Actor Jimmy Nesbitt has told an event about a potentially united Ireland that a border poll “may be inevitable” – but there must be an informed debate on constitutional change first.
e added that a border poll cannot take place “just when the numbers are right”, referring to landmark census results released recently which show Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time in Northern Ireland.
Sir. Nesbitt – who has a trade union background – was speaking at the Ireland’s Future event in Dublin’s 3Arena on Saturday, where around 5,000 attendees listened to discussions about Irish reunification.
The event started with a voiceover from Ballymena man Liam Neeson, before the chair of Ireland’s Future – Irish Senator Frances Black opened the proceedings, saying that those trying to stifle debate on constitutional change are “seeking to shut down legitimate political aspirations”.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill was due to attend the event but was ill and her colleague Declan Kearney attended and took part in a discussion alongside Fianna Fail’s Jim O’Callaghan, Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond, Labour’s Ivana Bacik and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood .
Kearney said Irish unity is about “leaving the scars of the past behind through reconciliation to create an Ireland worth living in”.
Jim O’Callaghan said “division was a sectarian solution to a political problem” and a united Ireland is in the interests of young people living on the island of Ireland and “Brexit has brought that into focus”.
Eastwood said he “doesn’t understand how you can be ambivalent” on the issue of constitutional change and “we have to explain to every single person how a united Ireland would make their daily lives better”.
Neale Richmond added that he wants the debate to be about “Brits in” not “Brits out”. “I want people to know that their rights will be protected,” he added.
It was not only politicians who attended the event, but others, including actor Colm Meaney, who said that the Republic of Ireland has for years given opponents of a united Ireland “ammunition” through how it handled various issues and how the country was “essentially a theocracy” for a long time, effectively ruled by the Catholic Church.
“Maybe ‘ammunition’ is the wrong word,” he joked.
Former taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the event was a “statement of intent about the future of Ireland”.
“A united Ireland is a noble and legitimate aspiration and one that I share,” he said, saying when he was growing up in the 80s such an event would have been criticized as divisive, but not today.
He spoke of a potentially united Ireland that delivers for everyone, nationalists and unionists alike, saying: “Our dreams must not become someone else’s nightmare.”
Sir. Varadkar said supporters of a united Ireland “need to engage with unionists and the growing number of people who see themselves as Northern Irish … we cannot build a future based on a narrow majority.” The Fine Gael politician was booed by a section of the crowd when he suggested north-south and east-west bodies should be part of a “divided Ireland”.
Penultimate speaker, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said that “the two states created by partition have failed” and that it is “the duty of this generation to repair what is broken”.
“We have many tribes and traditions, but we are only one nation,” she said.
“If we aspire to build our new Ireland as a real home for all, then it must shape how we deliver healthcare, housing and public services.
“It must shape how we create good jobs, decent wages, dynamic businesses and how we ensure workers and families can live good, safe and prosperous lives.”
Jimmy Nesbitt gave the keynote address and spoke of his Protestant and Unionist upbringing, saying he welcomes the debate on potential constitutional changes but feels “any change has to be led by people and solutions cannot be forced” on people.
“Solutions must emerge from a public discussion of the options for the future constitutional governance of the island and its relationship with our friends in the rest of the British Isles and in the EU,” he said.
“Politicians can point to political mandates that give them the power and responsibility to lead, but people can only vote for what’s in front of them on the ballot. I think it’s time to ask the wider community outside the ballot box, how it wants to be governed.
“As a society we need to build on that common ground, examine what a common island means and allow any discussion of future constitutional arrangements to surface. A border survey may well be inevitable, but if it’s going to happen, let it happen after an informed debate and not just when the numbers are right.
“This is my main point. The latest census results are interesting, but let’s not see them as final.”
He said the Good Friday Agreement promised there would be a “new future” for these islands but “that has not happened”.
“There are many who have found the frequent doldrums in Stormont as unbearable, uncomfortable, embarrassing, frankly and appalling as giving up what people voted for in 1998,” he said.
The Coleraine man suggested that “perhaps the time is now to explore what a world would look like post-unionism and post-nationalism.”
“I know a lot of northern Protestants are open to this. Among my friends who are all boys who are Protestants—well, men, we’re all in our mid-fifties, I know I don’t look it – they would really consider now what the idea of a new union of Ireland could look like, and I think there are a lot of people who think that,” he said.
“I’m still quite about what a new Union of Ireland would look like. I’m certainly very keen to embrace anything where the relationship between the people of the north improves and between the north and the south and between these islands and it strikes me, that I think a lot more people are thinking about the idea of just considering themselves Irish.”
Finally, he said, “I will leave you with a traditional and appropriate Irish blessing. ‘May you have the hindsight to know where you have been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you has gone too far’,” concluding with the Irish phrase for ‘thank you’, “go raibh maith agat”.