Choyaa on Ireland’s Future…

Ireland’s Future held its latest conference at the 3Arena on Saturday, with the event being heralded by organisers as a significant step forward in the push for Irish Unity. Predictably following the conference, opinions were divided with some deeming the event as a defining moment in Irish history whilst others felt it was a misfire and many in between were unaware it even happened. Having watched the event online, I thought I would give a Unionist perspective on the proceedings.

One initial observation was the sheer volume of participants, there were 33 billed, and whilst this number was a statement of intent, the actual outworking meant at times the conferences felt bloated, rushed, and overlong. Speakers were frequently hurried into making their contributions and rather than details being teased out and it felt at times that many contributors were reduced to repeating cliches and buzzwords such as “inclusive, diverse, and progressive” whilst always underlying the significance and historic nature of the conference.

The opening panel discussion chaired by Amanda Ferguson highlighted several problems that impacted the conference. The panel itself was too large which meant that big players such as Colum Eastwood had minimal impact on proceeding and was grossly underused. The predictable questions were vaguely answered or often deflected to which the chairperson could only laugh off and Sinn Féin’s Declan Kearney was omitted from the question around symbols due to time constraints, a theme that would continue throughout the day. The panel had no strong views on the topic of symbols within a future Ireland which was surprising as Neale Richmond promoted the event using a picture of Michael Collins and an Irish flag as his backdrop or was that for Sinn Féin’s benefit? There was a feeling that those politicians outside of Sinn Féin were going to painful lengths to emphasise their United Ireland credentials for fear of being outflanked. One notable contribution from Neale Richmond was that he didn’t feel Fine Gael had anything in common with Unionist parties to form a partnership with them. As Unionism is frequently told it would wield considerable influence post Unification as kingmakers, this assumption may not be accurate if parties are unwilling to enter coalitions with them.

There was much talk before the conference about the involvement of “cultural Unionists”, this specifically related to a video segment involving Andrew Clarke and Peter Adair. Neither individual identified as a Unionist with Andrew Clarke stating he was an “Irish Republican” whilst Peter Adair identifies as a “soft Nationalist” and member of the SDLP. Presumably, what the organisers meant by “cultural Unionists” was either Protestants or former Unionists. It did flag an uneasiness the conference had when addressing the issue of Unionism, most contributors stayed away from the topic, but those that addressed it seemed uncomfortable and a little nervous. The conference was much more relaxed when it came to listening to the views of former Unionists and hearing about this growing demographic. This part seemed overplayed and on several occasions, both Ben Collins and Jimmy Nesbitt talked about how the conversation about Irish Unity is increasing amongst Protestants and Unionists. Still, there is little real evidence of this. Right or wrong there has always been a fear factor of a United Ireland which has been openly discussed within Unionism and the potential of a United Ireland has always been examined for decades but the conversations have not drifted into large detailed discussions about what a new Ireland would look like. For any Unionist watching the conference, there would have been a dread to sit at their kitchen table for fear that a family member would bring up the daily discussions on a United Ireland. Addressing how Unionism would feature in a United Ireland was something the conference failed to elaborate on, Colm Meaney stated Unionists would be allowed to “beat their big drum” in a new Ireland which wasn’t particularly insightful and there was perhaps an assumption that post-Unification, Unionism would assimilate into society and disappear quite quickly.

Not everyone at the conference was unwilling to tackle the concerns of Unionism and others in a potential United Ireland. Leo Varadkar addressed this and gave the most insightful contribution of the conference by outlining that a working model of Northern Ireland could still exist in a United Ireland but this was greeted with booing from the audience. The booing both delighted and unnerved Unionists (watching online) in equal measure. Delight as it justified their nonattendance at what they view as a hostile environment and unnerved them that such a modest suggestion by their standards was greeted so negatively.

The conference had many ideas and with it many inconsistencies. There was much talk about an inclusive Ireland that would reflect everyone but there were repeated calls that it should not consist of a right-wing government. Brexit was continually used to push the Unity argument, however, Bríd Smith from People Before Profits (PBP) spoke during a panel event and was left unchallenged by the chairperson, Frances Black (also the overall compere) regarding their parties support for Brexit in Northern Ireland. Bríd Smith did however get one of the loudest cheers of the day when deriding the current political parties and wanting “binned” the “conservative Unionist parities of the north”. All of the panel discussions would have benefited from fewer members and a stronger and more independent chairperson who could challenge the participants and tease out answers rather than nod approvingly which is what generally happened.

The terms “the north” and “north of Ireland” were the preferred terminology for most people at the conference when referencing Northern Ireland. Vincent Martin suggested that the name “Northern Ireland” could be kept as part of a compromise post-unification only to be booed by some in the audience, again it showed many looking in that there was little room for views that diverged too far from what was deemed acceptable.

The keynote speaker was Mary Lou McDonald, and the delivery was assured and certainly the best and most convincing of the conference there was nothing new within the content, the main tactic which was echoed throughout the conference was to defer issues to a Citizen’s Assembly, this vague ambiguity frees those pushing for Unity from making any firm commitments. It was interesting that the concluding part of Mary Lou McDonald’s speech, “I think we should choose a United Ireland” was probably the most cautious and least convincing line for Unity of the day.

Jimmy Nesbitt rounded off the event but added little in the way of fresh content and stated that he wanted to “reinforce” the themes of the day. Jimmy’s content was mostly a rehash of a 2019 interview he did with the Irish Times right down to talking about his aging Protestant friends who were discussing Unity. The content was specific to the audience and the language was carefully chosen, seeking an Ireland where people from his culture would be proud to say they were from the “north of Ireland”, knowing that this line would prove problematic with many from his culture. A line was included about extending the Unity conversation to Orange halls, this line was for the benefit of the audience and not rooted in any reality, either that or Jimmy has been away from the north of Ireland too long.

Ireland’s Future does deserve credit for having the foresight to initiate these discussions as well as attracting some interesting guests. The problem with the event is that at almost four hours in length there was much talking, many repetitions, and very little substance. It’s easy to poke holes in the current settlement, of which there are many, but promoting workable alternatives is less easy and deferring everything to a Citizen’s Assembly feels like a cop-out. Many of the contributors diluted the subject matter with individual angles to promote be it a book to sell, an upcoming election where absenteeism from the conference would have been political suicide, or membership of various bodies. There will be some disappointment that the venue wasn’t filled and this was after significant promoting of the event, however, 5k is still a strong attendance figure, and perhaps more important for the organisers was pleasing the faithful and keeping the subject matter in the public conscience. The big issues for a Unity campaign remain items such as healthcare, infrastructure, education, pensions, public sector jobs, etc, etc, and these issues were not addressed in any meaningful way and that is before the subject of symbolism and Unionism are contended with.

Unionism breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the conference, the numbers were significantly less than they expected and indeed feared, whilst the booing justified their non-attendance. It will be difficult for Unionism to ever enter discussions aimed at facilitating the end of the Union and indeed such attendance would be counterintuitive. Unionism should concentrate on its own game, it can learn from the conversations that are happening and it can join genuine debates on the Union but it will need to come up with its plan on how to promote and sell the Union, the days of inaction are over. Unionism also must tread carefully with its response to the Unity discussions, forming protests and ludyfying members attending won’t win it any support, instead, it needs to address how it can engage people around the Union in a positive manner.

Unity won’t be won in the 3Arena in Dublin nor will the Union be saved in the Orange halls across Northern Ireland, it will be the side that can appeal to the hearts and minds, and pockets of those from outside of their ideology that will ultimately be successful when a border poll happens. Both sides have a lot to do if they are to win that key nonaligned demographic.

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.