Let the people decide!

Francie Molloy argues that government duplicity on the Northern Ireland protocol underlines the need for a poll on Irish unity

Irish unity is now firmly on the political agenda both in Ireland and Britain like never before. 

Increasing numbers of people are looking to a better future, considering new choices and deciding on what is best for them and their families. They are looking to a future beyond Brexit and beyond the union towards a new Ireland.

We have an opportunity afforded to few in the modern world: the opportunity to build an entirely new society based on the wishes of the people.

The Good Friday Agreement, with its provision for a referendum on the constitutional future of the island, guarantees this opportunity. Under that Agreement, it is up to the British government’s secretary of state for the north to decide when a poll should be held when he or she feels that a point has been reached where people want to change the constitutional status quo. 

That change is happening. It is all around us. The political realities in the north and across the island have changed utterly. The old unionist majority which once appeared monolithic is now gone. Successive elections have shown that it no longer exists.

At Westminster, fewer pro-union MPs are elected from the north than non-unionists and pro-union MLAs are also now in the minority in the Assembly. That is a concrete indicator of the genuine and tangible change which is taking place in the north.

Opinion polls regularly show declining support for the constitutional status quo and increased support for Irish unity. Polls also regularly show that more and more people are now prepared to consider new options for the future as they look for something better. 

It is time for the British secretary of state and the British government to recognise and acknowledge this significant change. Brandon Lewis needs to start the process of preparing for a referendum on a new future as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.

To date, successive British governments have shown themselves unwilling to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement. This needs to change. The Agreement was endorsed by a majority across the island of Ireland in referenda and is an internationally binding accord. It cannot be dismissed or set aside.

The Irish government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, also need to ensure its full implementation. It has a key role in upholding this essential part of the Good Friday Agreement and also a duty and a responsibility to Irish citizens north and south who want to see the unity of their country. There are, of course, a number of things which have to happen before a referendum can be held.

The disastrous Brexit referendum has shown everyone the folly of holding a poll without providing people with proper information first to allow them to make up their minds and make informed decisions about their future. Preparation is key. 

Those who claim, for whatever reason, that the time is not right are out of step with the mood of the people across the island. The conversation on Irish unity has already begun and is well underway. It has been accelerated by the British government’s intention to renege on its commitments on the protocol and its signalled willingness to break international law. Now that conversation needs to be supported by practical planning for change. The British government needs to announce its intention to hold a poll and set in train the process for a referendum.

The Irish government also has a key role to play in the preparations for Irish unity. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement it should move now to actively begin preparations, not only to put pressure on the British government to live up to its responsibilities but because it is the right and sensible thing to do.

We now need to see the Irish government setting up a citizens’ assembly on constitutional change, inclusive of the entire island, bring forward a white paper on Irish unity, and create a ministerial position with responsibility for preparing for change. Now is the time to prepare, to give people the information to make the best choices for their future.

As an Irish republican, I am confident that Irish unity provides the best hope for a better future for all. It should now be up to the people to have their say. 

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