Former Irish president Mary McAleese has said that Brexit is an opportunity to “recalibrate the Irish unity debate” at a “potentially massive” level.
McAleese, who was speaking during the Dublin City University (DCU) Brexit Institute Conference on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, said there is a need to ensure the “groundwork is laid” ahead of any Irish unity referendum.
She said the debate is part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which states that Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State may call for a referendum if it appears likely that the majority of voters would wish to leave the United Kingdom and enter into a united Ireland.
"It's out there, the when of it we do not know but nonetheless, it's on the horizon, ahead of us," she said.
McAleese, now a professor of children, law and religion at the University of Glasgow, said that the debate on Irish unity has typically focused on crude numbers of Catholics and nationalists "over and against" Protestants and unionists.
"And it has focused on the coming demographic changes which will in a relatively short time, give Northern Catholics a voting majority," she added.
"We have instead now this opportunity to develop a wholly fresh focus on the future, making it a place of transcendence, where multiple identities can be respected, be accommodated, can grow to become one community, gathered around the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the European Union.
"Clear sighted people can now see that we are navigating, we've been nudged off the old trajectory, what I might call the 'wrap the green flag around me' trajectory, into a much much healthier space where our focus is on let's talk about what a shared future might look like, let's hear the fears, let's hear the imagination and creativity we can bring, and what decency we can bring to resolving those fears and those issues."
She added: "Someday they will be asked to decide that, and those of us, and I am one of them, who believe that the truest and best potential of this entire island and all its people will only be realized when Northern Ireland and Ireland merge, and emerge as a modern, European democracy, inclusive of all, respectful of all," she said.
"Long before any future referendum goes live, we need to do what Brexit has abjectly failed to do.
"That is to delve deeply, objectively, consciously, in a considered way, into all the issues, whatever they are, the 5,000, the 10,000 issues, that would be raised by the ending of partition and the creation of a new reconciled Ireland."