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  • Writer's pictureFriends of Sinn Féin USA

Thanks to Brexit, A New, United Ireland is Within Reach

Former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams



December 18, 2020

BY the time you read this, a deal may have been agreed between the European Union and the British government on Brexit.

It is equally possible that no deal will have been agreed. This deal/no-deal crisis has been ongoing since the 2016 referendum decision by the British to leave the EU. It should be remembered that the people of the North of Ireland and of Scotland voted to remain in the EU. Every decision taken since then to advance the Brexit agenda by Prime Minister Theresa May and her successor Boris Johnson flies in the face of the democratic vote of the people of these two places.

Brexit was driven by a Little Englander mentality: a particularly myopic view of the world mixed with an idiotic Colonel Blimpish conception of perceived British greatness. Ireland's interests north and south were never a consideration. Irish issues did not feature in any of the debates pre-referendum, and Ireland only became an issue in the Brexit negotiations when it became clear that Brexit posed a significant threat to the Good Friday Agreement. The avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland became a central objective of the Irish government, EU negotiators and members of the U.S. Congress—all actively encouraged by Sinn Féin.

Whatever the outcome of current negotiations, the end result will be bad for the people of the island of Ireland, as long as the union with Britain remains. The danger to the Good Friday Agreement will intensify. The British Conservative Party is committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act, as well as ridding itself of the European Convention on Human Rights. The incorporation of the Convention into law is an explicit commitment in the Good Friday Agreement and underpins the equality and human rights ethos of that Agreement, in particular on policing. It is also about holding the British government to account for the actions of its armed forces during the conflict.

Brexit will also test increased North-South cooperation on the island of Ireland. Currently, there are 156 areas of cooperation, covering sectors like health services, energy, the environment and infrastructure.

We know, from past experience, that what British governments sign up to in agreements is rarely what they actually implement. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has broken a number of commitments already, including to the Unionist parties. So caution is needed. Whatever emerges, is unlikely to avoid a hard border, to protect Irish interests, or to defend the Good Friday Agreement.

A United Ireland—for Everyone

One positive consequence of the Brexit debate has been the increased interest in the idea of a United Ireland. What would be the shape of that new Ireland? How can we make it a shared space for everyone who lives on the island—Republican, Loyalist, Unionist, Nationalist, Catholic, Protestant—and the hundreds of thousands of people who don't easily fit into these traditional categories? What new constitutional arrangements and political structures will be needed? How can do we confront sectarianism and ensure that a new Ireland is based on agreement, equality, respect and inclusivity?

The debate on Irish unity has also been accelerated by political and demographic changes that are taking place. Over recent elections, the Unionist electoral majority, which was the very basis of the foundation of the northern state, has disappeared.

The Good Friday Agreement provides the means by which constitutional change can be achieved democratically and peacefully. It provides for a referendum on the future—a "Unity or Union with Britain" referendum. Brexit has accelerated the conversation around this. So too has the commitment from the EU that, unlike Scotland, which would need to negotiate joining the EU should it part ways with the U.K., all parts of a United Ireland would automatically be reabsorbed into the European Union. Irish unity provides a route back into the EU for those who wish it.

Several important academic papers on a unity referendum have recently been published by influential institutions. All of them highlight the need to plan for a referendum—and to plan for unity. The Ulster University published 'Deliberating Constitutional Futures' which examines the arguments around possible constitutional futures, including a unity referendum.

The Constitution Unit of University College London published an interim report in which its authors emphasized the danger of failure to plan for a unity referendum: "All these criteria point towards the importance of advance planning: of the referendum processes; and about the shape of a united Ireland, or a continued Union."

And Ireland's Future, an influential group of civic nationalists, also published a discussion document entitled: 'The Conversation on Ireland's Future. A Principled Framework for Change.' Like the Constitution Unit, Ireland's Future " emphasis on advance planning and the need for an evidence-based and informed debate. That is why we have suggested an all-island Citizens' Assembly to underline the centrality of civic leadership in preparing the ground for change."

Regrettably, the Irish government is opposed to the holding of a unity referendum at this time, even though there is a constitutional obligation to pursue this. This will come as no surprise to Ireland watchers. Successive Irish governments have been slow to rise to the challenges presented by the popular desire for positive change, which has recently seen Sinn Féin emerge as Ireland's largest political party.

The key role of Irish America

Brexit is due to come into effect on the night of December 31. December 23, just a week before,will mark 100 years since the passing into law of the Government of Ireland Act, which partitioned Ireland. Its failure is self-evident. The weakness of the northern economy is one proof; the years of conflict, another. Brexit and COVID-19 have only highlighted the disadvantages of partition and the obvious benefits of a United Ireland. The arguments in favour of self-government and for Irish unity are increasingly making sense to more and more people.

The Irish diaspora, and in particular Irish America, has a key role to play in advancing the conversation around a unity referendum and a United Ireland. The positive contribution of Irish America and of successive U.S. administrations contributed significantly to the development and success of the Irish peace process. So too, with Brexit and Irish Unity. Irish America and the Biden/Harris administration can contribute significantly to progress.

Shortly after the November Presidential election, President elect Joe Biden made- clear his opposition to any return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. He said that in conversations with the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the French President Emmanuel Macron he had made it clear that there can be no return to a 'guarded border' on the island of Ireland. President-elect Biden said: "The idea of having the border north and south once again being closed, it's just not right. We've just got to keep the border open."

He has also declared: "We can't allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit."

The strong resistance from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Richard Neal and others to any threat to the Good Friday Agreement is also enormously important.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, opposition to Brexit, including widespread criticism in the North of the role played by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in supporting Brexit, means that there are now more citizens engaging in the debate on the future of Ireland than ever before.

I believe we can be the generation that achieves a United Ireland. I also believe that this generation of Irish Americans can be the first to return to a new and united Ireland, knowing that they helped achieve it.

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