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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C

Ireland's big question: What could a shared island look like?

The first topic as part of The Journal’s Good Information Project.

THERE IS A lot of talk about Northern Ireland’s future in our future.

Asking questions about Ireland and Northern Ireland’s future while focusing on historical allegiances and religious headcounts is a fast track way to a heated and, perhaps, backwards-looking discussion. 

Similarly, making it all about a simple yes/no vote can obscure the real-world civic discussion required to make any fundamental change a success. The Brexit process taught us that. 

But if it’s accepted that we must talk about things as sensitive as Ireland’s future, there’s an intrinsic challenge in remaining objective on the subject. 

Even investigating the question of what Ireland might look like if there was a change to the map risks marking someone out as arguing for it to happen.

Yet, these matters are being discussed and it’s therefore important that those of us whose job it is to inform the public do just that. 

The Journal recently launched The Good Information Project with the goal of enlisting readers to take a deep dive with us into key issues impacting Ireland right now.

The aim is to find out what information readers want on a given topic, answer their questions as best we can and also provide the tools for people to seek their own information.

The future of this country, or the two countries on this island, affects everyone here, but it’s about far more than what flag gets flown or who sits in what parliament. 

Unquestionably, those political debates are important but it is also worthwhile to try to look at this issue in a way that is as non-political as possible.

For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that health is an issue that doesn’t stop at the border, so we want to examine whether there are ways for healthcare to be less jurisdictional.

Whether leaving the NHS for the HSE may be a step too far for people in the north or whether there is room to change to a system in the south to make any such step a smaller one.

And what about policing? There are two police forces on the island but, if there was constitutional change, would they have to be integrated or could they both continue? Is there precedent for this elsewhere? We want to share information about all these questions.

Of course, there is also the all-island economy. One of the biggest debates around unification or greater integration is financial costs or benefits. If it’s the former, who pays? 

And not just economy in the financial sense; any debate around a changing Ireland must have standards of living at its centre. Such measurements can be crude and perhaps debatable, but it’s a debate worth having. 

Again, asking these questions can feel rhetorical and seem like the person asking them already has an answer in mind. But they are being asked.

For one, Taoiseach Micheál Martin last year launched the Shared Island initiative. The plan is to look at how the Irish government can work with its British counterpart and the Northern Ireland Executive to invest in cross-border projects and build a consensus around the island’s future.

We want to take a look at what this might mean in practice and to examine the potential benefits and pitfalls.

We also want to look at the basic question of what a ‘shared island’ means. The phrase is used as an acknowledgement that our island is home to people of different traditions and people who are happy for the status quo to remain.

Within that though, even if the constitutional position does not change, are there unionists who see the value of greater integration and in what areas do they see that value? 

And if the change we see is a democratic vote for unity, what challenges would unionists have with that and how would their identity be protected?

Even the mention of unity is perhaps another example of how difficult it is not to sound like someone is ‘taking sides’. But ignoring the prospect of Irish unity is not an option either.

The Good Friday Agreement makes provision for Irish unity and indeed the Irish Constitution even aspires to it.

There are suggestions that Northern Irish society may be moving that way, and that’s even before we talk about Brexit.

Brexit has unquestionably changed the nature of the relationship between Ireland and Britain and Northern Ireland’s futile vote to Remain also pointed to an increasingly fractured United Kingdom.

But is this something that will merely complicate an already complicated relationship or is it a harbinger of change?

We want to look at this and more over the coming month but we also want you to be involved in this undertaking.

We want to hear your ideas: the topics you want to know more about and how we should cover them.

You can keep up to date by signing up to The Good Information Project newsletter in the box below. If you want to join the discussion, ask questions or share your ideas on this or other topics, you can find our Facebook group here or contact us directly via WhatsApp. You can also record a video response to this month’s big topic by going to Plotto now.

We want to hear from you.

We’ll be having an open newsroom discussion later this month where our reporters and editors will answer your questions and talk about how we went about reporting on this topic.

In the mean time, you can follow The Journal on social media to stay part of the conversation.

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.

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