As Brexit hangs in the balance and a referendum on a United Ireland becomes more of a reality it is important to maintain an honest and dedicated commitment to McGuinness’ blueprint.

Gerry Adams recently wrote in the Irish Echo that “achieving a referendum on Irish unity is no longer a matter of if, but when.”

Most Irish Americans, including this one, yearn to see a united Ireland. Re-unification based upon “[c]onsent freely given north and south” is the lynchpin of the landmark Good Friday Agreement (GFA). John Hume said consent provides a peaceful and democratic path to achieving unity in an “agreed Ireland.” Much work remains, however, to secure it.     

The issue of consent has been around for nearly 100 years. After signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Michael Collins said “[l]et us realize that the free Ireland obtained by the Treaty is the greatest common measure of freedom obtainable now.”

He also stated his desire “to win the North-East for Ireland . . . in a peaceful way” by convincing the people “of our goodwill towards them.” Persuasion was a key element for Collins, and it became known as his stepping-stone strategy for re-unification.

At the conclusion of the Hume-Adams talks twenty-five years ago, Adams adopted the stepping-stone strategy to a united Ireland. Adams accepted that “[c]onsent and allegiance of unionists are essential ingredients if a lasting peace is to be established.” The question now, as it was in Collins’ time, is how to win that allegiance?

For Adams, “economic growth and greater prosperity” are one way to overcome people’s fears about re-unification. He also wrote in the Echo that “[r]epublicans have a responsibility to map out the kind of shared, new Ireland we are working to build.” Martin McGuinness provided a blueprint for how to build bridges that create a shared future. 

When McGuinness spoke of nation-building, he called on republicans “to energetically embrace” the need for “national reconciliation.”  He recognized that talking, listening, and shared understanding were necessary for strengthening relationships. He knew that equality, tolerance and mutual respect were essential to an inclusive, unified Ireland. He understood that generosity was required for healing. And, while serving as Deputy First Minister in Stormont, McGuinness showed that words must be backed by deeds. 

To win the vote, all “united Irelanders” should direct their efforts here.   

The GFA allows the right of self-determination to be exercised by the agreement and vote of a majority of the people. It calls for a unity referendum to be held when it appears likely to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State that “a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form a part of a united Ireland.”   

A voting “majority” means 50 per cent plus one.  It is doubtful, however, that polls showing this threshold has been reached would be enough to trigger a re-unification vote. A poll indicating that 50 per cent plus one would prefer that Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom would fall within what is known as a poll’s margin of error. Poll margins would have to be more significant than that to impress the Secretary of State to decide that it is “likely” a vote will produce a majority in favor of a united Ireland. 

Another way to measure voter sentiment is through election results. In the last election, support for the two major parties in the North broke down as follows: Sinn Fein won 27 seats; the DUP won 28 seats. Sinn Fein fell 1175 votes short of over-taking the DUP.  Recent polls seem to track these numbers. According to an Irish Times report, at present, polls are “averaging around the 50 per cent mark.” 

Without an election scheduled, polls become the best measuring stick. Polls are, of course, just a snapshot of voter sentiment at a given time. It is believed that the specter of Brexit is changing the dynamic. In Northern Ireland, 56 per cent of the people voted to remain in the European Union (EU). Understandably, therefore, Brexit is generating movement toward unity. 

The deadline for a Brexit deal with the EU, or a no-deal exit from the EU, continues to be pushed into the future. Perhaps, when Brexit with or without a deal finally becomes a reality, public interest in leaving Great Britain will become more sharply defined. It is hard to know exactly when that day will arrive.     

Until there is a vote, maintaining an honest and dedicated commitment to McGuinness’ blueprint is important. It represents the difficult work that must be undertaken to foster reconciliation, promote harmony and establish a shared society. Additionally, it will increase the number of those favoring unity and grow the margin of victory in a vote. 

In politics, it is axiomatic that the larger a referendum’s majority the more substantial the mandate for change will be.  This is what “united Irelanders” should be seeking to accomplish before the day for the unity vote arrives.

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