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'We should be ready': United, shared or otherwise, conversations about Ireland's future are happening

Even away from government help, civil initiatives are looking towards the kind of country we may be in the future.

This article is part of The Good Information Project, a new initiative from The Journal to help create greater understanding of big issues we face. This month we are focussing on the question ‘What could a shared island look like?’.

A NEW INITIATIVE by the Institute of Irish Studies in the University of Liverpool asks a simple question: “What type of society do you want to live in?” 

The responses come from people across Ireland on both sides of the border and touch on a whole range of issues.

There are responses focusing on big societal questions like identity, racism and the environment but there’s also local issues like public littering and access to music in the community.

One person speaks about why Ireland needs “proper hate crime legislation” while another person says the country needs to “recognise that heritage is not binary”. 

The vox pops are there for anyone to listen to and the idea is to provide a civic space where people can look at what Irish society could and should look like.

The project doesn’t shy away from looking at the national question, having sections from both unionist and nationalist perspectives, but it isn’t defined by it either.

The idea is to look at the island and its future in a way that doesn’t ignore the constitutional question but recognises it as only part of the puzzle.

Civic initiatives and the integration of civil society community groups across all parts of the island are increasingly being seen as key to moving forward, whether that’s within a united Ireland or otherwise.

The approach is being examined by the Taoiseach’s Shared Island Unit, but crucially those involved in civil society are already thinking that way.

Civil society is essentially made up of groups of people coming together to work towards a common purpose for a public benefit.

That usually means setting up an organisation to work towards that goal and the results are as diverse as cancer support charities or sporting federations.

Northern Ireland’s Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) and The Wheel in the Republic are representative umbrella groups for civil society organisations on both sides of the border. 

Both groups are taking part it this week’s Shared Island Dialogue on “civil society- catalyst for connection and understanding”.

Together, NICVA and The Wheel represent almost 3,000 groups and have in recent years been working ever-closer together. Indeed, the two organisations meet every six months with their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales to collaborate on what they can. 

Last year, the day before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on the island, the entire board of The Wheel travelled to Belfast to have a joint board meeting with NICVA. It was the first time this had happened. 

“Basically what we want to do is we want don’t want to leave a vacuum. We want to engage, we want to make the best of what civil society can offer, we want to foster collaboration around practical issues that matter to people,” The Wheel’s CEO Deirdre Garvey tells The Journal

Let governments and political parties talk about the constitutional question, that’s not our business. What we want to do is find solutions to societal problems and questions, whether that be the sustainable energy agenda, remote working, the connectivity of communities and rural depopulation. 

Garvey says there is of course a role for governments to “provide essential public services” but that civil society can also influence governments to do certain things or indeed “picking up the ball and running themselves”. 

She adds that one of the areas where civil society can help with north-south cooperation is in the area of identity. She uses the example of how the “driving force” behind marriage equality was in LGBT civil society groups. 

“An awful lawful lot of tricky issues around culture, around sense of place are dealt with as everyday bread and butter issues in the local committee,” she says 

On the NICVA side, it has been engaging in what CEO Seamus McAleavey describes as “north-south work” for almost 30 years, back to the early 1990s. 

“About 7% of all organisations in Northern Ireland actually operate on an all-Ireland basis,” he explains. Among the examples cited are religious organisations like Accord and the “big and obvious one” – the GAA.

The GAA Ulster Council is actually itself a member of NICVA, for example.  

One issue of particular focus for civil society groups right now is is healthcare in the border regions. McAleavey explains that healthcare services in rural border areas could benefit if they could work more closely together.

If you look at border areas, development tends to be back-to-back in that it spreads out from the centre. So if the centre happens to be Belfast in the north and Dublin in the south, it spreads from there and the border is quite often at the end of the line and they suffer from that.   

NICVA, like The Wheel, is a strictly non-political organisation. Could it be the case that non-aligned, apolitical organisations are perhaps perfectly placed to mould discussion around greater co-operation or Irish unity? 

“Well, our raison d’etre and one of the things that drives most charities is public benefit. So we’re looking for things that benefit our public, so where it makes sense we do that. Other people will do things because it does or doesn’t fit their personal political agenda. 

“I think the thing about dialogue is it’s about trying to open up a space that is relatively safe and to some extent we did that. There’s only one NICVA in Northern Ireland, we didn’t split in two. We were a reasonably safe space within our membership, you will have literally all shades of political opinion within Northern Ireland and all communities represented, it will get a little bit rocky at times but we have managed to keep that reasonably safe shared space.

“That should be able to be done on an island dialogue as well, which doesn’t threaten people’s political aspirations whatever they happen to be.”

Ireland’s Future

But while there are groups working within their own non-political areas of interest, civic initiatives are also underway with the express purpose of Irish unity. 

Ireland’s Future is the foremost such group and it has been active in publishing discussion documents and organising public talks, all of which are of course currently online. 

The group is led by academics, commentators and legal experts with independent Senator Frances Black listed as its chairperson. 

Overall the group’s message is that the preparatory work for a unity referendum is required urgently and is fact already taking place, whether the Irish and UK governments seek to be involved or not. 

Active in the group is Professor Colin Harvey of Queen’s University Belfast, who has contributed to a number of recent Oireachtas Committee hearings on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. 

Speaking to The Journal, Harvey says that examining these issues is simply the smart thing to do. 

“After Brexit, there’s just a feeling that there’s a responsibility on us all on the island to do the planning and preparation in advance of the referendums taking place. Because we don’t want to repeat the Brexit shambles on this island,” he says. 

“This is a normal part of the Good Friday Agreement and we should be ready and prepared for when those referendums happen. So, that’s what’s motivating the sense of urgency, the sense that post-Brexit, we’re clearly on a pathway towards people being given a choice. We should be ready and people should know what they’re voting for north and south when they’re asked. 

“Ireland’s Future is a civic initiative and has put a very strong emphasis on civic engagement through this entire process. So rather than telling people what the answers are, the starting point should be to ask people, to get people into conversations about what the future might look like and also to listen to and engage with people about some of the more challenging questions that might arise.”

Harvey says that while these conversations can happen without official support from Dublin or London, only governments have the ability to conduct the significant research required to beef up the data behind what reunification might look like. 

He says there’s too much “complacency” from the Irish government about the path forward and that, while all the main Irish political parties say they believe in Irish unity, there’s a responsibility on them to say what they’ll do practically to achieve it. 

Another member of Ireland’s Future who has been active in speaking about the issue is the writer and journalist Martina Devlin, who is originally from Omagh but has lived most of her adult life in Dublin.  

Devlin began her work with Ireland’s Future because she says grassroots democracy is the best way to achieve progressive change

“There have been repeated attempts to shut this conversation down,” she says.

“Some people are very attached to the status quo and they feel threatened by the idea of new constitutional arrangements on the island of Ireland. It’s very clear why they would, because they have a privileged position in Irish life, that they think might be undermined.

“It’s very, very interesting to me that some politicians in the Republic are resistant to the idea and who keep putting up barriers, saying that there isn’t enough reconciliation with unionism to talk about these issues. But that’s such an amorphous, nebulous thing, how do you quantify that? It’s just a way of shutting down the conversation.

Writing for The Journal as part of this project, Sarah Creighton outlined a concern among progressive unionism that unity could become a boon to conservatives in the south who could become “best mates” with the DUP. 

Devlin acknowledges there has been an understandable concern that what was routinely  referred to as “Catholic Ireland” may not seem like a conformable home for many moderate unionists.

In her view though, this has slowly changed:

“The Republic has taken quite a few decades to start reaching its potential, to be the sort of outward-looking modern, liberal, progressive state that was envisaged. It certainly didn’t happen in the early decades. So I completely understand why unionism would look south of the border and think ‘hmm not for me’. But that’s changed and the plebiscites in recent years are proof of that – the referendums on marriage equality on abortion reform and divorce.

“The future of Northern Ireland may well rest with those who don’t identify as either nationalist or unionist, the third tribe. And this third tribe isn’t necessarily conservative. This third tribe is actually the group that doesn’t want to throw in its lot or be defined by either of those divides. So I think the message really is about opportunity, that the project of uniting Ireland, if that’s what people decide, isn’t a question of fusion but of reconstruction.”

Irish unionism

The notion that an increasingly progressive Ireland is more of a home for unionism than it has been previously is perhaps a fair one, but it is also correct to say that there is much more work to do to improve on this front. 

To see that, one only has to look back to the University of Liverpool’s civic space mentioned earlier. 

Within the ‘Pro-Union’ and ‘Pro-Unity’ sections of the project, there are a series of podcast chats with ordinary people from the community who outline why they feel the way they do. 

In the Pro-Union section, several of those who contribute say the conversations currently being had aren’t ‘quite right’.  

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Brian Spencer, a unionist who describes himself as “extremely Irish”, explains that part of his reservations over the Irish Republic are what he feels is an “unrestrained” version of history. 

In Northern Ireland, he says while there are are always arguments about history when it comes to spending public monies, each community has to be respected. 

“Everything in Northern Ireland is meticulously scaffolded with laws and regulations and duties and monies that ensure that both traditions are acknowledged and respected. So for example when you go to the Ulster Museum you see Irish proclamation, but you also see the Ulster Covenant. 

“Unfortunately, we live in a world now where unionist and Irish are opposites and it wasn’t always like that. I started to notice that there was kind of an unrestrained sense of that when I went to college in Queens. There were guys from the Catholic Grammar school and there wasn’t any hostility. Whereas the guys from down south they didn’t have that worldview, there was just this unrestrained culture and history. 

Spencer goes on to speak about what he feels is the problem potentially getting worse, with a “casualness” to othering language that he describes as “harrowing”.  

He makes a specific reference to the use of terms like ‘tans’ or ‘Huns’ on the Irish Simpsons Fans Facebook page and says that hearing jokes about bombings raises feelings that are comparable to racism. 

Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston, a loyalist political commentator and former Progressive Unionist Party councillor, also outlines that the union has been a benefit to her and her family.   

A mother-of-two who is civilly partnered to her wife Kerry, she explains that she is now legally allowed to marry because of the intervention of the House of Commons.  

MLAs in Stormont voted to approve same-sex marriage in 2015 but the DUP controversially used the Petition of Concern mechanism to block it. 

MPs in the House of Commons subsequently voted to impose same-sex marriage and abortion in the north if power-sharing hadn’t been restored by October 2019. This then became law in January of 2020

“It was disappointing that it came from there because locally it was democratically supported by the house that exists in Northern Ireland for legislative changes. But I think the intervention by the British government was wholly welcome because it was necessary,” Corr-Johnston says. 

“Northern Ireland’s people have always been ahead of its politicians, on that hill they are so bogged down and obsessed with the constitutional question and with constitutional politics. Every election in this place is a constitutional show of strength rather than a mandate for socio-economic change.

Instead, she explains that society being adequately provided for is far more important than the title of the house in which people live.  

“I believe that the union is the best place for me to raise my kids, because of that free healthcare, because of that free education because of the social security, all of the foundations are there.

“There are cracks in those walls that need filled in and they need plastered, there’s things that need to change in this place, and they need to change quickly. And the landlord or the caretaker or whatever way you want to describe them, it’s their responsibility to fix it. They need to be doing it, otherwise the tenants will leave.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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