The future of Northern Ireland is deeply uncertain. Brexit, the rise of English nationalism, Scotland, Stormont deadlock and demographic change make Irish unity a realistic alternative. The polls vary greatly, but some have unity very much within sight, especially if there is a harsh Brexit and a disruptive border.
People are talking about this at kitchen tables across the north. But whilst we are highly engaged about if we would like unity or the union, and many of us have gut reactions, we are only coming around to the fact that the central questions are why do we want it?; and how is it going to work?
In parallel to our domestic puzzles, Northern Ireland is ransacked by global currents. Massive changes in work, ecology, migration, age demographics and technology are all well underway.
And it’s in this wider context that we find ourselves wanting to think more deeply and logically about what Irish unity could be like. Because to be honest, nobody has a clue.
Similarly, if a border poll is called and a majority of people vote to stay in the union, this cannot be a vote for the status quo. The world is moving. We cannot be static. So much needs to change.
How do we get match fit for the politics of the future, while so much of our time is spent combing through the past? How can we re-imagine current political debate in a way is respectful of identity, but is honest about the global social and economic rollercoaster that we’re strapped into?
As the Brexit referendum showed us, it’s a good plan to start talking about ideas early, when there is space and time for flexible and creative thinking. The question of a new Ireland is here now. And we all want to live in a place where we can feel at home and our kids can be safe and happy. Now is the time to start thinking about the various shapes and forms that the future of this island could possibly take.
Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be bringing you a series of articles, imagining Ireland – the north of it, the south of it, its relationship with Scotland, England, Wales and Europe – from a variety of perspectives.
Our aim is to gather personal reflections and data analysis from a range of different angles. The goal is to begin the conversation early, do some thinking around unity, and alternative imaginations of the union, that we hope will help detoxify and expand the debate.
We need to be asking… What opportunities are opened up by the prospect of unity? What are the things the Irish state and Irish society do well? What does the UK do better? In which areas do both fall short? Is Ireland or the UK better positioned to adapt to the coming waves of political transformation? Which unit is more flexible and adaptable? Which unit has our best interests at heart, if any? Will Northern Ireland simply always be a peripheral concern to the English metropole? Does the Irish state have the economic capacity and political will to have the north? Can a new Ireland be a genuinely welcoming place for Protestants, British identifiers and unionists? How? Can Northern Ireland in the union be a genuinely welcoming place for Catholics, Irish identifiers and nationalists? How? What new form of new relationships between these islands might be possible? Is there a way to imagine unity that inspires us to organise society better, rather than being a messy, painful surgical graft? Around what principles would people even want to be united? Is Northern Ireland actually reformable? How?
As usual, there are more questions than answers.
But we’re interested in hearing from everybody. To look at this from as many different angles as possible.
We want to hear from nationalists and republicans, outlining their ideas of a new Ireland, thinking through policies and proposals, as well as broader reflections on what type of place Ireland might be in the future. Also, how do we imagine the north in a continued union, in the event that a future border poll would go this way. What would need to change, what would be feared, what could be lived with?
We also want to hear how Protestants and Others they imagine a new Ireland. This includes modern day Dissenters, evangelical Christians, Protestant reconciliation workers, various types of unionists, loyalists, atheists, the non-affiliated etc. If unity happened, what would be hoped for, what would be feared, what could be lived with? Alternatively, what type of union do you imagine 20 years from now, and how do we get there?
And what of the socio-economics of a new Ireland? How would we tackle tax, pensions, welfare, health etc. under unity. What are the realities of Northern Ireland’s stagnant economic position within the union, and are these fixable? We’re interested in what the political left and right and have to say. We need to hear from the south. If you have a specific specialism in economics or any area of social policy, and would like to contribute, please do drop us a line.
Finally, we will seek out alternative perspectives on a new Ireland. These articles will look at the prospect of unity, or continued union, from a number of non-traditional perspectives, including mothers, LGBTQ+ people, farmers, environmentalists, migrants etc. What are their hopes for the future, and where can these best be achieved?
We’ll also be running an open submissions competition where you can tell us what we haven’t thought of. There will be prizes for the winning submissions, which will also be featured on the blog. More information on this to follow soon.
We’ll never be able to curate a 100% balanced debate. None of us are blandly neutral on the topic. But we will make every effort to include all types of voices. If you feel your point of view us under-represented, pitch don’t bitch! Write something, send it to us, if it’s good, we’ll publish it, whether we agree with it or not.
Overall, we hope that injecting these new conversations into the debate at an early stage will help expand our knowledge of the key issues. We also hope they will provide alternative – perhaps less oppositional – frameworks for understanding and approaching the difficult constitutional conversations that lie ahead. And most of all that they will bring bread and butter political issues, and future-facing political dilemmas, to the fore. That we use this opportunity to talk not only about identity, but our broader visions for tackling health, climate change, technology and jobs in the context of these islands.
The project is about imagination, creative problem solving, honest reflection, data-driven knowledge creation. Many of us will take positions on unity or the union, but the overall body of work is wide open. The aim is to engage in a less divisive way with a very difficult topic. We want to fill our current political vacuum with new ideas and aspirations for the future.
A new Ireland is not happening yet. But the last two years have shown us that dramatic political change can happen in a blink of an eye. Better to start talking about it sooner rather than later.
Questions and pitches to Claire – [email protected] or David [email protected]
Claire Mitchell is a writer and researcher from Belfast. Formerly senior lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. More at www.clairemitchell.net