Northern Ireland

PLATFORM: Michelle O'Neill

Sinn Féin vice-president and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Sinn Féin vice-president and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

EASTER is regarded across the world as a time of rebirth and renewal.

For Irish republicans it is also a time when we look back to the Easter Rising and to all those who have played their part in the struggle for Irish freedom, but it is also a time when we look to the future.

Now more than ever, more and more people are talking about the future. The conversation on Irish unity is well underway across the island and involves people from all backgrounds and political viewpoints.

The imposition of Brexit by the Tories, with absolutely no regard for its impact on the north and our economy, has led to many people asking questions and considering new options and opportunities.

The onset of the Covid pandemic has also accelerated that conversation as people look to see an island-wide approach.

People are now looking beyond Brexit to a new and better future in a new Ireland.

There is a democratic pathway in place in the Good Friday Agreement to allow that to happen.

It gives us a unique opportunity to shape our own future.

We have an opportunity which is unique in the modern world to build and shape a new state and a new society.

We can create a new economy to meet the needs of the 21st century and a suite of rights which reflects the diversity of the society in which we live.

We have the chance to build a new Ireland from the bottom up which serves the needs of everyone, not an elite few.

This is an unprecedented opportunity at nation building which would be the envy of anyone with a progressive view of politics or society.

And it is an opportunity we must grasp.

The conversation on a new Ireland has already begun.

So we now need to begin effective planning for it.

The British government has a responsibility under the Good Friday Agreement to hold a referendum on constitutional change, giving people the opportunity to have their say on our own future.

The British Secretary of State has a legal duty to hold such a referendum. And it is clear that society in the north is moving and the people's views on the constitutional position of the north are changing.

Now is the time for the Secretary of State to announce the intention to hold a referendum and to begin planning.

The Irish government too has a duty to prepare for constitutional change. It now needs to establish a citizens convention, inclusive of the entire Ireland, on a new Ireland, as well as bringing forward a white paper and creating a ministerial position with responsibility for constitutional change.

This will allow for the reasoned, informed and inclusive debate which is required before any referendum.

There is a place for everyone in that debate and all views should be taken into account.

The more viewpoints included in the debate the better as it will help shape an inclusive, welcoming and pluralist Ireland.

We are already on the road towards a new Ireland and we want as many people as possible to join us on that journey.

:: Michelle O'Neill MLA is deputy first minister and Sinn Féin vice president.