FORMER president Mary McAleese has said that the debate on Irish unity is “on the horizon” as a result of Brexit.
Speaking at the Dublin City University (DCU) Brexit Institute Conference, Mrs McAleese said that the public has a duty to ensure the “groundwork is laid” ahead of any Irish unity referendum.
Mrs McAleese, who is a professor of children, law and religion at the University of Glasgow, said the debate is part of the Good Friday Agreement.
“It’s out there, the when of it we do not know but nonetheless, it’s on the horizon, ahead of us,” she said.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement states that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may call such a referendum if at any time it appears likely that the majority of voters in Northern Ireland would wish to leave the United Kingdom and enter into a united Ireland.
Professor McAleese claimed that Irish unity has 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.”
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She added that the public has to learn from the “Brexit debacle”.
“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 realised 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.”
She added that these range from fears, identity, to governance and representation, and from flags and emblems and anthems.
“From economics to esoterics, we need an army of scholars and lawyers and of intellectuals, and of people of good will, and we need a reservoir of credible good will to approach these issues in a respectful way, before they overwhelm us, as those very issues have overwhelmed and stymied Brexit,” she added.