The discussion about referendums on this island to determine our constitutional future is odd. It is plagued by party political disputes and rivalries. Some of this is based on genuine differences of view on matters of substantive disagreement; some is anchored in myth and caricature. For example, more work has been done than people seem to recognise, and no one who cares about this island really argues this can be undertaken in an unplanned way. Despite the ongoing hostilities, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have produced coherent thinking on it. You would not think that. They are both going to have to find ways to work constructively together as this progresses. The tendency of the Irish Government to poke northern nationalism/republicanism in the eye is not helping either. The assumption that those who believe in Irish unity will agree in their approach to these referendums is questionable.
The point is that the conversation is advancing and has an organic feel to it. Brexit has fuelled this, and provides a new framing for future dialogue (this now also becomes a debate about our way back to the EU). The UK is being led to a place where many do not want to go; two constituent parts voted to remain, and they have not changed their minds. The shattering of trust around basic matters of consent may be impossible to repair; the ‘union state’ looks fractured. So, the discussion on constitutional change will grow and evolve, whether governments like it or not. How should we proceed?
Firstly, it makes sense to bring clarity and certainty by agreeing a framework for the process. This would be a feasible thing for both governments to do as part of the current talks. Civic conversations will continue, and that is where the courageous work of societal transformation will happen, but an intergovernmental agreement would assist. This must build on the existing provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, and any attempt to revise those would be a mistake. No one on either side will be entirely pleased with a 50+1 outcome, but that will suffice. The British Irish Intergovernmental Conference, following extensive consultation and engagement, could usefully set out the parameters on how this will be taken forward and led by both states.
There seems to be broad agreement, for example, that a forum/assembly/convention should be established, informed by existing experience in Ireland. Is there any reason of principle, given the repeated emphasis on planning, why this cannot be established soon? I have made the case for setting out an agreed date. There are political and constitutional complications around this, but 22 May 2023 seems as good a date as any. It gives plenty of time for preparation, and pays due regard to the significance of that date for this island. Others can suggest alternatives, either sooner or later (Brexit may force earlier reflection). It is right that there is growing frustration with both governments about the need for precision and detailed proposals; naming a timeframe will help to address that. It will focus minds in a productive way.
Secondly, this will at times be a challenging and uncomfortable conversation for everyone and that is a good thing. It will make all sides move beyond platitudes. Rather than construct this as an anxiety ridden democratic engagement why not view it through a radically different lens? This is a chance for an island-wide exercise in participatory democracy where there will be an opportunity to listen, learn and exchange ideas. We will know each other better at the far end. The island will be a better place afterwards, whatever the outcome. Unionism/loyalism will have to explain why remaining within the UK is the best way forward for this society; nationalism/republicanism must paint a convincing picture of what a united Ireland will offer. Both will have to reach beyond their own constituencies and speak persuasively to concerns not normally addressed. The onus is often placed on advocates of Irish unity to provide concrete assurances, but in the context of Brexit there is a heavy weight of responsibility on unionism to outline what will be done to make people feel respected, protected and secure in the existing constitutional arrangements. Will people opt for generosity or will fear prevail?
Thirdly, there is no conflict between seeking rights-based power-sharing government in this region and arguing for constitutional change. That is precisely what the Agreement is intended to guarantee. The idea that those advancing the constitutional goal of Irish unity want to see people in this society humiliated and degraded within a disastrous political mess is offensive. Those arguing robustly for equality, rights and climate/social justice want this place to be more ambitious in the context of this island and these islands. Why, for example, return to an unreformed and flawed regime in order to perpetuate failure, legitimise sustained disrespect and manage socio-economic injustice? It is those who collude with policies of socio-economic devastation and who continually deny equality, rights and respect who are the real cheerleaders for systemic political failure here. Parties with ‘unionist’ in the title appear today as the greatest enemies of the current union, and those who appear least willing to defend the basic rights of members of their community.
The utter silence over the appalling impact on unionist/loyalist communities of Brexit is remarkable (and it is only one example). This region can do so much better. People should not be fearful about advancing their equally legitimate political aspirations and seeking governance structures that respect the equality and rights-based vision of the Agreement.
This constitutional conversation is happening and will continue. Rather than run away from it or pretend it can be avoided why not simply embrace it as an intrinsic part of our distinctive constitutional architecture. Bringing clarity and certainty to this is needed and will be welcome. If consent does genuinely underpin the status of this place then what precisely is the problem with testing it? Civic leadership is resilient and will persist, however, it is time for both governments and all political parties to move into a new phase.