David McCann: Time to put united Ireland ideas on the table

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

A United Ireland is for Everyone poster is displayed on Divis Flats in west Belfast. Picture: Hugh Russell.
A United Ireland is for Everyone poster is displayed on Divis Flats in west Belfast. Picture: Hugh Russell. A United Ireland is for Everyone poster is displayed on Divis Flats in west Belfast. Picture: Hugh Russell.

The pro-unification side has been very fortunate in who has been opposing it over the past few years.

We had Brexit, the resulting revolving door of prime ministers and then unionism turning in on itself.

You could not have written a better script for a pro-unification campaigner. Alongside this, a vibrant and determined civic movement has kept this issue alive and helped the conversation. As we pass five years since the referendum, we must now ask how we move this issue onto a new and higher level.

From my perspective, it is clear where the next new departure has to come, that is pro-unification parties coming out to declare a specific point of view on what shape a united Ireland takes for them. I do not mean by this that those within parties like Sinn Féin and the SDLP need to spell out every single last detail of what unity could look like. That would be an impossible task for any party. What I am arguing for is a statement of principles that attempts to set up the parameters for where this debate can go.

Such declared positions can help advance conversations around federalism, unionist rights and the basic structure of what pro-unity forces would like a united Ireland to look like.

I get why parties across the island have been hesitant to take declared positions. All of us have our own views on what unification could look like and there is a desire not to attempt to claim ownership of the debate.

Yet it is time for a change in approach. Any time I speak to anyone who is interested but not sold on the idea of a united Ireland I get the same question “what does this look like?” The people asking this want to be sold on the idea and want a basic direction of travel before we get to a referendum.

A powerful step forward in answering these questions would be the various parties coming forward with their formed ideas about a united Ireland. Why? Because good ideas beget other good ideas. One party producing a solid policy document encourages others to do the same. This in turn creates more energy within the pro-unification movement and can win more converts over to this idea.

Before we get to a citizen’s assembly or any other mechanism on this issue, having a set of positive contributions from the elected representatives of the nationalist parties will be something that can substantively lift this issue.

There is unquestionably a conversation going on about our future. People are reflecting on the possibility of change. That needs some structure and a framework to reach the undecided people that we need for this to be a success.

At critical points, there will need to be work done by the British and Irish governments on the more detailed aspects of a change in our constitutional status. My argument does not downgrade their responsibility in doing a good part of the heavy lifting. However, before that happens there needs to be something else out there to propel the conversation forward.

Nationalism has been fortunate in the mistakes made by unionism over the past number of years. Although in politics, you should also make your own luck and strike out in new directions.

The pro-unification movement is broad and diverse. Showing that parties think differently on key constitutional issues does not harm this argument. There are a hundred different reasons why people support a united Ireland, providing a clear narrative about why parties have this as a core plank of their platform and what their desired outcome looks like would be such a positive contribution.

We need a broad range of pro-unity parties engaging in this process across the island. Some thoughtful contributions from politicians like Neale Richmond have already been published, but we need to step this up and have party-wide positions that can help push this issue.

Like everything, these ideas will ultimately end up having to be subject to compromise, but parties should not feel like they cannot set out their stalls about the shape of the unity they want. Doing this is a valuable next step in a process that can help move this conversation along.

No party owns this debate, but all of those who take part in it have a responsibility to put their ideas on the table. If pro-unification parties leave a vacuum, they are simply inviting unionist parties to fill it. Ideas win converts and the pro-unification arguments need them.

:: David McCann is deputy editor of Slugger O'Toole