On 20 February I addressed a Sinn Fein conference in London on Irish unity. It was very much an event for preaching to the converted. Apart from the historian Lord Bew, I think I was probably the only speaker out of nearly 30 who cast doubt on the wisdom and feasibility of the ‘fast track to a united Ireland’ project so beloved by Sinn Fein. Here is some of what I said – and this is very much me speaking as an individual rather than as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies.
I believe that in the present circumstances of continued deep communal division in Northern Ireland and deep economic crisis in the Republic, Irish unity is not on the political agenda, nor does it make sense to put it on the agenda any time soon. I have not heard advocates of rapid moves towards Irish unity put forward any convincing arguments about how political unity would help solve either of these massive problems or the social problems of sectarianism, inequality, poverty and the dangerous marginalisation of young people that accompany them.
I believe that in the foreseeable future most of the intelligence and energy on the island should go into finding solutions to these two problems. I believe the way forward lies in doing as much as possible of this difficult work together on the small island that we all – unionists, nationalists and others – call home. That is why I echo the British and Irish governments, the European Union and the US government in placing so much emphasis on cross-community cooperation in the North and cross-border cooperation on the island. These for me are the elements in the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements which, if worked properly, can become the building blocks for eventual reconciliation – whatever form that takes – on the island of Ireland. When we manage to cooperate to build a shared society within the North and to build a shared economy on the island that will benefit people of all allegiances, only then – when the benefits of unifying people around common aims and interests become clear – does it make sense to begin to talk about Irish unity in political terms.
Those key elements of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements haven’t been worked properly yet. Cross-community cooperation often works well at grass roots level. But the valiant efforts of the community and voluntary sector to bridge the sectarian divide have not been backed by any coherent policy from the main two parties in government in the North, Sinn Fein and the DUP, to reduce sectarianism by building a shared society: through shared housing, shared schools, shared public spaces and so on. Maybe this will begin to change in response to the demands of Alliance leader David Ford as part of the deal to bring him into the Executive as Minister in charge of policing and justice.
Cross-border cooperation has been one of the quiet success stories of the post-Good Friday Agreement period.Inter-governmental relations – both between the British and Irish governments, and between the latter and the Northern Ireland Executive – are closer than at any time since partition. The work of bodies like InterTradeIreland has seen North-South trade rise by nine per cent every year for the past decade. In areas as varied as infrastructure, energy, higher education and research, tourism, health, agriculture and spatial planning the levels of cooperation are unprecedented. 23,000 cross-community and cross-border projects have been funded by the EU. Perhaps 200,000 children have crossed the border on school and youth exchanges in the past decade and a half. This explosion of cross-border activity must give real hope that in the future much of the fear and suspicion that have poisoned relationships on our island for centuries will be dispelled, and that our children and grandchildren will be able to forge harmonious new relationships undreamt of in the past. But it must continue and expand, and continue to be funded, and there must be real doubts about that happening as EU money dries up and the two governments wrestle with huge financial problems.
It seems to me that there are two elements which are vital in the next 5-10 years for moving towards a just, prosperous and reconciled society in Ireland and Northern Ireland, and neither of them involves any moves towards Irish unity. The first is the hard task of beginning to build a fairer, more equal and more trusting society within Northern Ireland. We have to work to ensure that working class people in Belfast can lose their fears enough to allow the so-called ‘peace walls’ to come down between them and their neighbours; we have to make sure that there is equal access to education and training for everyone, particularly those in the most disadvantaged areas (who suffer particularly badly at the hands of the North’s class-divided, grammar school-driven education system); and we have to make sure that people can move around our cities and towns to work without fear in order to provide the mobility of labour without which major job-creating investment will not come to Northern Ireland. In particular, there is the extremely urgent task of finding jobs for young, unemployed people, who, if they are not given any hope for the future, will find the arguments of dissident republican groups and their loyalist counterparts for a return to violence increasingly attractive.
The second element is more North-South cooperation, and particularly cooperation to move the island of Ireland to the next stage of economic development : a stage of seamless all-island infrastructure and transport , closely linked knowledge-based industries (including green industries) and more integrated social insurance, tax and higher education systems (and of course, both jurisdictions using the euro). Economic cooperation since the mid-nineties has been a classic example of how practical cooperation for mutual benefit can persuade even the strongest unionist of the virtues of doing business on an all-island basis. That visionary business leader, Sir George Quigley, says that through economic cooperation “North and South in their relationship have left the segregation model further behind than Northern Ireland itself has. People are now engaging and interacting freely, doing things together and getting to know each other to a degree which would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.”
There is an interview with the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, on North-South cooperation in the 2010Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, which will be published next month. In it, he suggests that the ultimate destination of the Irish unity political project will be something for a future generation to decide. He goes on: “We have to make the here and now a better place. We have to do it on the basis that we have devised a political culture that is less suspicious and fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognise the common interests that we have together whilst respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions. We should be concerned about what it is we can do together.”
Let’s work together to make the island of Ireland, with all its contradictions and complexities, a more just and prosperous society (or societies): to make the here and now a better place. That’s a sensible and unifying rallying-call for all of us in the foreseeable future.