It’s one of the ironies of British politics that the Conservatives have run the National Health Service for twice as long as Labour, its founders. Despite opposing its creation in 1948, the Tories quickly realised the NHS was here to stay and accommodated themselves to hard political reality.
And it’s a good thing they did. Creating a cross-party consensus around big new ideas is essential in embedding them and ensuring they take root. The reunification of Ireland is a big idea. It, too, now needs a cross-party consensus to make it happen.
Indeed, it is time the Dublin political class engaged with the reality that we are, at most, only a few short years away at most from a poll on Northern Ireland’s continued existence. In fact, we are already in what I would characterise as a period of ‘post-Union, pre-unity’. Northern Ireland, as a concept, is utterly bankrupt, everyone can see that.
Take any issue you like. Brexit. Population changes in the North. Scottish independence. Each of them is game-changing and inches Northern Ireland towards the Union’s exit door. Each of them is in prospect.
Northern Ireland is fastened into the British state through little more than inertia and precedent. Eventually, it will not be enough. The conversation about successor arrangements should begin in earnest. Alas, southern politics isn’t ready. There still isn’t consensus over the timing, choreography or preparatory work that needs to take place to make Irish reunification a success.
As the most overt supporters of reunification (the Shinners aside), a lot clearly rests with Fianna Fáil. As the Soldiers of Destiny’s own party constitution puts it, they are pledged to ‘secure in peace and agreement the unity of Ireland and its people.’
This is why their commitment to a White Paper outlining the practical steps needed to unify the country, which they announced back in March, is so vitally important. At last, we may get some distilled thinking on the practical steps needed to graduate from rhetoric to reality.
Equally welcome, is the work being done in the Seanad by Fianna Fáil senator, Mark Daly, who is leading an inquiry into the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, including a realistic assessment of the issues surrounding Irish reunification.
But we need to hear from Fine Gael too. Although Enda Kenny has repeatedly spoken about the possibility of Irish unity in these months following Brexit, he does so out of the corner of his mouth. We need to hear his potential successors outline a clear position. They are, after all, the government.
The risk of inaction, on ignoring the question, is that events simply take their course and the Dublin political class eventually finds itself with a border poll process it isn’t ready for. Dublin needs to understand that Irish unity is not some nebulous pipedream; it is a process we are now inexorably moving towards. Its politicians need to be participants, not spectators as this process unfolds.
The translation is famously ‘ourselves alone’, but Sinn Féin cannot bring about Irish unity on its own, a point the party readily concedes. Back in January, the party organised a conference at the Mansion House in Dublin with different speakers to offer their thoughts on the prospects of unity and the practical requirements in order to bring it about. I was delighted to participate and it was an incredibly positive and timely event.
One of the points I raised was the need to ‘deShinnerise’ the whole debate about Irish reunification. What I meant by that is the issue of unity – and its increasing prospect – should now be discussed openly right across Irish politics (and in Northern Ireland and Britain as well, I might add). A consensus – a series of shared assumptions – must be forged about how we take the next practical steps and there are a range of voices we need to hear from.
None of whom needs to approach these questions in a chauvinistic way. There is a perfectly sensible, pragmatic argument for Irish unity based on nothing more than utility. It simply makes sense. The border impedes mutually advantageous co-operation. Non-co-operation is inevitable while two states exist on one small island. Northern and southern Ireland are the only diners at opposite ends of a banqueting table.
The distance between Dublin and Belfast is equivalent to that between Liverpool and Leeds. Yet the thought of changing state, government and currency over such a short distance seems utterly absurd on this side of the Irish Sea. Such absurdity, however, upholds Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.
Given the trends now ranged against it – economic, political and demographic – ‘the province’ exists on borrowed time. Unity must now be viewed as a pressing issue by the Irish political class. Filing it in the ‘not-an-immediate-priority’ tray is no longer tenable.