By Gerry Adams
June 6, 2019
The debate about the future, about a new Ireland and the demand for a referendum on Unity is growing. Civic nationalism in the North has found its voice and is energised on the demand for rights and for a Unity referendum. It is not alone in talking about this issue and discussing its implications.
Increasingly there are also voices being raised from within unionism on the issue of unity. In part this is because of the shambles that is Brexit and the social, political and economic implications this will have for all of society in the North and across our little island.
But demographic and political changes in northern society are also playing an important role in encouraging this debate. The 2011 census in the north was a watershed moment in the North’s political journey. Up to that point the issue of unity was for many – especially within unionism – an academic exercise on an outcome that many never thought would happen. The threat of unity was often used by unionist politicians to frighten unionist voters. But no one within the political leadership of unionism ever publicly acknowledged that fundamental change in the constitutional status of the North was ever a possibility. Why would they?
The northern state was a gerrymandered entity, created on the basis of a sectarian headcount. It provided unionism with what was believed in 1920 to be a permanent, in-built two thirds majority. Unionism then set about consolidating its dominance further through discrimination in housing and employment and in the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries.
Almost a century later the 2011 census – which for the first time asked citizens about their political identity – revealed that less than half (48%) identified as British. A report published in May – Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review by Prof. Duncan Morrow examined the North’s changing demographics. It said: “There is a clear statistical trend towards a change in the religious minority-majority structure of Northern Ireland. On a strict analysis of identity, there is no longer a Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. There is a measurable trend towards a Catholic majority within Northern Ireland.”
While it acknowledged that it is uncertain the “extent to which this translates into choices about national identity” nonetheless the report reinforces the reality that significant demographic change is occurring.
This is underlined in the election results of recent years. In the 2017 Assembly election unionist parties lost their majority for the first time since partition. In the European election two weeks ago the combined nationalist vote was greater than that of the unionist parties and only one unionist MEP was elected. In the local government elections a few weeks earlier the total number of Unionist Councillors elected (206), from all of the Unionist parties, was less than 50% of the total number of Councillors for the North.
At the same time a Red C exit poll on May 24th in the local government and European elections in the South indicated that 65% of voters would vote in favour of a United Ireland if a referendum was held the following day. If you excluded undecided and non-voters 77% were in favour of Irish unity. This has been a consistent trend in almost every opinion poll going back decades in that part of the island.
That same weekend Eileen Paisley, the widow of former DUP Leader and First Minister Ian Paisley, said of partition; “perhaps that was a wrong division.” Mrs Paisley was speaking on a BBC radio programme.
When asked if she could live in a United Ireland Eileen Paisley said: “It would depend, I suppose on what, on how it was being ruled… I would like to think I could. It would take a lot to move me out of it … there are people of sense and sensibility who do not want to be fighting with their neighbours or their friends and who want to have it properly united.”
Writing in the Irish Times last Friday Alex Kane, a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist party acknowledged that there will be a “border poll” and that “unionism needs to be ready for that eventuality.” He also disagreed with Seamus Mallon’s recent proposal that the Good Friday Agreement should be re-written to provide unionism with a further veto over progress. Kane said: “I disagree with him that 50.1 per cent wouldn’t be enough to constitute victory for unity: it would certainly be enough for me if it was the margin of victory for the pro-UK side.”
Last July, former First Minister Peter Robinson told the MacGill Summer School that while he did not think the North would want to leave the union with Britain he believed that it was important to prepare for the possibility of a united Ireland. Robinson said that he would accept the results of a poll. “As soon as that decision is taken every democrat will have to accept that decision.” He also said that unionists would want “protections.”
This need for ‘protections’ has long been recognised by republicans and nationalists. No one I know who wants a United Ireland believes that it should be any other than a warm house for unionism, built on a foundation of equality and inclusiveness. This is evident in the debate taking place on the unity issue.
At the start of the year the group called ‘Ireland’s Future’ held a very positive conference in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to discuss the Brexit debacle (Beyond Brexit – The Future of Ireland). Last month it held an equally successful conference in Newry entitled "Our Rights Our Future". A central plank of its debates has focused on how unionism can be encouraged to engage on unity and what rights protections are needed to obviate any fears.
Sinn Féin may be the most vocal United Ireland party but we are not the only one. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party have dusted down their uniting Ireland positions. Some republicans may dismiss that as rhetoric from these parties. That misses the point. Of course it’s rhetoric. But it is also popular, so the Taoiseach and the Fianna Fáil leader will continue with it. Our task is to get them to move beyond the rhetoric. To follow the logic of their utterances. To move from platitudes to planning. Others too must be encouraged to engage in this necessary work if the questions that everyone is asking are to be answered.
So rhetoric is not enough. The Irish Government has a duty to plan for unity. There is a constitutional imperative on Dublin ‘to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland’. This cannot be accomplished without a plan. Uachtarán Shinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald TD has called on the Irish Government to establish a Forum for Unity, to build for unity and plan for unity.
The Irish government needs to open up consultations on how this might be done.
This needs planned now. Not after the referendum. That is the one big lesson of Brexit. A referendum without a plan is stupid. So a referendum on unity must be set in a thoughtful inclusive process which sets out a programme of sustainable options. Including phases of transition.
What accommodations are needed to persuade political unionism that a United Ireland can work for it? Key to this is the need for it to be an agreed shared Ireland. What happens to the political institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement?
Winning support for a United Ireland is not just about persuading unionists although that is crucial. Everyone needs to be convinced of the advantages of unity – personal, economic, wages, health provision, environmental, cultural, peace, prosperity.
There will be a referendum on Irish Unity. I am confident of this. Winning that referendum is the biggest single challenge facing United Irelanders.
An Easter week visit to Ireland by a Congressional Delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi was warmly welcomed in Derry, Belfast and Dublin.
Speaker Pelosi addressed a packed Dail Eireann before the delegation traveled to Derry and Belfast.
The Codel made a symbolic step over the Derry / Donegal border at Burt to emphasise the change brought about by the Good Friday Agreement.
Chairman Richard Neal was later awarded an Honorary degree from the University of Ulster at Magee in recognition of his work for peace in Ireland. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the US Congressional Delegationin Dublin.
Speaker Pelosi reaffirmed her strong support for the Good Friday Agreement and for the protection of Irish interests in the face of Brexit. The Sinn Féin President said: “I want to thank Speaker Pelosi and the Congressional Delegation for their strong support for Ireland as Brexit looms."
Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Fein Vice President also welcomed the Codel in Belfast and Derry, noting the presence of Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal and members of the Congressional Friends of Ireland.
Orfhlaith Begley MP from Tyrone speaking at the grave of Joe McGarrity. Orfhlaith came to Philadelphia last week to join in the 2019 Easter Commemorations. We were thrilled and honored to have her visit us here in the United States.
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD today met with Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and the US Congressional Delegation.
In the meeting, Speaker Pelosi reaffirmed her strong support for the Good Friday Agreement and for the protection of Irish interests in the face of Brexit.
Speaking following the meeting, the Sinn Féin President said:
“I want to thank Speaker Pelosi and the Congressional Delegation for their strong support for Ireland as Brexit looms.
“The delegation reiterated their commitment to stability and progress in our country and shared our analysis of the clear dangers that exist should there be any diminution of our rights and agreements.
“Successive US administrations were instrumental in the building of peace on our island and in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement over twenty years ago. Those who seek to undermine our agreements, our peace and our rights would do well to hear what Speaker Pelosi and colleagues have so clearly stated during their time in Ireland this week.
“Speaker Pelosi’s explicit statement that there will be no trade agreement between the US and Britain should damage be done to the GFA shows the seriousness with which this threat is being taken.
“The protection of the GFA in all its parts is the bottom line and is non-negotiable.”
Speaking last night to the Foreign Relations Committee of the New York Bar Association, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD gave the following speech.
The impact of Brexit on rights
When I was invited to take part in a Brexit Questions and Answers session, I believed that we would have all of the answers to what Brexit will mean.
This week, the British parliament voted against the deal, they voted against having no deal, they voted to extend the process, and next week they could vote again on the deal they rejected this week.
I never thought that it would be possible to make Brexit worse, but this British government have proved me wrong.
The actions of the British Government have compounded the disaster that is Brexit.
Our people and businesses don’t know if they will be in or out of the EU in two weeks.
What we do know is that Brexit was never in Ireland’s interest.
It was about the British Tory party.
It is about a particular English nostalgia for an imperial past that is long gone.
It is the product of an elite seeking to game the present and enrich their future through deregulation and erosion of rights.
It was never in the interest of ordinary people. It was never in the interest of workers. It was never in the interest in Ireland North or South. It was never in the interest of our peace agreements.
Ireland is once again collateral damage in the machinations of a government at Westminster
The government that partitioned our country.
Every decade since partition, up until the Good Friday Agreement, was marked by violent conflict and state repression.
The border became increasingly militarised, with Hilltop forts, helicopter flyovers and army checkpoints. The border was the physical manifestation of the failure of British policy in Ireland.
Since the signing of the Agreement and with the subsequent agreements, there has been peace and there has been progress. It’s been slow, it’s been challenging and it’s been frustrating but we are in a better place because of the agreements.
The border infrastructure is gone. The delays are over. The Good Friday Agreement rendered the border invisible.
There would have been no Good Friday Agreement without the active involvement of US administrations or without the active support of Irish American and other activists here.
However, our Island is still partitioned, and the Border remains contested. The agreements provide a framework for managing the relationships within the North, between the North and South and between the island of Ireland and Britain.
It is based on recognising and respecting individual rights, including the right to British Citizenship, Irish Citizenship or both.
It built interlinked and interdependent institutions based on powersharing, equality and North South Co-operation.
It also provides for a peaceful and democratic pathway to Irish unity. A people’s referendum on Unity.
The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by referendums North and South. It is an internationally recognised and binding agreement on both governments. They are custodians of the peoples vote, co-equal and joint guarantors of the agreements
The Good Friday Agreement, the rights of citizens, and all-Ireland cooperation is unpinned by Irish and British membership of the EU.
Brexit changes everything. That is why we have consistently said that Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
That is why we need a special status for the north in the Brexit negotiations.
The EU get that, Theresa May conceded that when she agreed to the backstop.
The Withdrawal Agreement is clear that the GFA must be protected in all its parts and that’s why a Backstop, a bare minimum guarantee was required.
It is about protecting the agreements, progress and rights of citizens.
We have a porous border stretching over 300 miles, with hundreds of crossings. Bisecting communities, farmland and even workplaces.
There are thousands crossing the border every day for work. Children traveling across it for school. Patients for treatment. All as easy as crossing the road.
That is because both parts of the island are in the EU.
And there are multiple examples of cross-border projects focusing on infrastructure, regional development, business and job creation, health, women, children and young people, to mention but a few.
There are many more examples of public and private bodies across the island working together, from municipal authorities, to cross-border implementation bodies, to health agencies, to higher education institutions, to community and voluntary sector organisations, to small businesses.
Make no mistake; Brexit leaves all of this hanging in the balance.
The Good Friday Agreement states that a person born in the North can have Irish, British or joint citizenship and be afforded equal treatment and equal rights.
After the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the Dublin government codified in law its recognition of the dual nature of citizenship for people born in the North, thus accepting both nationalities.
The British government did not do this.
Under British law, Irish citizens born in the North are classified as British citizens by default and are treated under law as British. After Brexit and without an agreement, Irish Citizens could be treated as visitors in their own land.
On the matter of citizens’ rights, what will change after Brexit Day?
That depends on if the Withdrawal agreement is implemented or if we have a crash out Brexit.
In a crash out Brexit, we are into the unknown and unforeseen.
The implications will be immediate and far reaching.
While there is a commitment to maintain the Common Travel Area, freedom of travel north and south and between Ireland and Britain, this is not on a sound legislative basis.
What we know that even with the Withdrawal Agreement, freedom of movement, one of the indivisible freedoms of the EU, will be curtailed.
Currently, EU citizens have all the rights necessary to visit, live, work, and study in other EU member states without being subject to immigration rules.
Irish citizens with an Irish passport, born in the North will by extension hold EU citizenship which means they’ll still have the freedom to move to the EU.
However, Northerners with British passports won’t have that level of freedom to travel to the EU.
And non-Irish EU citizens travelling to the North from elsewhere in the EU, from the South for example, will be subject to tougher immigration controls.
How will that movement be policed exactly? We’re told there won’t be a hard border in Ireland—basically, there won’t be physical barriers—but the stricter rules will have to be enforced somewhere.
Will it be by bus drivers taking people into the North? Will it be by employers? Will we have a case of certain people being singled out and treated like second-class citizens?
Then there’s the democratic right to vote and stand candidates in EU elections. That right will be lost to all citizens in the North. The EU provide for the Irish Government to reallocate seats to the North following Brexit. They refused and retained the additional seats for the south, leaving Irish Citizens in the North without representation in the European Parliament.
They’re also losing access to the Court of Justice of the EU, the court that administers justice in cases concerning EU law, the court that’s been a safety net for citizens who believe they didn’t get fair treatment in the domestic judicial system.
Health is another area of concern. Current EU standards and regulations in the use of medical devices, the regulation and approval of medicines, and access to medication for medical treatment are all at risk for those living in the North.
And in education, there’s a real chance that citizens from the North will have to pay higher tuition fees if they wish to attend university in the EU.
They’re likely to be denied access to the Erasmus programme too—a fabulous student exchange programme that facilitates third level students to work and study anywhere in the EU. Such changes could put university attendance out of financial reach for those in the North. The changes would further restrict citizens born in the North from accessing all but two of the universities on the island of Ireland.
The EU has a substantial set of anti-discrimination and equality laws provided on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age. In the North, where there isn’t a stand-alone Equality Act that enshrines these EU laws in domestic law, citizens depend almost entirely on EU law (and the Court of Justice) to have those rights honoured.
Many workers’ rights exist because of EU law, for example, sick leave and maternity leave entitlements, fair treatment at work, and the principle of equal-treatment between standard workers and (comparable) part-time, fixed-term, and temporary agency workers.
There’s no guarantee that the British government will secure these rights into the future. They’ve made a promise to that effect but refused to legislate on the issue.
The most fundamental abuse of rights in the Brexit process has been the refusal by the British Government to accept the democratic vote of the people in the North to remain in the EU.
Britain can Brexit. That is their choice. But the people in the North voted to remain.
Brexit demonstrates the undemocratic nature of partition. Never again should the games being played in Westminster be allowed to undermine our interests. Our economy and the rights of citizens.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a unity referendum. The people should be allowed to have their say.
There are those who say that this is not the time. This is precisely the time to look beyond Brexit and to plan for a future Ireland together. An Ireland that respects the rights of citizens, that is prosperous and fair. An Ireland that can be a home to all who share the island.
Early in the negotiations, the EU reflected on the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver fundamental constitutional change. They recognised that the agreement provided for a United Ireland. In that circumstance then a United Ireland would automatically be an EU member.
A path back to the EU post Brexit is clear. A united Ireland is route back to the EU. The issue in Ireland is not only about being British or Irish but also European.
That has changed the dynamic for many who hold modern European values.
Change is coming, it began before Brexit and will continue after Brexit. It is up to us to all to manage that change.
I hope that just as the US stood with us and made possible the Good Friday Agreement.
They will continue to stand with us in the process of building a new and united Ireland.