Antrim Gaels to press Irish Government on preparing for constitutional change and Citizens' Assembly
Antrim Gaels Paddy Cunningham and Jane Adams are spearheading a campaign in the county to bring pressure to bear on the Irish Government to prepare for the reunification of the country. In a letter addressed to the Taoiseach, the pair have enrolled the names of over 3,000 Antrim Gaels – including the county’s senior footballers, hurlers, camogs and Ladies footballers - and called for the establishment of a fully representative Citizens Assembly. Adams and Cunningham spoke to Brendan Crossan about the genesis of their campaign…
Brendan Crossan: What’s the purpose of the Antrim Gaels letter to the Taoiseach?
Jane Adams: The purpose of the letter is basically to highlight the broad conversation that’s already taking place in communities the length and breadth of our island; to talk about the future constitutional direction and to provide a platform for Gaels throughout the county to engage in the debate.
We believe the Irish Government needs to take a lead role in this, it is their responsibility to begin the planning for a border poll and constitutional change. In the letter we articulate three mains asks of the Irish Government: the first, is to take the lead in planning for a future border poll and to start the planning of the reunification of the island; the second, is to establish a Citizens’ Assembly and the third is to protect the rights of all citizens.
BC: Is the emergence of this letter a tacit acceptance of the failure of power-sharing?
Paddy Cunningham: I wouldn’t say power-sharing has failed; but I think there is growing frustration. For instance, as a Gaeilgeoir I’m frustrated, as are other Irish speakers, with the lack of movement on implementing an Irish Language Act.
But there have been a lot of things, such as ‘Brexit’, which has maybe heightened things. There is nothing in this letter which hasn’t already been formulated within the Good Friday Agreement, I think it’s important to note that. Obviously we are all not going to share the same viewpoints but I think conversation can only be a positive thing so that the population in the north can move forward.
BC: Where did the idea come from?
PC: Jane and I have been friends for quite a while and know each other through business and sport.
The conversation originated over a cup of coffee, and as time passed I suppose we were able to relate to not only conversations taking place within our own clubs but in county squads and other friends groups, so we started bringing other people into the conversation. And it just gathered momentum.
We’ve also listened and watched with great interest the conversations – north and south - revolving around Irish unity.
From a GAA perspective, it’s the biggest national organisation in the country and has a massive role to play in future discussions about what shape that will take. Basically we want to engage Gaels within Antrim and then further afield.
BC: Did either of you have any initial reluctance in signing the letter?
JA: I’d no hesitation in signing the letter but we thought there might be reluctance by some people in signing the it, but the short answer is – no.
The idea came out of conversations that we both had and once we started to talk to other Gaels we realised those same conversations were already taking place through the communities of Antrim.
The next practical step was to try and articulate and represent those conversations on paper. We asked people Gael on Gael and everybody was receptive to it and there are over 3,000 people who have signed the letter and I think there will be many more when people actually read the letter in the newspaper.
BC: Do you think politics and sport should remain separate?
JA: Well, there are over 3,000 Gaels right across the county who have signed the letter already. Anybody who signed this letter will be made up of individuals from different political persuasions or none. Indeed, that’s one of the great strengths of the GAA as a national sporting, cultural organisation - regardless of your politics, race, religion, ethnicity, the GAA is open to everybody, so the message we would like to articulate is the discussions we’re having in all corners of the county transcend every aspect of everyday life – social, cultural, economic, health, political, education, sporting etc.,
BC: What do you hope to achieve with the letter to the Taoiseach?
PC: I suppose in the first instance the letter is about giving Gaels within Antrim a platform to engage in the current conversation. We really hope the letter is a starting point to encourage and develop meaningful debate amongst Gaels and to encourage the Irish Government to plan for constitutional change.
To be honest, we hope other counties will be encouraged by the letter and use it as a template to engage in conversation within their own counties.
BC: Traditionally, the GAA at the top level is a very conservative Association and doesn’t like to get involved in political conversations…
PC: I would like the GAA to be open-minded and be realistic as well. At the end day it’s in the GAA’s constitution and is in its ethos that they aspire to a united Ireland, a new Ireland. We’re looking the GAA to be receptive towards this and to support it.
BC: How important is it to involve ethnic minority groups and to have a strong unionist voice in the proposed Citizens’ Assembly?
JA: We think the Citizens’ Assembly is essential and it must cover all voices. No one voice should be heard above any other. We want to hear all sides of the debate. That way I think we can generate more meaningful discussion and we can work through all the different issues different people might have.
BC: What do you think would be the main socio-economic benefits of an agreed Ireland?
PC: Obviously having two education and health systems makes no sense for such a small island. You look at the academic selection here in the north. As a secondary school teacher I see the difficulty young people have in terms of securing university places in the south.
It’s very difficult for some of our students to get access to universities and obviously some of the best universities are based in the south.
I think there is a lot that can be learned from both systems to make a better one and the sharing of resources and expertise and all those things can only be benefit the country. That’s why a Citizens’ Assembly is so key because we can get into the nitty-gritty arguments…
BC: Do you expect some criticism from certain quarters?
PC: Realistically, with any new initiative, there will be detractors but we’ve had a very welcome approach and we also welcome debate… It’s very clear from Jane and I that we welcome all points of view. We’ve had over 3,000 signatures on the letter in a short space of time and I don’t doubt there will be thousands of others who will sign it afterwards.
BC: Would you welcome a situation where, say, a sports club from the north promoted a Citizens’ Assembly for the six counties?
JA: Regarding the future of the country it should be all-island wide because if it affects everyone. We’d welcome as wide a representation as possible in the Citizens’ Assembly as it’s essential for the credibility of it. We know there might be some criticism of it but criticism is what a healthy debate is.
BC: What would you like to see change here?
JA: When the Good Friday Agreement was signed here I was only 15. It felt there were new opportunities coming, it felt like a new beginning. When you think of our parents at that age, their opportunities were completely limited in terms of education and work prospects.
We are the generation that’s benefited from the Good Friday Agreement and looking ahead for the next 25 years I see so more opportunities for society to move further, and I’d like it to be done in an inclusive way without fear or prejudice.
Everyone is entitled to feel no fear and that everybody’s equal.
Everybody should be allowed to be who they are and what they are without fear or prejudice. That’s what I would hope for and that this country belongs to everyone, so they can celebrate their identity in any form they want to.
BC: Is the frustration with politics that citizens feel the genesis of this letter?
PC: I think things have been expedited by ‘Brexit’. Momentum has drastically gathered over the last couple of years especially as the ramifications of ‘Brexit’ unfold for people.
JA: That’s why we wanted to go Gael on Gael instead of asking a chairperson to endorse this on behalf of their club. Each individual has signed this by themselves for themselves. That’s why I think the conversation flows a lot better because of that.