The future of the Union is now a live debating issue and firmly on the political agenda.
In the Good Friday negotiations Sinn Féin secured the removal of the Government of Ireland Act under which the British government claimed sovereignty over the north of Ireland. There is now only a qualified, conditional claim that will change when a majority of citizens in the north vote for an end to the union.
In the Constitutional Issues section of the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement (1.iv) the British and Irish governments:
“affirm that, if, in future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish”
Sections (i) and (ii) referred to are the requirement for the consent of a majority within the North and the provision for concurrent referenda North and South.
The Good Friday Agreement therefore provides for a border poll on Irish unity. This commitment was incorporated in the British Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Schedule 1) which states that: “The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 [of the Act re. Irish unity] on a date specified in the order.”
I raised this issue with the Taoiseach during Leaders Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday. I welcomed his comment last week in Cleveland in the USA where he had expressed the opinion that a united Ireland will happen ‘one day.’
Predictably, Gregory Campbell rushed to condemn Kenny. But his position was not shared by an online poll in the Belfast Telegraph which produced 46% supporting the Taoiseach’s view that a united Ireland will happen.
However, I put it to the Taoiseach that there is a need to go beyond the rhetoric. Uniting Ireland is one of the great historic challenges facing the Irish people at the start of the 21st century.
The people of this island have the right to independence and self-determination. Partition is unjust, uneconomic and inefficient.
But a united Ireland will only happen when those of those who want it persuade those who don’t that it will be better for them and for their children. It needs a plan, a strategy. We have to demonstrate in practical ways why working as partners and living together as equals on this island is better.
So I called on the Taoiseach to come back to the Dáil in the next short while with an outline of how he envisages securing the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and a border poll.
Not surprisingly the Fine Gael leader looked for excuses to do nothing at this time. He argued that it isn’t the right time for this debate and that the Irish government has to sort out the economy first.
This is entirely the wrong approach. Now is exactly the right time for a debate on this issue in the context of rebuilding the economies on this island and beginning a process of dialogue and reconciliation around Irish unity.
The Good Friday Agreement allows for a border poll. It must be the next step.