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Momentum is growing for a referendum on Irish unity - the British government must act

Momentum is growing for a referendum on Irish unity - the British government must act
4 min read

The conversation on Irish unity is taking centre stage in political discourse like never before. More and more people are considering new choices and deciding what is best for them and their families. They are looking to a future beyond Brexit and beyond the union, towards a new Ireland.

We have an opportunity afforded to few in the modern world: to build an entirely new society based on the wishes of the people. The Good Friday Agreement, with its provision for a referendum on the constitutional future of the island, guarantees this opportunity. 

Under its terms, the British government’s secretary of state for the north has the discretion to call a referendum when he or she feels people want constitutional change. That change is happening. It is all around us. 

The political realities in the north and across the island have changed utterly. The old unionist majority, which once appeared monolithic, is now gone; successive elections have shown it no longer exists. 

At Westminster, fewer pro-union MPs are elected from the north than non-unionists, and pro-union MLAs are also now in the minority in the assembly. That is a concrete indicator of the genuine and tangible change which is taking place in the north. 

Opinion polls regularly show declining support for the constitutional status quo and increased support for Irish unity. Polls also regularly show that more people are now prepared to consider new options for the future as they look for something better. 

It is time for the British secretary of state and the British government to recognise and acknowledge this significant change. Brandon Lewis needs to start the process of preparing for a referendum on a new future, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. 

We have an opportunity to build an entirely new society based on the wishes of the people

To date, successive British governments have shown themselves unwilling to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement. This needs to change. 

The agreement was endorsed by a majority across the island of Ireland in referenda and is an internationally binding accord. It cannot be dismissed or set aside. 

The Irish government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, also needs to ensure its full implementation. It has a key role in upholding this essential part of the Agreement and also a duty and a responsibility to Irish citizens north and south who want to see the unity of their country. 

There are, of course, a number of things which have to happen before a referendum can be held. 
The disastrous Brexit referendum has shown everyone the folly of holding a poll without first providing people with proper information to allow them to make informed decisions about their future. 

Preparation is vital. No one wants to rush into the process. But that does not mean it should be kicked into the long grass. Those who claim, for whatever reason, that the time is not right are out of step with the mood of the people across the island. 

The conversation on Irish unity is well under way. In homes, in workplaces, among civic groups, sporting bodies and every other part of society, people are talking about Irish unity, what it would look like and what it would mean for them. Now that conversation needs to be supported by practical planning for change. 

The British government needs to announce its intention to hold a poll and set in motion the process for a referendum. 

That will mean it will have to provide honest information about its involvement in the north, particularly in relation to the financial subvention in order to dispel myths peddled by some. 

The Irish government also has a key role to play in the preparations for Irish unity. It should not wait for the British government to move. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, it should actively begin preparations, not only to put pressure on the British government to live up to its responsibilities, but because it is the right and sensible thing to do. 

Recent moves by the Irish government in setting up the shared island unit are a welcome first step but more preparations are needed. 

We now need to see the Irish government set up a citizens’ assembly on constitutional change, inclusive of the entire island, bring forward a white paper on Irish unity, and create a ministerial position with responsibility for preparing for change. Now is the time to prepare, to give people the information to make the best choices for their future. 

As an Irish republican, I am confident that Irish unity provides the best hope for a better future for all. We now need to let the people have their say. 

Michelle O’Neill is Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and vice-president of Sinn Féin

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