Northern Ireland news

James Nesbitt open to discussing 'new union of Ireland'

James Nesbitt. Picture by Declan Roughan

JAMES Nesbitt says he is open to the idea of a "new union of Ireland" as he revealed plans for an initiative to discuss the future of Northern Ireland.

The actor revealed the plans in a wide-ranging interview with The Irish Times while he was in the north for Ulster University graduations.

He told of growing up during the Troubles in Broughshane, Co Antrim, and how he only began to see himself as Irish after moving to London at the age of 19 to study acting.

A holder of both Irish and British passports, Nesbitt said he now describes himself as "an Irishman, from the north of Ireland who in no way refutes nor shies away from my Protestant culture".

His new project 'Connected Citizens' aims to start an inclusive, non-sectarian conversation about the future of Northern Ireland.

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It has attracted the support of Ulster University academic Professor Jim Dornan and university secretary Eamon Mullan, and interest from potential donors and the US consulate.

Nesbitt (54) said he envisaged that research would begin soon with an aim of launching a report later this year.

He said people were "scunnered" after more than two years with no devolved government, and called for civic society rather than politicians to help decide the north's future direction.

Nesbitt said a border poll "is going to happen at some point" and there is a need to commission independent research on what changes to Northern Ireland could mean in practice.

"I think we have to accept that this is where Northern Ireland is and people need to be informed, rather than just having two sides saying it's this or it's that. People need fact-based evidence to look at," he said.

The Cold Feet star said there is a need to move away from terms like 'united Ireland', instead saying "a new union of Ireland" could appeal to Protestants.

"People from the north, of my tradition, would feel that they have their identity, that it is in no way threatened, that they have an equal voice, that they are part of a society that is progressive, inclusive, diverse," he said.

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"That they have prosperity, that they're not marginalised, and that they can be proud to be from the north of Ireland in a new union of Ireland."

Asked if he believed there was a place for him in a 'new union of Ireland', Nesbitt said: "I suppose I'm still not entirely sure because we haven't been given the facts about what these new structures would look like.

"I'm certainly very keen on embracing anything in which the relationship between the people in the north is improved, and between north and south and between the two islands, and it strikes me that I think a lot more people are coming round to the idea of just even considering themselves Irish."

Nesbitt said Northern Ireland has "moved on hugely from being a sectarian place, but I don't think the politics has moved on from being sectarian".

While the actor accepted his vision is ambitious, he remained optimistic about its prospects.

"This isn't born out of politics, or indeed politicians. It's stepping outside of politics, and maybe because some of us have a profile it can carry a bit more weight, I don't know," he said.

"I do think there is an appetite for people to actually celebrate the many different identities that there are here. It doesn't matter, you can call yourself Irish, or British, or both.

"It just feels that there's been a silent majority here for far too long that actually needs a voice."

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