This is an important week for relations across these islands

This week’s Broadsheet column examines how the week beginning Monday March 22 may be a more important one for the medium to long term future of relations on this island that the one before, even though that week featured several important set-piece speeches by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin on the North and the relations with UK and the EU post Brexit. My argument is not that the Taoiseach said anything wrong – he didn’t. My problem is with what he didn’t say.  On Unity.  I suspect the Taoiseach believes he is far ahead of public opinion in not discussing unity or constitutional change. The reality, I fear, is that Mr Martin is perilously far behind where the centre ground of nationalist and republican opinion public is, North and South.    

Jim O’Callaghan TD delivering his Cambridge Speech on Unity

Given the week that was in it, with St Patrick’s Day and all, and the impressive number of virtual calls and speeches made by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, you’d be forgiven for thinking that last week would have been a more important week for the future of relationships on these islands than this week. But it wasn’t.

To his credit, An Taoiseach seized every opportunity presented to him to speak in detail about what he called the “whole new category of challenges that we have had to deal with” following Brexit. He did so with conviction and belief.

In addition to his crucial virtual Oval Office face-to-face with President Biden and Vice President Harris, he had high profile speeches and exchanges with both the prestigious Brookings and Edward M. Kennedy institutes, plus a range of other important calls and engagements.

It was further proof of the great soft power that comes with our national holiday and how this unique, guaranteed annual access to both the White House and to Capitol Hill is not something to be scoffed at, or treated lightly.

Yes, it may seem a tad stage-Irish at times with the profusion of shamrock, kelly green ties and scarves, but the substance is real, and the politics is current.

While the Taoiseach set out the broader institutional problems facing us across this island, describing them as:

“new difficulties raised by Brexit and its outworkings; enduring difficulties from the legacy of the Troubles; the recurrent tensions of power-sharing in Northern Ireland; and corrosive mistrust, at times, at community level”

he was less than forthright when it came to considering the constitutional issues posed by Brexit and a gradual break-up of the United Kingdom. He correctly stated that:

“through the Good Friday Agreement… we definitively resolved, how we decide on the constitutional future for the island – founded on the principle of consent.”

and that:

“Everyone on the island has the right to advocate for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland – whether they aspire to a United Ireland, to remain a part of the United Kingdom, or whether they do not identify with either tradition.”

He concluded:

“I affirm that right as Taoiseach.”

All of this is both welcome and fully consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, but it does not consider the journey we are already on towards potential constitutional change on this island. Prof Colin Harvey makes the point that this debate is already well underway in this article for the Derry Journal, though I disagree with him on time-tabling.

It is right and proper that the Taoiseach of the Republic affirm the rights of everyone across this island to advocate peacefully and politically for the constitutional future they wish.

But An Taoiseach is not an impartial observer to the changing constitutional dynamic, he is a vital player within it. In addition to affirming everyone’s right to advocate, he has another, not incompatible, duty and responsibility as both Taoiseach, and the leader of Fianna Fáil, to speak as the leader of constitutional nationalism and republicanism.

The fact that Taoiseach Martin’s deep-rooted reluctance to talk about constitutional change or to engage with any discussion on a border poll is not stopping the discussion should sound a warning bell. As the old political maxim puts it, a leader without followers, is simply a man taking a walk.

To be fair, there are times when a leader must be prepared to take a very lonely walk and get significantly ahead of the crowd, but is Taoiseach Martin ahead of the crowd on this great issue or is he, as I greatly fear, significantly behind them?

Has Micheál Martin, or any of his advisers, seriously thought about the risks they take with his position as both Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader by shirking the leadership of constitutional republicanism? Do they think that the momentum will come to a standstill because its nominal leader has halted? Is there not a greater chance that the leadership will pass to someone else?

I do not doubt that the Taoiseach is taking his lonely walk for what he and his supporters feel are they right reasons, but the fact that they believe it, does not make it so.

As I have pointed out here several times before, such senior figures in today’s mainstream Unionism as the former DUP leader and NI First Minister, Peter Robinson, the very measured DUP MP for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson MP, have urged Unionism to start preparing for a referendum.

When Peter Robinson says:

“I know there are border poll deniers who think such a referendum will never be called or believe that to talk about and prepare for a plebiscite creates momentum that will speed its arrival.

I do not subscribe to such complacent and dangerous thinking.”

we know that he is addressing unionism directly, but might his words not also be applied to An Taoiseach?

While An Taoiseach is focused on reconciliation, the British Prime Minister has rediscovered a love for Unionism and an apparent desire to retain the union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Johnson has now established a special union unit within Number 10, which his supporters say shows that he is determined to put the union at the heart of everything the government does once the Coronavirus crisis has subsided.

His “one nation” opponents say it is too little, too late. Announcing some landmark projects or re-locating key government offices to the far-flung corners of the crumbling union, they argue, will not undo the damage he has inflicted on the union by his pursuit of a hardline Brexit.

They are probably right. But, neither their concerns, nor the fact that Johnson’s pro-union unit encountered several hitches, including the departure of the head of the unit within its first two weeks, detracts from the reality that Johnson intends to spend the next few years talking up the union and talking down who see its disintegration.

Chief amongst those who Johnson will be eager to talk down will be Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. But she will not be alone. Even the moderate, pro-union, Welsh First Minister, Labour’s Mark Drakeford can be added to the list after telling a House of Commons committee earlier this month that the United Kingdom is over as:

“There is no institutional architecture to make the United Kingdom work”

“It is all ad-hoc, random, and made up as we go along. And I’m afraid that really is not a satisfactory basis to sustain the future of the UK.

So, why do I think this week will be more significant for the future of relationships on and between these islands, than last week?

Well, there are three reasons. The first, in reverse order, is tonight’s Claire Byrne Live show, 9.35pm on RTE1, which will focus on unity and discuss what people think a United Ireland might look like. Its Amárach Research 1000-person smartphone poll on how people would vote on unity, showed 53% for, 19% against and 28% undecided, but it’s the other poll numbers that may be most interesting, especially the demographic and regional breakdown of those numbers.

Next up is Tuesday night’s Sidney Sussex College Cambridge online seminar where Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan TD will set out his considered views on the political, economic, and legal consequences of Irish reunification with Professor Eugenio Biagini. Some of these was trailed in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post, suggesting that his contribution will be substantial in both its breadth and vision.  

The third is reason the most significant. Curiously, it has already happened, though we will not discover the true magnitude or impact of the third development for a year or so.

I am talking about yesterday’s Northern Ireland Census. When the results emerge sometime next year it will be interesting to see if the trends identified in the 2011 census are confirmed and continued. The 2011 Census found that:

Since the 1960s, against a backdrop of overall population increases, the proportions belonging to these religions have tended towards convergence, with that of Protestants and Other Christians steadily declining and that of Catholics generally increasing, reaching 42% (0.75m) and 41% (0.74m) respectively in 2011. Their combined share has, however, fallen from almost 100% to 82%.

This is not to say that we’re looking at a pro united Ireland referendum vote once the number of Catholics surpasses the number of Protestants. This is a deeply crude, not to mention inaccurate, measure that fails to recognize the growing complexity of Northern Irish society – a point well made in Dr Robbie McVeigh’s detailed 2019 report entitled: Sectarianism – The Key Facts.

The growth of the “other” category when it comes to religion and identity is of critical importance and its continued growth in this latest Census may well shape the politics and future of Northern Ireland and this island for many decades to come.

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