Project Unity isn’t a pipe dream but it needs a more sophisticated sales job - Tom Kelly

More nuance, credibility and empathy is needed by those advocating a united Ireland

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Political parties need to think how to persuade the 'constitutional agnostics' in any border poll
The unity process requires honesty, humility and humanity

The taoiseach, Simon Harris, said that people of his generation were more familiar with Paris or Berlin than Belfast or Derry. At one level, this was an understandable type of gaffe from the new boy on the job.

Following on from his remarks that a united Ireland or border poll was not on his radar, it made him look insensitive to the notion of national reconciliation.

Given his previous support for the Shared Island Initiative as a minister, Harris may have unwittingly put a rod over his own back that may not be deserved and will almost certainly be used by Sinn Féin to portray him unfairly with the late John Bruton.

As a northerner, I am more familiar with Malaga and Lecce than Mullingar or Limerick. What does that prove, other than I like to travel to warmer climates? It doesn’t make my outlook less Irish.

The clip on the BBC programme, The View, of UCD students trying to identify northern counties was hilarious but unsurprising. I regularly received applications from students who can seem illiterate when it comes to English, never mind geography. Anyway, Gen Z has satnav and Google maps to guide them through their journeys.

But a piece of advice to the Taoiseach: words matter within the context of conflicting and competing identities.

A recent position paper from the thoughtful Jarlath Kearney - a former senior Sinn Féin adviser to the late Martin McGuinness - demonstrates how much further his former party colleagues will have to travel in outlining a credible, coherent and achievable approach to Irish unity.

Jarlath Kearney
Jarlath Kearney, a former Sinn Féin special adviser to Martin McGuinness, points out how much work the party and others advocating unity must do

Not all of Kearney’s conclusions are workable but they are worthy. He demonstrates a depth of thinking; he has an understanding of the dynamics within unionism and acknowledges the cultural, social and economic challenges ahead.

His analysis is more credible and nuanced than anything put forward by Ireland’s Future.

A united Ireland, whilst welcome, isn’t a panacea for all of the ills of partition, nor will it stomp out sectarianism, tribalism or oneupmanship. There will be economic opportunities, just as there will be economic pain.

A recent paper from the thoughtful Jarlath Kearney - a former adviser to Martin McGuinness - demonstrates how much further Sinn Féin will have to travel in outlining a credible, coherent and achievable approach to Irish unity

Bringing alternative voices to Ireland’s Future events can only work if those voices are listened to and then acted on.

Unionists brave enough to engage in discussions about the future of the island should be applauded, not just for giving their perspective but also for articulating the validity of their political/cultural outlook and British identity. These can’t be exercises in lip service or box ticking.

A few northern commentators seem to display narrow, tunnel visioned and partisan perspectives on southern politicians, commentators and journalists who disagree with their outlook on the form, shape and outworking of Project Unity.

No doubt a few are simply jaundiced or politically prejudiced by life experiences. Others use language which jars with southern audiences, because they sound too peppery, bitter and intolerant.

Nationalist commentary is sometimes littered with hectoring overtones that does nothing to foster empathy with listeners.

Project Unity isn’t a pipe dream. The aspiration is wholly legitimate and isn’t a sectarian or green agenda. That said, it will require a more sophisticated sales job than is currently on offer.

The advocate voices for unity will have to become more diverse, more representative and more reflective. The process requires honesty, humility and humanity. It took nearly 60 years to recover and reconcile from the Irish civil war. Without reconciliation first, unity could lead to a half a century of turmoil.

In 1925, an early Free State government once made a mistake of ignoring the prophetic and wise voice of WB Yeats, who said in the Seanad: “We are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

Only fools or knaves would fail to listen to similar voices whilst trying to create an inclusive new Ireland of equals.