There was an interesting exchange in the Irish Times earlier this month between two men I admire and whose views on Irish reunification I respect. A report in the online paper (its editors obviously deemed it not significant enough for the printed paper) quoted the former European Commission Secretary-General David O’Sullivan saying there was a “huge responsibility” on people in the Republic “not to overtalk…about Border Polls and reunification.”1 He warned: “This is what is deeply destabilising to the unionist community. Because they do see Northern Ireland as having somehow a semi-detached status now which is the sort of ante-room to reunification, which is what some people are talking it up as.”
O’Sullivan said a united Ireland “may happen, it may not happen”, but “we have a long way to go”. Noting that the Taoiseach’s Shared Island initiative was the “right approach”, he cautioned: “Talking as though a united Ireland is now sort of inexorable, inevitable…is deeply unhelpful in this situation. We should all learn to live with what we have…but leave it until later years for the decisions that may present themselves in the future.”
As somebody who worked for many years to bring North and South together through practical and mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation – and who knows the unionist community well – I strongly agree with O’Sullivan’s viewpoint.
But then four days later came a riposte from the former SDLP MLA and councillor, Declan O’Loan, from Ballymena, County Antrim (my birthplace).2 I know O’Loan to be a moderate and thoughtful man, well-attuned to the sensibilities of the unionists among whom he lives. He wrote in a letter to the editor: “To say that it is improper even to postulate an alternative [to remaining part of the UK] in which Ireland would be united and all its people enjoy equal citizenship cannot be reasonable, and does not create a Northern Ireland which treats unionists and nationalists equally.”
He went on: “There is a perfectly fair case to be made that the partition of the island has done great damage. The best form of government that has yet been created for Northern Ireland is that under the Belfast Agreement, and even so I would say that every Executive formed since 1998 has been a failure in dealing with the economic administration and social challenges. The reason is the fundamental disagreement on the constitutional question.”
“Many countries across the world have deep divisions, many of which offer no full solution and can at best be managed. That is not the case in Ireland. I have worked closely alongside unionist politicians for many years, and I think I understand them quite well. I am in no doubt that a united Ireland can be built which will better serve all its citizens. Those who share that belief are entitled to work for it.”
For me the key word in this letter is “managed”. For the past 50 years I have believed that the divisions in the North are best capable of being managed through internal power-sharing and North-South cooperation arrangements (the John Hume model). Successive Irish governments have agreed with me. In the words of the eminent international lawyer Claire Palley, who knew Northern Ireland well, back in the early 1990s: “The only people who are entitled to talk about solutions are chemists.”
Clearly Declan O’Loan doesn’t agree. If such a moderate and fair-minded nationalist politician believes that successive Northern Ireland Executives have been a failure on every front, and some kind of united Ireland could be made palatable to the dyed-in-the-wool unionists he lives among in mid-Antrim, maybe it is time to think again, and to think radically about Irish unity in the shorter to medium term. Certainly the DUP – led in recent years by incompetent, corrupt and foolish people – have done little or nothing to make real the hopes of mutual respect and equality within Northern Ireland promised by the Good Friday Agreement.
As I have said many times before, the irony is that the best people to do this radical thinking on unity are the old conservative nationalist parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Once those most hated enemies of unionists, Sinn Fein, get into power in Dublin, it will be a hundred times more difficult to get them to engage in such an existentially threatening negotiation (I agree completely with Leo Varadkar when he said this week on RTE that Sinn Fein’s relationship of “mutual hostility” with unionism and deep anti-Britishness make them “an obstacle to Irish unity,” and that the “sectarian headcount” of a Border Poll is “not the right pathway to a united Ireland”). As the Dublin lawyer Brian Barrington, who was Seamus Mallon’s legal advisor when he was NI Deputy First Minister, has said: “It is they [Fianna Fail and Fine Gael], and not Sinn Fein, who must write the policy for the protection of British people on this island. And they should start doing it now.”
I am thus ambivalent about Irish unity: I would love to see it one day, but I can’t for the life of me see how we are going to persuade a significant number of unionists to go along with it. To explain my ambivalence I should explain a little about myself. I am the son of a Northern Presbyterian mother and a Jewish socialist father who was a political refugee from the former Czechoslovakia. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that I have throughout my life been passionate about two causes: the peaceful persuasion of Northern unionists that their best future lies in a closer relationship with the rest of Ireland, and the integration of refugees and asylum seekers into present-day Irish society. As they say, blood is thicker than water.
The former cause has brought me from youthful radicalism in the NI civil rights movement and the Workers Party, through John Robb’s New Ireland Group, the 1992-1993 Opsahl Commission (of which I was coordinator), the ‘Yes’ campaign in the post-Good Friday Agreement referendum, founding and running the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh for 14 years, to the Irish Labour Party and the Green Party. I now rail against the lack of serious thinking by any Southern political party (and that includes Sinn Fein) about how we are going to undertake the fiendishly difficult journey to an Irish unity brought about – in the words of the new Article 3 of the Constitution – “in harmony and friendship”. And I strongly oppose any attempt to impose it on the unionists by the narrowest of narrow majorities in an early Border Poll – that way, I believe, lies a return to bloodshed and conflict.
If the former cause is my mother’s legacy, the latter cause is my father’s. We on this small island are often consumed by our own internal demons to the exclusion of other, far greater international problems; I’m sure we’re no different from any other country in that respect. That is why I am a recent – although not very active – convert to Green politics. And why the other big cause I have been active in has been the welfare of refugees and asylum-seekers.
The latter has brought me in the past few months to become the acting chair of a small organisation called Places of Sanctuary Ireland (PoSI)(ireland.cityofsanctuary.org), much of whose work is driven by a marvellously high octane Englishwoman (married to an Irish husband) called Tiffy Allen. PoSI is a network of 13 groups – from Cork to Belfast, Galway to Derry, Wexford to Coleraine – whose primary aim is to create a culture of welcome, safety and inclusion for refugees, asylum- seekers and other vulnerable migrants, many of whom are seeking sanctuary from war and persecution. It creates opportunities for Irish people to meet these newcomers to our country, to hear their stories and to help them find a new home here among us. It is part of an international City of Sanctuary movement which began in Sheffield in 2005.
The City of Sanctuary movement works through what we call ‘streams’. These can be schools, universities, town and city councils, workplaces, churches and faith groups, libraries, community groups and other educational, work-based, civic, cultural and grass-roots organisations. In Ireland the most successful ‘stream’ has been Universities of Sanctuary, which was founded in 2017 largely through the efforts of a group of people at Dublin City University, which had become Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary a year earlier.
All seven of the Republic of Ireland’s long-established universities are now Universities of Sanctuary, along with Athlone Institute of Technology. They have between them awarded over 400 scholarships for access programmes, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and other courses and programmes. Until they started this activity it was almost impossible for a refugee or asylum-seeking school-leaver to get a funded place to study at an Irish university. Their “vital work” (in the words of the July 2020 Programme for Government) has also led to a change of government policy: now any asylum-seeker in Ireland for three years who is offered a place at a third level institution will get the same financial and other supports as an Irish student.
A more recent development has been Schools of Sanctuary. This gets schools to pledge to undertake a programme of activities aimed at fostering a culture of welcome and inclusion for children who are asylum-seekers, refugees and other vulnerable migrants. Started in 2017 in a primary school in a loyalist working class area of Belfast where immigrants were being attacked and harassed, there are now 42 such schools in Northern Ireland (where they receive significant government funding). In the Republic, where the initiative started a little over a year ago (and with no government funding), there are now five, plus over 20 more schools preparing to become Schools of Sanctuary. The introduction to the Schools of Sanctuary resource pack says that by becoming a School of Sanctuary, “you will be offering refuge to those who need it and you will be equipping pupils and students with intercultural skills and the ability to have compassion in what is, for many, a turbulent world.”
Sanctuary Ambassadors are a group of 50 refugees and asylum-seekers who have received training in public policy and public speaking, and now address local councils, universities, schools and other groups on their experience of fleeing their own countries, arriving in Ireland and struggling to make a new life here.
The Green Minister for Children, Equality and Integration Roderick O’Gorman has now pledged to get rid of the Republic’s wretched Direct Provision system for asylum-seekers within the life of the present government. Now over 20 years old, this arrangement of privately-owned and profitable facilities – mainly unused and often rundown hotels and holiday camps – in which these unfortunate people and their families languish for up to five years (around 300 people for even longer) in a legal limbo with few rights – has been condemned by a wide range of lawyers, human rights experts and international organisations. A White Paper published last month promised a system not unlike the one used in Northern Ireland currently: six newly-built reception centres where arriving asylum-seekers and their families would stay for no longer than four months, followed by ‘own door’ houses and apartments for rent provided by local authorities (not famous for providing adequate social housing for their own people), housing associations and others. It is an ambitious project. I hope and pray it may succeed.
1 ‘United Ireland rhetoric provoking unionist backlash over NI protocol, says former diplomat’ , 4th March
2 ‘Unity is a valid political aspiration’, Letters to the Editor, 8th March