Northern Ireland

PLATFORM: Neale Richmond

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond
Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond

DESPITE all the difficulties we face on this island, 23 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement there is a clear sense of hope for a better future.

We should be hopeful and optimistic for our shared future across this island.

Brexit and Covid-19 have undoubtedly contributed to the resurgence of conversations regarding the constitutional future of this island, particularly by highlighting the importance of enhanced co-operation.

Regardless of whether one supports a united Ireland or not, it cannot be denied that enhanced co-operation is to everyone’s benefit.

We must acknowledge that tensions are on the rise in Northern Ireland and when we have discussions regarding Ireland’s future, we must recognise that these strike a note of fear in many communities.

While we should not apologise for a desire to achieve a united Ireland, we also cannot ignore or discount these concerns, particularly considering the worrying spectre of violence on the streets recently.

The newly established Shared Island Unit in the taoiseach’s department, which prioritises open and honest discussions between communities, is an important vehicle for us to listen to these fears of to address them and promote meaningful engagement.

The Good Friday Agreement must be the cornerstone of any engagement. The goal of “partnership, equality and mutual respect” is as relevant today as 23 years ago.

We must maximise the use of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. These institutions provide vital outlets for not just north-south discussions but also east-west which are ever more important given the UK’s exit from the EU.

All these things must be done regardless of what constitutional future one aspires to.

However, if the time comes for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to declare a border poll required, this work will have need to have been carried out.

This work should be the foundation for a detailed and formulaic planning on what a New Ireland should be.

A united Ireland will not simply see Northern Ireland assimilate into today’s Ireland. No discussion can be off the table as no aspect of the future of the island can go unaddressed.

I believe an electoral commission with an external chairperson should be established, creating a Citizens’ Assembly in order to shape what a New Ireland will look like.

The resulting work should be debated and amended by a parliamentary committee from each of the assembly, the Oireachtas and Westminster before returning to the Citizens’ Assembly for the finalisation of a vision for a New Ireland.

This vision should then go to the people by referendum in each jurisdiction.

Discussions will need to be had on what a New Ireland will look like in practice. A crucial starting point is who will pay for a united Ireland and will there be an economic benefit?

Conversations are also needed on what our political, education and healthcare systems will look like in a New Ireland.

Should we reserve positions in our parliament for those from the north? Will our education system continue as it or become blended with that of Northern Ireland?

The NHS is hugely important in Northern Ireland, affinity transcends any political identity; a New Ireland will need a healthcare system that draws on the strong points of existing systems and ensures a level of care that is enhanced from the status quo.

Continuing EU membership will be obvious for any New Ireland.

There is clearly a huge amount of work to be done. The priority must be placed on growing relationships and building trust on our island.

This work will not be easy, it will require patience, compromise and imagination, but it can be achieved.

:: Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown and the party's spokesman on European affairs.