Nathan Stuart summarises last week's "Yes For Unity’ meeting in West Belfast.
Last Wednesday the campaigning group ‘Yes For Unity’ held an event in west Belfast in which a number of speakers detailed to a crowded room their views on the increasingly likely prospect of a referendum on Irish reunification. As a young, non-aligned republican disillusioned with the current state of play within organisational republicanism, an event based on a campaign with a clear direction and a clear outcome was greatly appealing. Subsequently, I considered that an objective report of the event would be of great benefit to those who couldn't attend.
Of particular interest were the differing views of the panel that participated, having representatives from mainstream nationalism as well as the republican left both in favour and against. It is uncommon to see these competing groups sharing a public platform and the fact that the event was throughout comradely and respectful is a testament to the organisers, as the prospect of engaging with the mechanisms for unity set out in the Good Friday Agreement is nothing if not divisive among wider republicanism.
The panel itself was made up of Ciarán Cunningham of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), Tommy McKearney representing the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, Frankie Quinn of the 1916 Societies and Sinn Féin Councillor Deidre Hargey. Ciarán opened the event speaking about the formation of the campaigning group back in May 2017 following a series of discussions within the wider republican socialist base and explained why he felt it necessary for republicans traditionally hostile to the prospect of a border poll to evaluate their dismissal of it. Warning that by excluding ourselves from the process that we would in fact be allowing the right to monopolise the debate and to drag the entire process in a direction that would see the wealthy and their political allies reap the benefits of unity at the expense of the working class. Yes For Unity, he went on to explain, should be considered a comfortable place for principled republicans and socialists to participate in the debate. To promote their vision of how they want to see our island evolve from the constitutional change. The necessity of this form of organisation is the result of the ramifications that will inevitably follow if we were to simply abstain, albeit for principled ideological concerns. The general public, already all too alienated from Irish republicanism, would have no reason to engage with those who they would view as having refused in aiding the ending of partition and any ideological objection will certainly fall on deaf ears.
Tommy McKearney followed with an apt comparison to contemporary Irish society, in particular the open self-confidence of the Irish Republican community, to the conditions of the past that would have made the idea of mass mobilisation much more difficult if not outright impossible. The ending, to a large degree, of the societal discrimination and the political unionist majority has opened up avenues for the Republican population to assert their right to self-determination in ways that simply did not exist several decades previous. Tommy also explained that Britain’s shrinking influence internationally has had ramifications in terms of their position on “internal” affairs. No longer a world power, Britain has to a large extent lost many of the reasons that made the conquest of Ireland and their hold on the North a favourable prospect to them. Evidence supporting this assertion is abundant, when we consider the Conservative party, which has historically been the leading force behind retaining the Union, with recent polls stating a majority of it’s party members would sacrifice its hold on the north to see Brexit carried out or the fact that former Prime Minister Theresa May herself stated she would expect a vote to pass in favour of reunification. On both the radical change in the political climate in the North as well as internationally, Tommy is correct.
Contrasting the previous speakers Frankie Quinn, while welcoming the initiative and encouraging its pragmatism, also warned of its pitfalls. The most glaring being the traditional republican critique, that the mechanisms for a border poll are designed in such a way to make the prospect of success a weak one. Of course it should come as no surprise that the GFA would favour those that support the status-quo but Frankie's contribution was such that the audience was made aware of variables in relation to the border poll, one such difficulty being the fact that the enabling of a border poll is ultimately down to the British Secretary of State and the exact conditions as to what is required for the SoS to make the order is not clear. However Mr Quinn did not go as far as to state that the border poll is pointless endeavour for Irish Republicans indeed he stated that a yes vote should be encouraged.
To conclude Deidre Hargey spoke of the difficulty achieving but the necessity of cohesion not only in building relationships between catholic and protestant but between the varying shades of border poll advocates which is certainly far from a homogeneous ideological group. Cllr Hargey stated Sinn Féin’s position is a fifty plus one basis for achieving unification, nothing less, a position agreed by all on the panel. She also went on to state her party was calling on the Free State government to form an Oireachtas committee to bring forward the case for unity. This is an essential demand for any campaigning group or political party as the GFA does not specify how the Free State would replicate the six country referendum.
There is ambiguity in terms of timing as well as whether the twenty six counties would require multiple referendums for agreement, for unity in principle as well as for constitutional amendment. Ms Hargey detailed the intention of Sinn Féin to form focus groups in terms of looking specifically at various aspects of the State, an all-Ireland healthcare system for example and spoke of the need for street based activism and campaigns, something ‘Yes For Unity’ has been encouraging from its inception. Encouraging activists to speak to their family, neighbours and in their places of work. Of the role that our youth will play and the likelihood that a campaign to lower the voting age will coincide with the campaign for unity. and finally, that even after the border poll is achieved and after reunification is complete, that an Ireland socially progressive and economically egalitarian will face threats and challenges and that the activists struggling for unity today will need to have the same drive for activism post-partition.
⏭Nathan Stuart is an independent republican.