Northern Ireland news

Former Alliance leader John Cushnahan calls for universities to spearhead border poll preparations

Former Alliance Party leader John Cushnahan. Picture by Colm O'Reilly-Pacemaker Press

A FORMER leader of the Alliance Party believes preparation for a border poll should begin immediately, with academics in Ireland and Britain taking the lead.

John Cushnahan, who led Alliance for three years up to 1987 before becoming a Fine Gael MEP, said it was important to learn from the "mistake" of the Brexit referendum and its "disastrous consequences" for Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.

He was speaking last night at the University of Cambridge, where he addressed the topic of 'Revisiting the Good Friday Agreement and the conditions necessary for holding a border poll'.

Mr Cushnahan said that the 2016 EU referendum was "preceded by little or no attempt to inform the electorate about the real issues".

"Therefore, prior to any border poll taking place, we must ensure that the electorates in both parts of Ireland are fully informed beforehand, and I don’t mean on the eve of the poll itself – the process of educating them should take place now," he said.

The one-time civil rights activist said the campaign for a referendum on Irish unity had been largely led by Sinn Féin and its supporters.

"Regrettably it has consisted mainly of sloganising but has offered no detail, or substance or how it can be achieved. Furthermore, the fact they have shown little respect for the unionist tradition or British identity is totally counterproductive," he said.

"This is all the more worrying when, if as the opinion polls are predicting that after the next elections in both parts of Ireland, Sinn Féin will be the largest political party on the island of Ireland."

The former Alliance leader said the Sinn Féin's new-found status would "place on them an important responsibility to unequivocally prove that they will actually support the principle that the unionist tradition will be treated respectfully and equally in any future al Ireland arrangement".

"However, my fear is that Sinn Féin are merely replicating the Boris Johnson campaign on Brexit where both are cynically exploiting narrow nationalisms for electoral advantage," he said.

Mr Cushnahan said the debate about Irish unity needed to be "inclusive and informed", a role he believes would be best fulfilled by the academic community.

He said the British and Irish governments should fund an inter-university project involving institutions in the north, the Republic and Britain.

"Their task should be to provide a detailed analysis of the options without coming to conclusions about any particular one of them," he said.

The former MEP said the research should examine various political/institutional/constitutional options, including a consideration of the current constitutional structure with proposals to strengthen all -Ireland co-operation in education, health and the economy.

However, he said the main area of consideration should be an all-Ireland constitutional arrangement, where governance options such as a unitary state, federal state, confederal state should be discussed, alongside proposals on funding for areas like pensions and defence.

He also advocates the "continued monitoring of further possible shocks" such as Scottish independence.

"All of these actions would be intended to inform the public and encourage a constructive and ongoing debate well in advance of any border poll that might take place," Mr Cushnahan said.

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