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Plan, Prepare and Get Ready. The Constitutional Plea of Our Times

By Professor Colin Harvey

Published in the Irish Times Aug. 7th 2021

Plan, prepare and get ready. The constitutional plea of our times on this shared island. Many are busy doing the work or urging others to do so. The process leading to the referendums is being subjected to extensive examination. The framework is established, its precise meaning becoming clearer and the shape of what follows is generating widespread attention.

Although much of the existing architecture anticipates constitutional change, the conversation is moving towards a new constitution. The gathering talk of radical new thinking is itself instructive. A future that once seemed anchored in tired narratives is altering into a positive reimagining of the island.

A united Ireland is trending in more than just social media terms. The scale of ambition will raise potential problems too. There is a reason why many opt for the aspirational and non-specific; the detail is where tension, division and even the devil resides.

Advocates for a united Ireland will have to ponder the most convincing approach, keeping in mind the post-reunification picture will not remain static.

There is much well-intentioned anxiety about unionist engagement, particularly around questions of design. This comes from an honourable and generous place. But there is an element of muddled thinking and potential disrespect, a problem that voices within unionism have highlighted.

Political unionism organises around maintenance of the union, and will generally not wish to contemplate what will, however packaged, be experienced as defeat. It is futile to stall the necessary effort waiting for co-designers that are not going to turn up.

Those who seek change need to press on with constructing a robust and persuasive case.

That should be informed by reliable evidence of what people want and the active participation of those from all backgrounds who are willing to contribute. The door should be open, and the invitation there, but setting impossible and illogical preconditions makes little sense.

For those who wish to see constitutional change in their lifetimes (political or otherwise) the priority must be to build a case that has a chance of succeeding. Political unionism will not negotiate its own potential demise or actively contemplate losing these votes.

An attractive proposition will have to be crafted with the assistance of those willing to be involved, focused in particular on those open to persuasion. That is why extensive all-island civic participation is essential. This will be the house that people will subsequently inhabit, and it is one that will evolve over time. Introducing an invented communal veto over the preparatory work is a mistake and there is a real risk of projecting endemic dysfunction into a supposed New Ireland.

A further consideration relates to the different pathways suggested. The idea that constructing a shared island is different from a united Ireland is misguided, an attempt to create conflict where none should exist. It is possible to improve the way sharing is done now, and there is much that could be done better. That will make any future transition easier but attempts to create a conceptual separation are unhelpful.

A united Ireland will simply be a new way of sharing the island in the future. There is no tension between the positions. Whether people recognise it or not the fact remains that these are related journeys and party-political rivalry should not obscure that.

Many do not want to contemplate what comes next, perhaps aware that the path will be difficult and worried about exercising the right of constitutional choice. That is understandable, every institution – including universities – will find these referendums challenging, and there will be pressure to declare positions and take sides. But it is odd to ground a region’s status on the “principle of consent” and never contemplate testing it in the envisaged way.

Those insisting on a time frame have the need for clarity, certainty and stability in mind. The Belfast agreement says the time for a border poll is when the Northern Secretary believes that a majority in favour of unity is likely.

The notion that something “appears likely” will always lack precision; some think the time has arrived, others believe it is nowhere near. All the necessary preparation is leading somewhere, and we will only really know when the day arrives and people across the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination.

Colin Harvey is professor of human rights law, school of law, Queen’s University Belfast, a fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and an associate fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies

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