Posted by Niall O'Dowd at 6/13/2009 8:19 PM EDT

The cause of a united Ireland is alive and well if the eight hundred people gathered in the Hilton Ballroom in midtown Manhattan on Saturday for a conference on a United Ireland is any barometer.

While there was lots of the old time rhetoric and rallying cries, there was also some very serious and lively debate on what a united Ireland means nowadays and whether it is achievable. Sinn Fein did the Irish American community a service by hosting this event and laying out the pitfalls as well as the promise.

Delegates came from all over the East Coast and Chicago to hear Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, politics professor Brendan O'Leary, former Lebanon hostage Brian Keenan, labor leader Terry O'Sullivan and author Pete Hamill discuss the way forward on the issue.

Up to 30 other people also spoke in brief two minute bites, but the stars for me were O'Leary who is a leading world wide expert on divided identities and Keenan, who gave the kind of heartfelt speech about his Protestant roots in East Belfast that left the audience hushed and quiet.

O'Leary laid out in clear form how a United Ireland might come about. He dismissed the argument that the nationalist population can out breed the unionists, though he did point out that the gap has closed significantly.

He spoke of a federal solution, where Northern Ireland in its current form would be part of a confederation on the island of Ireland. In that scenario, rather like the United States, Northern Ireland would continue to be governed as it is now,The Irish Republic would be governed probably in similar fashion but there would also be a federal government based somewhere on the island comprising members from both states who would have overall responsibility.

He also presented some intriguing possibilities. What now for Scotland and England? After the recent elections The Scottish Nationalist Party is now the largest party and they want a referendum on splitting off from England.
At the same time a Conservative government, which will be deeply disliked in Scotland, is likely to take over in Britain after the next election. If Scotland splits away what then of Northern Ireland?

Brian Keenan's presentation, in contrast, was a highly emotional but none the less effective one. He spoke of the one Catholic family on his road growing up in East Belfast and what they endured. He spoke from the heart of his sorrow that his fellow Protestants could never quite pin down who they were or what their complex heritage really was. He spoke of the radical tradition of the dissenters in Northern Ireland and how Protestants needed to lay claim to that part of their heritage too.

It made me think how critical education has become in this whole debate.It is where policing was ten years ago -- a necessary fix in order for the rest of the Northern Ireland peace process to move on.

Simply put educating Protestants and Catholics apart gives everyone their own blind spot. Each side knows little of the heritage and traditions and history of the other. It is absolutely essential if progress is to be made in the two communities in Northern Ireland that the idea of common identity and shared history be fostered. The Northern Irish leaders need to sit down and try and work that out even if it is only mandating that each other's history be taught for starters. The churches on both sides are fading as forces which may well make that much easier in a secular society.

It is something that Irish America must start to press for. The urgency is clear. Two weeks back a Protestant mob kicked a Catholic to death. Fear and ignorance of the Other has to be removed for once and for all.

One other point form the conference,. A resolution was read from Syracuse City Council calling for a United Ireland, Consider that the opening shot in an effort to to have legislatures great and small across the U.S. call for the same thing.

It seems to me Sinn Fein have decided on a next step.