Deep North-South dialogue needed for any chance of unity

People on either side of the Border are on different pages when it comes to the compromises a united Ireland ultimately requires

The late John Hume once stated that the real division in Ireland lies not in geographical boundaries, but in the attitudes and beliefs of its people. The North and South series, a joint project of Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South (Arins) and The Irish Times, sheds light on this divide through its latest polling results, which reveal a concerning lack of North-South connections.

According to the survey, two-thirds of individuals in the Republic have no personal connections to anyone in Northern Ireland while 70 per cent have either not been to the North or have visited only once in the past five years. While it’s important to consider that geographical proximity plays a role in these findings, the survey nonetheless reveals a noticeable gap in understanding or interest in the North.

Some have interrogated the relevance of stronger North-South connections in regard to the constitutional question, positing that Northern Ireland maintains its position within the United Kingdom despite a great deal of its citizens possessing no significant links to anyone in England, Scotland, and Wales. However, there is a pertinent detail to consider: any vote for constitutional change will take place North and South, and for a reunification vote to pass, hearts and minds on both sides of the Border will need to be sold on the outcome.

Earlier polling from Arins in December demonstrates a clear divide in North-South attitudes regarding a united Ireland, with nearly half of southern respondents stating the prospect of a new flag or anthem would make them less likely to support constitutional change. Workshops on the topic revealed southern participants’ surprise that establishing a united Ireland could involve changes to the current flag, anthem or political institutions. “I thought they would just join us and that would be that,” one participant remarked.


The pervasive misbelief that unity would manifest as the Republic simply subsuming the North stems in no small way from the widespread characterisations of the North as a dystopian appendage to the South’s progressive utopia. This reflects the lingering effects of partition, wherein many of those born in the Republic were raised in a culture championing independence and the freedom to express one’s identity, while those born in the North faced further decades of violence, division and identity-based dysfunction. For over 100 years, the island has been on two separate paths.

For generations, societal disconnect has encouraged the proliferation of dated stereotypes on both sides of the Border, with the education systems, media coverage, limited northern representation, stunted public transport and a litany of other contributing factors playing a role in North-South social decline. These fundamental issues need to be critically examined, and renewed interest must be generated in an effort to bridge the many gulfs in understanding exacerbating this island’s divisions.

The fact that northern respondents are not only more likely to vote for a united Ireland if it involves changing the flag and anthem, but also if unionist politicians have some form of reserved inclusion in government, points to a fundamental split in how citizens north and south approach difference. The Belfast Agreement is founded on the principle of building consensus and accepting difference; compromise and consensus is hard-wired into the social fabric in the North. Accepting changes to the Irish State to accommodate other communities may prove more challenging for southern voters.

We are now operating in what could be described as a pre-border poll period, and while its duration may be indeterminable, what is clear is that people north and south are not on the same page when it comes to the compromises that change will ultimately necessitate. What is required is a national dialogue.

Successful large-scale national dialogues are prevalent the world over, from Tunisia to Sudan to Colombia. Many across the whole of Ireland are still left grappling with decades of grief, loss and abandonment, and in the century following partition, the regions of the North and South themselves have been subject to significant divergences across key areas including healthcare, education and policing. Expecting that 100 citizens in an All-Island Citizens’ Assembly will have the capacity to thoughtfully address the daunting volume of issues plaguing the island is short-sighted at best.

National dialogues give agency and power back to communities; They provide an opportunity to be more inclusive, to broaden participation and to allow for a greater pool of ideas from which to draw, aiding citizens in their efforts to establish better pathways toward solutions for the many increasingly delicate issues surrounding identity and culture. While several smaller dialogue series’ are occurring such as the gendering constitutional conversations project from Fidelma Ashe and Joanna McMinn, and the Government’s own Shared Island dialogue series, they remain siloed and lack the momentum and scale that a national dialogue can provide. We will only get to do this once – shouldn’t every effort be made to ensure we do it right?

The Arins research from the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies has shone a light on regional differences, but it also highlights where our commonality lies; People North and South agree that the primary issues are health, housing and economic growth. These areas need to be hastily addressed, with strategies and goals outlined unambiguously in advance of any referendum if we are to avoid a similar fate to that of the Scottish campaign for independence, which came unravelled at the 11th hour due to uncertainty over the currency.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement and brings with it an opportunity to recapture the spirit of 1998 – to redefine our convictions in the spirit of compromise and mutual respect so as to grow from the lived experiences and aspirations of one other and not merely our own. It is upon these principles that the agreement was founded – in respecting difference and celebrating commonality – and it is only upon these principles that this island will become united. The work starts here.

Emma DeSouza is a writer and political commentator