THE TAOISEACH yesterday pledged €500 million of what he insists is new money to build and enhance cross-border projects over the next five years.
The announcement of fresh ring-fenced funding came as Micheál Martin fleshed out further details of his government's new Shared Island Unit, an initiative first unveiled following the formation of the Republic's coalition administration in June.
With the focus of his Dublin castle speech very much on infrastructure rather than ideology, the Fianna Fáil leader ruled out a border poll inside the next five years. His department's new unit will instead seek to progress a series of north-south initiatives that have stalled in recent years, including the A5 transport corridor, the Ulster Canal and the Narrow Water Bridge.
Stressing that the unit would not serve as a "stalking horse" for a united Ireland, the taoiseach said his approach would be through "consensus and listening and engagement".
He said unionists were "fundamental to our shared future".
"Unionists, from my experience over the years, get the necessity and importance of engagement north-south," he said.
"There is no ideological opposition to the idea of working north/south whilst respecting people's identity and constitutional perspectives."
He said he wished to create opportunities for civic and political unionism to have input through political dialogue and the various forums that may emerge from the initiative.
Unionist leaders have previously voiced reluctance to involve themselves in discussions with any Dublin initiative that gives consideration to Irish unity. However, Mr Martin hopes his unit's de-politicisation of cross-border co-operation will enable unionist engagement.
A series of 'shared island dialogues' will begin next month, with the first online event focussing on young people under the heading ‘New generations and New voices on the Good Friday Agreement'. The taoiseach highlighted how 1.3 million people have been born in Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was signed and he urged them to contribute to the dialogue.
It is hoped the unit can soon host a similar forum that will seek to involve unionists, or what a spokesman for the taoiseach's office termed "all communities and traditions on the island".
Mr Martin insisted that the development of the Shared Island Unit would not affect anyone's identity.
He said the logic of a small island sharing its resources was "obvious" but without the need to raise constitutional questions.
"As taoiseach, I respect and I affirm everyone's right on the island to make the case for the constitutional future they wish to see for Northern Ireland, whether they are nationalist, unionist or neither," he said.
"The genius of the (Good Friday) Agreement is that we do not need to be defined or dominated by constitutional questions, as we were in the past."
"We can all work together for a shared future without in any way relinquishing our equally legitimate ambitions and beliefs - nationalist, unionist or neither."
He said his department would work closely with the Stormont executive to move ahead with the full delivery of the infrastructure projects.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said she was disappointed that taoiseach "failed to address Irish unity".
"The truth is that any conversation about the future of our island and the Good Friday Agreement must address preparing for a unity referendum," she said.
"We will all have our views on the timing of that, but it needs to be prepared for and the taoiseach and the government must lead those preparations."
Mrs McDonald said Covid-19 and Brexit had "crystalised the folly and unsustainability of the partition".
"It is clear to anyone paying attention that there is a growing momentum towards the unity of the country and the conversation about a united Ireland is happening across the island."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed the taoiseach's commitments and his "vision for a shared island".
"The initiatives that the Irish government has prioritised speak to the needs of people across this island – transport, connectivity and attracting new investment," he said.
"This is an opportunity to transform communities and lives across the island."