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Pro-unity Ireland's Future event draws big crowd as Leo and Mary Lou preach to the converted

The two were among five party leaders at today’s event.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald.
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

AONTÚ LEADER PEADAR Tóibín certainly knew his audience when he declared that the history of a United Ireland will record today’s event in Dublin’s 3Arena as a seminal moment. 

The statement got a big cheer but there was a general feeling in the 5,000 strong crowd that there is a hell of a long way to go before any books are written. 

The event was by far the biggest held so far by the Ireland’s Future campaign group, which is organising what are essentially pro-unity discussion forums. 

Today’s event was a fully-ticketed affair in an arena that is usually reserved for live music. There was some music by the wonderful Denise Chalia and the legendary Donal Lunny but the main draw were the pro-unity voices in the room. 

These voices included five leaders from the ten political parties that were represented.  Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was one of them but Taoiseach Micheál Martin was not.

Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how he sees it, An Taoiseach was already slated to appear at his party’s Ard Fheis in the nearby RDS

Speaking to reporters across the Liffey, Martin said he has no problem discussing the future of Northern Ireland but that he didn’t regret being double-booked

In his place, Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan set forth his desire for unity and for bringing along those opposed and those ambivalent.

O’Callaghan was asked directly if he wanted to be ‘Taoiseach of a new Ireland?’

“Yes, but it’s not just myself who decides that,” was his reply. 

074Future Ireland Conference Tanaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

O’Callaghan was part of a discussion panel that also featured the leaders of the SDLP and Labour, Colum Eastwood and Ivana Bacik, as well as Sinn Féin chairperson Declan Kearney and Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond. 

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill was supposed to be on the panel in place of Kearney but she was forced to pull out due to illness.

If Kearney hadn’t been there, the panel could have gone with any of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Sinn Fein activists at the event. 

Aside from activists, there were quite a few Sinn Féin TDs who could be spotted in the crowd. 

Back on stage and Richmond, who has participated in several Ireland’s Future events previously, was particularly comfortable speaking about what all agreed was the need to prepare for a United Ireland. 

He joked that he was happy to be “in a room filled with people I’ve blocked on Twitter”. A rare moment of self-awareness in an event that was otherwise relentlessly positive. 

Bacik, who has noticeably attempted to burnish Labour’s pro-unity credentials since becoming leader, described her party as being “Connolly-ite republicans” and, perhaps most eye-raisingly, “the political wing of the union movement.”

A day after the three-year-old Fianna Fáil/SDLP formal partnership was seemingly confirmed as no more, Bacik also pointedly referred to “our colleagues in the Social Democratic Labour Party”. 

SDLP leader Eastwood himself sought to advocate on behalf of his constituents in Derry, whom he noted were today marching against the “Tory budget” being imposed on them. 

Family affair

083Future Ireland Conference James Nesbitt delivered the keynote address at today's event. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The event was impressive in its scale and ability to stay on message. Selling 5,000 seats for a Saturday afternoon booze-free gig is no mean feat, as any event organiser will tell you. 

The only mishap was when the stage lights went off during a chat between Colm Meaney and broadcaster Matt Cooper. When the lights returned about 30 seconds later, Meaney quipped topically that the arena “must have paid their electricity bill”. 

Meaney continued the levity during the chat and said he has always been in favour of unity.

With a twist of dark humour that went down well, he said “those in favour of unity have too often, and I realise these words aren’t the best, given ammunition to those who are opposed.”

The decision by unionist parties not to participate was referenced as disappointing by many of the speakers and Arlene Foster’s rival Together UK campaign group was also mentioned. 

The panel of politicians were asked by journalist Amanda Ferguson whether they would take part in one of Foster’s events. They each said yes but only to argue for a United Ireland. 

The two major political speeches were from Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. Both argued for a United Ireland with McDonald effectively bringing the house down and Varadkar drawing respectful applause. 

Almost without exception all speakers were given the space to say what they wished, with jeers on two occasions.

Once, from a small pocket of people, when Varadkar suggested that “East-West co-operation” could continue in a United Ireland and that Northern Ireland may even “have its own courts and education system”. 

The biggest boo of the day was for Green Party Senator Vincent Martin who suggested that a United Ireland could perhaps, “not in substance but description….delete the word Republic of” from its name. 

Instead, the country could be “Ireland/Northern Ireland”, he said. The suggestion didn’t go down well but he insisted he had “no insecurities”. 

The two occasions were not in any way representative of the overall event, however, which instead sought to focus on practical issues rather than the symbolic. 

A civil society panel featuring the likes of Ibec, ICTU, the National Women’s Council and the IFA was among the most important in that regard. 

Ibec’s Danny McCoy was introduced by Ingrid Miley as “the money man” and he spoke about how the economies north and south were already entwined in many ways.

He cautioned, however, that uncertainty is always bad for business. 

The most passionate speaker of this panel was campaigner Ailbhe Smyth, who was perhaps the central figure in the Repeal the Eighth movement. 

Smyth said that building a coalition is about exactly that, by bringing people from different backgrounds together with a common goal. 

“They come with different identities. They come with different visions of what our new Ireland can be,” she said.

We value them and we treasure them and together we can do it. Money is not the first question, it really isn’t, the first question in referendum campaigns is the people.

And on the people, one inescapable fact about today’s event is that it appeared to be attended heavily in the majority by people from north of the border.

Such things are difficult to quantify but northern accents and Ulster GAA tops were common and those who The Journal spoke to were almost without exception from the north. 

Niall Murphy, Belfast-based solicitor and secretary of Ireland’s Future, told The Journal that Dublin made up the biggest source of pre-booked tickets for the event.

However, many of those in attendance simply paid at the door and some of those had arrived down in buses for the midday start. 

Of course, it makes perfect sense that nationalists from Northern Ireland have the most to gain from moves towards Irish unity and would therefore be the most energised about today’s event. 

One group of college-aged young men from south Armagh told The Journal that they see unity as vital to their future but don’t see a border poll as being a possibility for perhaps another ten years. 

They referenced Brexit as being a huge driver among their peers and said it also represents the perfect example of why discussions around unity are required. 

Asked how people in the Republic could perhaps be brought more into the discussion, one responded: “Maybe when the government in the south starts talking about it”. 

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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