Diarmaid Ferriter: Peace process offers lessons for those who seek united Ireland

What is needed at very least is a North-South Citizen’s Assembly over the long term

“Ripeness is all”. These words from Shakespeare’s King Lear were believed by Seán Ó hUiginn, head of the Anglo-Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the mid-1990s, to be also a maxim applying to the politics of the peace process. Exactly 25 years ago Ó hUiginn and others were dealing with the fallout from the Canary Wharf bombing in London that marked the end of the IRA’s 17-month ceasefire and temporarily derailed the fragile dialogue.

The discussions got back on track, but not without much recrimination, the consequence of what Ó hUiginn referred to as events that “recharged the toxic legacy of distrust” and indicated that the time was not ripe for as much progress as some desired. For others, of course, the time was never and will never be ripe. That can be said of Irish unity as well, a subject that has received much attention this week arising out of the RTÉ Claire Byrne Live show devoted to the subject. It was, by and large, a calm and reasoned discussion, but also one with reminders of prematurity of premise.

As the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland approaches and in the context of Brexit and the increased political strength of Sinn Féin as well as the wider shakiness of the UK and the increased isolation of the DUP, those intent on seeking a border poll are robustly making their case. But it also appears there is a temptation to ignore what is uncomfortably under our noses in preference for loftier, abstract declarations about historical destiny and inevitability. The bald reality is that this small island has not managed a coherent north-south unity in relation to dealing with a devastating pandemic over the last year. That, surely, is an indication of the unity mountain to climb, as is the underuse or neglect of structures already provided for or envisaged in 1998 in relation to dialogue and co-operation, such as an independent North-South consultative forum comprising “social partners”.

The focus needs to shift from excessive concentration on the DUP and Sinn Féin to incorporate civic groups

That raises the wider question of what would be involved in, say, a 10-year plan towards a border poll. In recent years, Ó hUiginn and others involved in the peace process on both the British and Irish sides have given detailed overviews of what went in to achieving agreement in 1998; investments that were political, intellectual and practical, requiring a structured and inclusive “process”. Civil servants, diplomats and politicians did much to create what have been termed “zones of convergence” which surely are also an essential prerequisite to creating any kind of dynamic towards unity.


Political extremities

While there is inevitably much focus on political extremities, the late Seamus Mallon of the SDLP suggested that whatever divides nationalists and unionists, what they have in common is being “largely detached from the mother countries which they identify so strongly with”. That was something Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness also used to refer to; what he termed the “gulf in understanding” between those north and south who might share a desire for unity but lived with hard mental borders. The chasm between northern unionists and London is also striking and long-standing; Tony Blair used to despair of the self-defined purity of the Orange Order men: “There is nothing more irritating than sitting in a room with someone who claims to be British but who treats you as though you are nothing to do with Britain, even though you are the prime minister.”

Mallon also warned of a premature border poll that would only create greater disunity, leading to a “captured unionist minority inside a state from which they are completely alienated. Does that sound familiar?” What is needed at the very least is a north-south citizen’s assembly over the long-term to discuss what both sides of the island have, or need to have, in common along with confronting what divides them.

The focus also needs to shift from excessive concentration on the DUP and Sinn Féin to incorporate civic groups. Consider, for example, the plea from a sizeable group of civic unionists exactly three years ago who called for “a transparent and inclusive debate covering rights, truth, equality and civil liberty” as the noise around Brexit drowned them out. Bread and butter issues concerning economic convergence, social and health services and standards of living are also of paramount importance. Attention too, needs to be given to another observation of Ó hUiginn: “Measures to respect the divided allegiances of Northern Ireland are already pledged to continue with reversed polarity in the event of a change of flag. This dimension of the Belfast Agreement is rarely discussed”.

Insistence on precise timetables seems unwise; as Eamonn Gallagher, the first to head the department of foreign affair’s Northern Ireland unit put it: “I have never thought that the timescale for unity was important. What we have to do is create the conditions for natural development”. That process can only be painstaking.