Ireland buzzes as talks of reunification grow louder

Irish Senator Frances Black surveyed the crowd. “What a buzz!” she shouted to the 5,000 people who filled the concert hall in Dublin. At the top were not Beyoncé, Roger Waters or Bob Dylan – former stars of the 3Arena – but local actors and politicians. The sold out show? A ‘talk’ about Irish reunification.

Organized by Ireland’s Future, a three-year-old advocacy group chaired by Black, this month’s event aimed to stimulate debate and build support for a “New and United Ireland”a century after it was divided into a 26-county republic and British-run, six-county Northern Ireland.

With more events planned, talk of unity is gaining momentum on the island of 7 million, spurred on by Brexit. demographic changes and pro-unity Sinn Féin rise to become the largest party on either side of the border.

Leo Varadkar, who will take over as Ireland’s Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, in December, told the conference the “noble and legitimate aspiration” for reunification “has come a long way in a very short time”.

Popular actor Jimmy Nesbitt, a Northern Irish Protestant, told the conference that “talking about a united Ireland is difficult for many around me, but the talk is out there,” adding he was open to an informed discussion about the Union.

Even the Reverend Kyle Paisley, whose hot-tempered father Ian, a former First Minister of Northern Ireland, vowed never to relinquish the region’s British status, told an Irish Senate consultation last week that “the Emerald Isle becoming a single political entity “I was not so easily talked down”.

Cora Richardson, 87, whose uncle participated in the 1916 Easter Rising: “I expect to see him [reunification] before I die’ © Jude Webber/FT

For three decades, republican paramilitaries waged war against the British state and loyalist gunmen fought to protect their British identity. Under the 1998 peace agreement that ended the conflict, London must call a referendum on unity in Northern Ireland if a majority supports reunification. A parallel survey would take place in the Republic.

Polls still show that reunification does not find a majority in Northern Ireland. A poll by Lucid Talk in August found only 41 percent in a region still trying to overcome a legacy of division would vote for reunification today and up 10 points in 10-15 years.

Nonetheless, last month’s census results showed that for the first time in its centenary, Northern Ireland outnumbered Protestants. In addition, increasing numbers of people identified themselves as Irish, while the ranks of those who identified themselves as British shrank, fueling a sense of change. People from Northern Ireland may identify as British or Irish or both.

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In the Republic, most people like the sound of reunification. “I expect to see it before I die,” said Cora Richardson, an 87-year-old former missionary whose uncle was sentenced to death for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising during Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain – although he was later spared.

A poll by Ireland Thinks this month revealed support for 61 percent — but polls show that only about 40 to 50 percent use higher taxes to achieve this.

In Northern Ireland, Brexit has only increased frustration. A row over trade rules for the region, which the majority voted to stay in, has paralyzed local politics. Reunification with EU member Ireland is a way “to escape the six-year torture process of Brexit,” said Ben Collins, a former union activist and author of Irish unity, time to prepare.

Ireland has changed dramatically since partition. Once fervently Catholic, it is now increasingly secular, multicultural and progressive after referendums legalized gay marriage, abortion and divorce. It’s also far wealthier than the once more prosperous north, which is home to some of Britain’s most deprived areas and is still struggling to heal a legacy of division.

The Peace Wall separating Catholics and Protestants in West Belfast. Last month’s census results showed that Catholics outnumbered Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time © Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

With memories still fresh of Britain’s divisive Brexit vote in 2016, which left the mechanics of leaving the EU vague, economists say careful planning of the impact on pensions, health, education, policing and the economy is key .

Sinn Féin Chairwoman Mary Lou McDonald, who is pushing for a reunification referendum within a decade, has called for the creation of a citizens’ assembly — a forum used, for example, in the run-up to legalizing abortion.

The conference, funded by donations and ticket sales and attended by representatives from 10 political parties, was full of emotion but lacking in detail – despite a 125-page book on sale at the event detailing the impact on the economy, health , social policy, environment and sport.

What form reunification might take – whether to simply absorb Northern Ireland into the Republic or retain some degree of decentralization – remains unclear. Varadkar was booed for proposing to keep its own courts, education system and other institutions but under Irish, not British, sovereignty; nonetheless, he called for “more events like this . . . with more voices challenging our beliefs and forcing us to face uncomfortable realities.”

Jarlath Kearney, a former special adviser to Sinn Féin who has since left the party and politics, said “a steady, patient and prudent approach” is realistic. “All constitutional evolution will occur in phases, not as . . . Big Bang,” he said.

Many were optimistic. “I say I’ll get a tattoo in ’32 [counties] before I die,'” said Brian Murray, 57, a project manager from Dublin. “I hope to make it before I’m 65.”

Celeste Roche, 41, one of the few participants not yet convinced of reunification, left the conference in a reflective mood. “My view was that things seemed to be fine [as they are],” she said. “It made me a lot more insecure.” Ireland buzzes as talks of reunification grow louder

Adam Bradshaw

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