The End of Partition: Planning for Ireland’s Future
By Declan Kearney
This article first appeared in An Phoblacht.
Sometimes decades of political change can happen within periods of months.
That’s one way to characterise developments in Ireland over recent times.
One hundred years after the one party 'orange state' was politically and socially engineered in the north of Ireland to maintain an in-built unionist majority, all the evidence confirms that partition has entered its end phase.
Sinn Féin’s support levels in the southern Irish state are now at an all-time high according to successive opinion polls. The party is arguably positioned to lead the next government in Dublin.
Arising from the 5 May Assembly Election results, the party is poised to lead the power sharing coalition in the north when, and if, the institutions are restored. Sinn Féin is now confirmed as the largest party in Ireland, north and south.
The political landscape across Ireland has dramatically realigned, in parallel with the growing momentum for constitutional change.
The prospect of a unity referendum, as provided for under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), and Irish unity is one of the most dominant conversations. It is resonating across the Irish diaspora like never before and has seized the attention of the international community.
These are dramatic and exciting times.
The end of partition and development of a new, agreed, constitutional national democracy has become fixed on the political horizon.
It was never meant to be this way. The unionist and British architects of partition had planned that the northern state would remain frozen in time, as ‘a Protestant state for Protestant people’.
The unionist elite was intended to dominate government and society into perpetuity.
Structural inequality and institutionalised sectarianism were the policy of both the British government and old unionist regime in Stormont.
The catholic minority was consigned to second-class citizenship, systematically denied electoral rights, housing, fair employment, and educational appointments.
The Irish national identity was criminalised and oppressed.
The dominance of one tradition over another was normalised and became synonymous with the institutions and politics of the north.
The consequence was an apartheid state and segregated society, held together by a sectarian ideology which perpetuated communal fear and division. But its long-term existence was unsustainable.
The inherent contradictions of the unionist state eventually gave way to an unstoppable force for democratic transformation.
During the 1990s, the British government and unionist political leaders of that era gradually engaged with the new reality, which had been directly shaped by the IRA’s unilateral ceasefire in 1994.
Subsequently the GFA of 1998 created a fresh political dispensation built upon the principles of equality, respect and parity of esteem.
The Agreement established a framework of rules to manage disagreement and continued democratic transformation.
It also acknowledged the transient nature of the prevailing constitutional arrangements. And, that is why the right to self-determination, via future concurrent unity referendums, was negotiated into its provisions.