the first priority, though, if the Republic is genuinely committed to eventual reunification is the reform of its health service.  The cost of reform would be substantial in moving to a free at point of delivery model, but discussions around this change could begin soon.  Failure to do so would be regarded by many in the north as an impediment to reunification.


As the main parties ally themselves closely with Christian values, it might be appropriate to quote Bishop Ken Good’s comments.  “Generosity needs to be shown.  As Christians, we need to be proactive with forgiveness.  This has been overlooked.  Christianity has forgiveness at its heart.”


Perhaps the most telling remark made by an interviewee was by DUP MLA Mervyn Storey.  Talking in general about Northern Irish society, he said: “There will be change.”  He added: “I am against a single Irish jurisdiction – but I would have to accept it if there was a vote and that was the outcome.  Unionists must not think that day could not come.  There has to be an honest discussion around the benefits or disadvantages of being in the UK or a united Ireland.  The reports are the basis for a discussion.  There is a lesson from what is happening in the Republic for everyone, including in unionism.”







We have engaged in detailed conversations with senior political figures and community leaders, regarding both the two reports on the future of the island of Ireland and on what can be learnt from the experience of devolution in Northern Ireland.  Many of the conversations have considered the lack of reconciliation following the Good Friday Agreement.


These are a selection of the comments.


Peter Sheridan, chief executive, Co-operation Ireland

“The core values for transition out of violence are: peace keeping; peace making, peace building (which is where we are now) and peace sharing (which we have not yet reached).


“We have got through the peace making phase.  We reached an agreement on how we are governed.  But we have not agreed about how we learn to live together.  We remain in a cold war situation.  We had 18 peace walls before the Good Friday Agreement, we have 88 now.  The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement were only ever supposed to be stepping stones to the next stage.  Sectarianism is still there.  Politicians are not genuinely committed to the Good Friday Agreement.


“People should ask the political parties what they are going to do.  Ask unionists what they will do for nationalist and republicans.  Ask republicans what will do to protect PUL communities.  Good rights are what you will do to protect others.  We have never got to the stage where we can walk in other people’s shoes.  But the good news is that everything is shift-able.


“We have to deal with the past.  We need to debate the past and deal with it.  Universities are a good place for debates.  We will never do justice on the scale of the injustice.  There should have been a Department for Reconciliation within the Executive.  We should have had a future facing government.  We don’t do enough to tell unionists that we will protect unionist identity.  We need to convince a generation of young people.”

Philip Gilliland, lawyer and Anglican 


“My values are those of the Taoiseach: socially liberal; fiscally, moderately conservative.  I believe people should live according to the values they espouse, without hypocrisy and with tolerance.  I believe in inclusion, including all indigenous and non-indigenous communities.  In Northern Ireland, that explicitly means educating children together – otherwise people will never escape their ‘mono-ness’.


“Sinn Fein does not articulate what it means by ‘equality’.  It can mean nothing more than our tribe must have the same as the other tribe.  Equality can mean meritocracy, equality of opportunity – which is what we must strive towards.  What does justice mean?  We need truth and honesty about the past. Administratively, justice in respect of Troubles-related crimes is not possible.  The forgotten people are the victims.  What we need is truth.  We need that from government and from republicans and from loyalists.


“We are in a system of voluntary segregation.  Better government would help to deal with this and could lead to a process of desegregation.  But who can govern us to lead us into desegregation? The only solution that we have not tried is for the Republic to do this.


“The UK government is not interested in direct rule and has no appetite for this.  We need to explore another approach that could work and that is a united Ireland.  Brexit has changed everything.  It has helped Protestants to talk about a united Ireland in ways they never have before.  Protestant business leaders are now talking about Brexit changing things.  The east around Belfast is much more of a British economy, but the west is much less.


“As a Protestant it makes me wonder what it was about a united Ireland that we are supposed to be afraid of.  For unionists a hundred years ago my guess is that their views were informed by three things:

1 Why leave the world’s largest trading bloc,

2 Home rule would be Rome rule,

3 Bigotry.


“The theocracy is now in Northern Ireland, not the Republic of Ireland, which is a socially liberal country.  Numbers one and two no longer apply, which only leaves number three and I don’t want to be a bigot.


“The rest of Ireland does not understand about the culture and heritage of Ulster Scots Presbyterianism, for example its role in the creation of the United States.  This needs to be an all-Ireland conversation. Catholic Ireland needs to be proud of the Ulster Scots’ contribution and welcome them back into the family. That would be an historic meeting of minds.  How do we get more people in Ireland educated about the Presbyterian role?  Paisley was correct on one thing: the two tribes have to find a way to get on.  This is a ten year conversation.  Protestant Ulster needs to go to Dublin to talk.


“I want a unitary Ireland, not a federal Ireland.  A federal Ireland would do very little for the North West/Derry, which desperately needs to see the removal of the border.  I would be against the continuation of Stormont for this reason, and also because the inherent tribal stalemate means it cannot function in anything other than a populist fashion. It would be different if it was a nine counties Stormont.


“How does it happen?  If it’s initiated by Catholic politicians, it can’t happen.  It has to come from Protestant NI and from Dublin.”


Mervyn Storey MLA, former DUP finance minister


“I want a peaceful, settled, prosperous Northern Ireland.  We are not living in the 1960s.  There will be change.  We need to be future focused.  While I’d like past crimes to be dealt with through the courts, there is little chance sadly in many cases of getting justice for most past crimes.  We’ve had a conflict management process, rather than a reconciliation process.  There is the challenge.

“There was too much focus on the relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.  We (in the DUP) don’t know who is in charge of Sinn Fein.  Too many unionists do not understand the dynamics and difficulties within republicanism.  Too many unionist voters do not understand the differences between dissidents and Sinn Fein.

“The society I would like is: respect for the rule of law; fairness, for example in employment.  There should be responsibility and accountability in government.  I want devolution to work.  A caring society that supports people in crisis.  To move beyond the platitudes of respect.  I am anti-abortion and pro-traditional marriage, but I must recognise that others in my community have different views from me in this.  Government in future should be outcomes focused

“I am against a single Irish jurisdiction – but I would have to accept it if there was a vote and that was the outcome.  Unionists must not think that day could not come.  There has to be an honest discussion around the benefits or disadvantages of being in the UK or a united Ireland.  The reports along with others can inform a discussion.  There is a lesson from what is happening in the Republic for everyone, including in unionism.”


Claire Sugden MLA, independent unionist and former justice minister


“The values I want in society are respect, the appreciation that everyone is different and for that difference to be embraced.  Difference can be contentious.  I want empathy and compromise.  You can’t get agreement if you don’t have empathy.  It needs to be understood that we are the products of our experiences and of our families.  I understand why people did things, even if I don’t agree with what they did.  I do have a specific designation as a unionist and I think that is right.  We need to de-sensitise the concepts of unionism and nationalism.


“Justice is about upholding the rule of law.  Often what people mean by justice is fairness.  Truth is also difficult, because it means different things for different people.  Social justice is another important concept.  The different narratives should be told.


“My unionism is practical.  I believe the best place for Northern Ireland for now is part of the UK.  I am not convinced that even after Brexit that the best place for Northern Ireland will be outside the UK.  If there were circumstances in which on a practical basis we would be better off in a united Ireland then I would consider that.  Unionism is also part of my culture.  Northern Ireland is my home and I wouldn’t leave.  I’m happy to say that I’m Irish, Northern Irish and British.  The Good Friday Agreement allows us to say that we are both Irish and British.  The Good Friday Agreement is not the end game for those pursuing nationalism.  In 1998, Unionism thought that it was the compromise of both ideologies; nationalism saw it as a stepping stone.  I am interested in the ideas of a ‘new Ireland’; I’m not sure how those proposing it will find a purpose for unionism after unification.


“There was never contention on the [NI] Executive.  The relationship was good between me, the DUP and Sinn Fein.  Martin McGuinness nominated me as justice minister – he didn’t need to do that, he could have just gone along with the nomination.  I ensured that statements on justice involved the Executive as a whole, not just myself.  The Executive was great.  But now the party leaderships need to rein in their parties.


“Paramilitary violence now is more about community control and criminality, rather than politics.  After the Good Friday Agreement we didn’t effectively address problems, we just threw money at them.  We need to be braver in dealing with the problems.  Sinn Fein has secured the next generation of voters sorted because of their social policies; the DUP needs to rethink their values in the context of a changing world and changing demographics in order to secure their vote and unionism’s vote.


“The NHS is needed in a united Ireland.  Sinn Fein needs to go on a journey.  What I like about the Republic is that it is structured around issues, like the Department for Children.  It is very focused on outcomes.  And I like the voluntary coalition structure in the south.  The Republic is being brave, for example on abortion and same sex marriage.  It is helping Ireland move forward.  I crave leadership in Northern Ireland.”


Ray Bassett, former Irish Ambassador to Canada.


“The report is very timely as the circumstances which led to the division of Ireland have radically changed, particularly in regard to economics and demographics.  There has been a curious lack of debate on how the two parts of Ireland should react to the changed circumstances.


“I think it is particular valuable that the report points out that future arrangements in any new all island Irish State should draw from best practice in either jurisdiction, such as health in the North and economics and education in the Republic. I hope this report stimulates further serious study and discussion on a subject which was unfortunately taboo in the Republic for far too long.”


Iain Barr, manager of Waterside Theatre, Derry/Londonderry, community activist, son of senior loyalist Glen Barr


“I believe everyone should be treated equally and I am dismayed by what I see in Northern Ireland today. For example the abortion debate in the south has thrown up some strange bedfellows here, like the DUP and the Catholic church. I find it amazing that a country such as the Republic of Ireland, which until very recently was basically governed by the Catholic church, is now more liberal than Northern Ireland.  We are now being shown as the “backward” part of this island. These groups are opposed to equality, the DUP says it wants Northern Ireland to be the same as the rest of the UK but not when it comes to issues like same sex marriage or abortion.


“My father in the 70s wrote a document for a devolved system of government that got rid of green and orange politics and for sharing power.  That remains the blueprint, the correct approach.  A lot of politicians should mind their language.  Politicians here are not leading.  We can’t move forward until we stop looking back.”


Bishop Ken Good, Church of Ireland, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe


“Ecclesiastically, the Church of Ireland is an all-Ireland entity: we pray for the Queen on one side of the border, for the President on the other.  Some parishioners strongly identify with the UK, others with the Republic of Ireland.  In church terms, the border is not paramount: as Christians, our prior loyalty must be tothe Kingdom of God.


“The Department of Foreign Affairs funds some Church of Ireland activities in the north. There is a financial generosity in their approach.  Some Republic of Ireland government ministers are very generous to the Church of Ireland.  In the Republic, our Church is given more weight than our numbers maywarrant.  People [in RoI] are willing to listen to the Church of Ireland. Leo Varadkar and other ministers met with Protestant Church leaders recently and the Church of Ireland does feel valued. It is not necessarily a bad thing that the state has become more secular.


“My values include a concern that people of different religious and other traditions feel they have a place, that there is room for them, that they are valued, not exploited.  Justice.  Fairness.  Inclusion.  Respect.


“The treatment of victims is one of the biggest issues.  Brave moves are needed on both sides. Generosity needs to be shown.  As Christians, we need to be more proactive with forgiveness.  This has been overlooked.  Christianity has forgiveness at its heart.”



Geraldine Conaghan, lawyer, Donegal


“I see merit in our recognising ourselves as part of the British Isles, but we [could] have a new confederation of the Island of Ireland and Scotland within the EU under a new constitution (scrap the 1937 version), and let England and Wales BREXIT.  The discussion has to be put out in the mainstream of ordinary citizens who care about the economy more and our future, but could NI with its top heavy civil service and politicians survive without UK funds? This is where Europe needs to step up and prop up the new Union within their larger Union.”


Brian Feeney, writer and political commentator


“This paper on Irish unity emphasises engaging Unionists and offering them participation at all levels which must be the only way to proceed. However, the main immediate task is to engage the Irish government and its officials, many of whom are hostile to proposals for unity partly because they are incumbents and naturally resist change, partly because of laziness, partly because of fear of change, because of cost, but mostly for fear of the unknown.


“Finally, nothing can happen until Brexit is resolved. That means 2021 at the earliest. Governments can only manage one item as huge as Brexit at a time without contemplating major constitutional change as well. There will also be an Irish and a British general election, the first in 2019 or earlier, the second in 2022 at the latest.  However, that means now is the right time to start planning for the future instead of being surprised by events.”


Billy Patterson, southern Protestant


“It is not possible that two groups of representatives who dislike one another intensely can be expected to go into business together even though it makes economic sense and both sides will benefit from the merger.  They must become friends or at least respect one another before that can happen.


“I like the idea of letting the people on both sides know, if they don’t already, of the number of Protestants from the Republic who were patriots, writers, musicians, poets, politicians, sportspeople, etc. and make them aware of little facts which might baffle the people of the Orange persuasion – the Pope sent King Billy a letter of congratulations after the Battle of the Boyne and a Mass of Deliverance was celebrated in Rome for his victory.   History is often manipulated to suit the audience, so maybe it’s time to tell the full story even though a lot of it is unpalatable.


“Ban religion from politics.   Recognise each other’s big marching days and support each other as they actually did in the ‘old’ days – pre 1916.   AOH and Orange marches should not be permitted in areas where offence may be caused.  Nationalists need to stop flying our tricolour in NI.  A new flag is needed for all the people, which pleases the two main protagonists.  Perhaps a green and orange flag with a harp on the green and a red hand on the orange.   A new All-Ireland national anthem is recommended.  New words even to the existing tune would be good.  As it is, the words are archaic and hopefully there are alternatives to canon’s roar and rifle’s peal in the Ireland of tomorrow.  I would see no future in recognising any language except the one spoken by everyone in the country – English.  They must stop squabbling about trivia and get down to governing.   References to past history should be avoided as they inhibit progress.”


Andy Pollak, founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies


“I like (former Attorney General) John Rogers’ suggestion that the Irish Constitution should be amended to recognise ‘the plural origins of our people’. People in the South are going to have to get used to the idea that in the event of unity constitution, flag and anthem (in order to incorporate ‘Britishness’ into Irish symbols) will all have to change. It won’t be easy to persuade them.


“I also like (Senior Counsel) Des Murphy’s idea of an independent international mediator (or maybe an international Opsahl-style commission) that could draw up proposals for the future governance of Ireland (within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement) – to be put to people north and south in a referendum. I would regard this as much more sensible than a crude Border Poll, which, in the event of a 50%+1 vote for unity, would lead to renewed mayhem.


“The idea of an all-island health service is also worth considering seriously. I believe this would be a practical and mutually beneficial ‘pilot’ project to see how wider all-island governance could work in the longer term.


“On the wider issue I think it needs to be spelled just what an extraordinarily liberal society the Republic has become in a short time.  It is now one of the most liberal countries in Europe: liberal abortion and same sex marriage overwhelmingly passed by referenda; gay, half-Indian Taoiseach; over 17% of the population foreign-born and not a whiff of a right-wing reaction.


Jane Morrice, former Women’s Coalition MLA and deputy speaker of NI Assembly, former head of the European Commission’s Office in Belfast, former NI deputy equality commissioner, initiator of petition for NI to remain part of the EU.


“The values I want in society are honesty, integrity, equality, human rights, inclusion, mutual respect, understanding, tolerance, justice.  Those values are European-wide and not linked to being north or south of the border.


“Reconciliation across the island is essential.  I was present at the recent all-island forum on Brexit in Dundalk, which Barnier attended, but unionists were poorly represented.  Outreach from the south to unionists and Protestants in the north should perhaps be more creative.  This needs to be taken seriously – very seriously.  Tokenism is not enough.  Ian Marshall joining the Senate is good, but we have been here before with northern unionists sitting in the Senate.


“The institutions in the Republic need to reflect more of the northern culture, for example, RTE.  RTE does not have much presence in the north and its broadcasts are not easily accessible in Northern Ireland.  This restricts the level of knowledge and understanding in the north of the Republic’s state and government.”


James Wilson, historian and former British army soldier


“Since the Good Friday Agreement, the more regional identities such as Northern Irish have become more established – similar devolved regional identities have emerged in Wales and Scotland (the English are always English, even when them mean British). By 2010 the Life and Times survey was rating Northern Irish as high as a third of population.  My kids and me have both passports and Norn Irish is how we describe ourselves.  My current research reveals a diversity of identity – even amongst passionate loyalists to the Crown.


“The Citizen’s Assembly/Constitutional Convention convened by Tom Arnold, has proved to be a very tool in unpacking sensitive subjects and framing debates such as the Eight Amendment.  Given the growing calls in the North for a border poll, would it not be prudent to task such a Citizen’s Assembly to conduct a full open and lucid debate on the National Question, the reunification of Ireland, or indeed any other constitutional options – the best of British / the best of Irish – that can provide an agreed settlement?”


Mark Daly, Irish senator


“There is a need for action now, policy neglect seldom goes unpunished . The future is a united Ireland as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement, with protection for the culture and identity of unionists and within the European Union.  The Good Friday Agreement is, in effect, the path way to the peaceful and prosperous unity of Ireland and her people ”


Máirtín Ó Muilleoir MLA, former Sinn Féin finance minister


“We need to adopt the values appropriate for a wounded society.  The priorities should be: build the peace, foster reconciliation. There are lots of divided societies in Europe.  But while there are divisions, those are different.  No one has a clear answer on how to achieve this.  Justice. You can’t have reconciliation without justice. Which also means civil rights.  You have to look forward, not live in the past.  The Stormont House Agreement found a way to deal with justice, while moving forward. There’s a balance.


“The aspirations for a united Ireland should be: prosperity; a shared future, which includes prosperity for all; no dysfunction, no peace walls, people should be safe to walk where they want; the normalising of peace; a modern European society.  We should be international leaders.  Ireland should be global in outlook.


“How to move ahead?  We need more ‘Irish unionists’ – unionists who see themselves as Irish.  No one has set out the form a united Ireland would take. I don’t believe it would be like East Germany joining West Germany, it would be more complex.


“The future depends on the people who are proud of being Irish while being unionists, not those who despise the Irish language and are difficult to deal with.  Irish unionism is a good tradition.


“My learnings as mayor of Belfast were that if you meet unionists half way, they will meet you; unionists are ahead of their political leadership; there is a real desire for change  I found people more welcoming than might be expected.


“It is possible to do deals without trust.  There has to be a trade-off.  Reaching out to unionism is an urgent task. We are not doing enough to build that bridge.  There are big challenges for Sinn Féin.


“No one has really imagined the future, for example how the Dáil would work, for example unionists in government. I would find it easier to imagine unionists in a continuing Stormont Assembly.  The Good Friday Agreement was only a staging post.  I have never thought about the role of the DUP and UUP in the Dáil.  The collapse of the Executive is damaging for everyone, especially for the North West, for example regarding Magee.  There is a real consequence, for example loss of funding for groups and services.  Our vote may go up because of the collapse, but it is damaging to politics.”


Stephen Farry MLA, deputy leader of the Alliance Party, former employment minister


“I have a liberal perspective, which is a flexible term.  I believe in rights, equality, fairness, a rights-based approach, empowerment, democracy, the rule of law.  There is some disengagement from the rights agenda, for example equal marriage, LGBT rights, reproductive health care.


“Northern Ireland is still marked by sectarian division.  This leads to different people having different life chances and can determine where they can live.


“The Good Friday Agreement was about creating new relationships across the islands, but it was imperfect.  It was a means towards a reconciled and peaceful society.  There were unresolved issues at the time – decommissioning was too slow, legacy, the rule of law – and these caused difficulties.  That led to greater support for parties that took a hard line.  There was no shared vision.  Support for progress was always limited and qualified.  In particular this was because the parties had different constitutional objectives.


“The Executive became a transactional clearing house.  Lots of policy was determined outside the Executive.  Proposals for health service reform were not discussed inside the Executive.  Meetings were often unpleasant.  There was little conversation about how do we deal with the big issues.  The ‘zero sum game’ led to cronyism and lack of accountability, which in part contributed to the collapse.


“There was a conscious effort to keep constitutional issues out of the Executive, such as legacy, flags.  These issues were discussed in other places.  There was never a conversation at the Executive about segregation. It was about doing business as quickly as possible and get out.  Meetings might be delayed by 2, 3 or 4 hours and then the meeting last just ten minutes.  One meeting that was scheduled for 2.30 actually began at 7.30.  The Budget for 2016/17 for £11bn was tabled 30 minutes before the meeting and agreed on the nod.


“Sinn Fein were not very good at government.  Lots of things had to be run through the wider party.  This was difficult for them as a party of change.  There was a lack of generosity by DUP to Sinn Fein and to other parties, especially after 2012.  The draft agreement in February seems to show that Sinn Fein does want to be in government.  But it does seem as if this is support for continuation of the Executive as a transactional clearing house.  The DUP now looks more closely to London.


On the question of reunification, I am open minded.  I don’t have a fixed mind regarding UK or united Ireland.  We must have reconciliation, a liberal society.  The Alliance contains some members who are unionists and others who are nationalist.


“Against: subvention is a powerful economic argument. We must have an NHS, free at the point of delivery.  Pro: Brexit, especially a hard Brexit; a united Ireland provides a route back into the EU; social policy, RoI is rapidly changing and more attractive than NI.  I am reconsidering my position.  Any discussion risks polarising society.  So we don’t want to jump in.  The present priority is delivery via a NI Executive.  The tipping point would be a hard Brexit and bad economic outcomes would be influential.  Northern Ireland is not yet ready for this discussion.  Nothing is guaranteed on the future of the subvention, or whether there will be change to the Barnett Formula.


“I have not really thought about what the future would be in a united Ireland.  There needs to be respect for British and Irish identities. Not simply assimilation.  There needs to be change on both sides.


“If it happened, a lot of people in NI would be very unhappy.  It might involve a constitutional settlement with unionist representatives and protection of the unionist population and their rights.  There might be an consociational structure in UI, as in Belgium, where things are done in accordance with a convention.  Northern Ireland does it constitutionally.”


Mark Durkan, former SDLP MP, leader and finance minister


“The Good Friday Agreement provides for two choices on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland – United Kingdom or a united Ireland. Unionist and nationalist aspirations are equally legitimate, therefore the threshold for majority consent in a referendum for either option must be equal. True parity of esteem cannot require a larger majority for one consent-based option rather than the other.


“Neither Unionists nor Nationalists would be working for just a 50% plus one outcome. Each would hope for bigger margins! But in the event of a narrow margin either way, the result has to be respected.


“The SDLP set out in papers (in 2003 and 2005) that the Good Friday Agreement must be seen to endure beyond any referendum result. In the event of a vote to change the north’s constitutional status, the principles, promises and precepts of the Agreement should still hold as mandated in 1998. The Agreement provides for ‘review’ arrangements. Such review mechanisms would be the channels for adjustments to be made in institutional structures to be compatible with change in constitutional status and to remain compatible with the Agreement.


“We set this out to allay any apprehension that having a referendum or its possible outcome would forfeit the unique standing of the Agreement. We also did it to show that it was not just Unionists who were challenged by the Agreement to recondition their assumptions. This was a way of showing that Nationalists had to look at a united Ireland under the light of the Agreement.  This means allowing for a continuing Strand One and embedding Strand Three’s East-West structures for the future (using reviews to enhance these).


“There could not be a purely internal settlement in the north or inside the UK. But we can also accept that, even in a united Ireland, there would not be a purely internal settlement on this island. To take account of Unionists’ identity and ongoing affinity we have to think about more than just British passports for those who want them. As we have sought a direct northern voice in a reformed Seanad, then the “do unto others…” rule should apply in a united Ireland.  This would not mean all institutions staying static in a united Ireland as a new dynamic would be created by the scale of northern representation in an all-Ireland parliament as compared with Westminster. That would include a substantive unionist presence.


“Recalibrating the devolution envelope and regearing for all-island administration and legislation can be achieved by agreement using the modalities of the Agreement, building confidence and furthering reconciliation on the island and between these islands.


“This sort of understanding avoids the false precondition of having to secure Unionist agreement to a united Ireland before a referendum. It also avoids the false promise of having a referendum which, if passed, only invites negotiations which could be frustrated. The Brexit negotiation debacle is a warning that those who value the unity by consent precept of the Agreement need to have a sat-nav for how a positive result is advanced consistent with the Agreement.”

2 thoughts on “Viewpoints on a New Ireland”

  1. Maeve Mc Laughlin

    Informed piece with challenges for us all. powerful unity in principles of reconciliation, respect, honesty, truth, rule of law, inclusion, equality and justice. The lessons from our Derry experience can provide a platform to develop these honest conversations

  2. All great comments. I particularly associate with the recognition of Ulster Scots in the development of the United States. I am an Irish-American born in the ROI and when I attend a St Patrick Day Parade I’m always sad to see that there are no Ulster Scots represented and it appears as if the Irish contribution to the development of America only commenced after the arrival of the famine Irish. I have lived and worked in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Arkansas and can state categorically that the Ulster Scots influence on Middle America has been tremendous. At one point in time I wrote to the organizers of the New York City parade asking them to invite some Orange bands from Northern Ireland to take part. Needless to say I did not receive a reply.

    Keep up the dialogue

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