David McCann: Irish unity debate has taken some positive steps forward

Ireland’s Future event in Belfast included stand-out contributions from Leo Varadkar and David Adams

David McCann

David McCann

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

Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar said apologies could change hearts and minds
Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Ireland's Future event at Belfast's SSE Arena (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ireland’s Future was back with another event at the SSE Arena last weekend. I know these events always spark a debate about how representative and useful they are in moving the debate forward.

On Saturday, two stand-out contributions demonstrated how important these events are and why taking on board critical views is a necessary aspect of making progress.

Those contributions were from former taoiseach Leo Varadkar and David Adams. Both of whom, in different ways, added new dimensions to the debate about the future and how we should conduct it going forward.

Let’s delve into Leo Varadkar’s interview with Jim Fitzpatrick.

For those of us closely following southern politics, it’s a moment to pause and reflect when a former Fine Gael taoiseach, who led a party not known for a strong stance on unification, articulates with such clarity a pro-unification position. That this has happened is a testament to how far this debate has come.

Varadkar’s proposals that parts of the budget surplus should be used to set aside funds for some of the transition costs that will inevitably come about should a border poll ever be won are a sensible and prudent approach that any leader with sense would adopt.

Leo Varadkar was interviewed by Jim FItzpatrick at the Ireland's Future event at the SSE Areana in Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

I know there will be some pushback at the idea that money should be allocated this way when there are a number of other pressing socio-economic priorities, but Dublin beginning to put their money where their mouth is one of the most important investments in the future than an Irish government can make.

This makes particular sense when you consider that the government is already using these strong economic times to set aside funds for other important policy priorities, such as pensions.

The other part of Varadkar’s comments worth highlighting is his words on getting the right time for a border poll.

Leo Varadkar, Wallace Thompson and Gerry Adams at the Ireland's Future event at the SSE Arena in Belfast. PICTURE: Mal McCann

He correctly cited the Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995 and the Australian Republic referendum in 1999 as examples of moving too fast, reading the room wrong and leaving yourself further from your desired destination.

Many important moves are happening, and viewed in isolation they do not seem like much, but taking a broader view, you see their significance.

The Shared Island fund is a case in point – this will be seen by historians as one of the most important soft power initiatives ever undertaken by an Irish government.

The Shared Island fund will be seen by historians as one of the most important soft power initiatives ever undertaken by an Irish government

This fund has made Dublin more relevant in policy areas in Northern Ireland, and it does not mention a New Ireland or the constitutional debate. It shows that all-island collaboration and working together makes sense. Varadkar is right to highlight that patience and determination will win the day.

It would be wrong to analyse Saturday’s event without mentioning David Adams’s remarks. You do not have to agree with everything he said. I didn’t and I know many people in the audience would not have either.

David Adams also spoke during a pro-unity group Ireland’s Future event
David Adams also spoke during Ireland’s Future event (Brian Lawless/PA)

But that misses the point. The fact he and so many others on that excellent panel had the bravery to come along and give constructive criticism deserves recognition. Benjamin Franklin once said “Our critics are our friends”, and Adams’s comments about reconciliation and understanding the complexities of our shared home should be taken on the board as this debate moves forward.

What struck me most from last weekend’s event was the pressing need for fresh ideas and candid discussions. Leaders who use their positions to introduce innovative approaches and foster honest conversations about different perspectives on the unity debate are of paramount importance.

We need more of this, not less, and the positive reception to Varadkar and Adams’s contributions should encourage others to step forward and share their views in the coming months.

The unity debate took some positive steps forward last weekend. Let’s hope the next steps forward are not too far away.