What shape would a United Ireland take?

A road runs along a stream that marks the border between Northern Ireland (left) and Ireland, at Castleblayney

A road runs along a stream that marks the border between Northern Ireland (left) and Ireland, at Castleblayney - Credit: Getty Images

A United Ireland does not mean simply assimilating the North into the Republic. Everything must be on the table

Despite all the contemporary difficulties that we face on this island, and indeed across these islands, 23 years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement there is a clear sense of hope for a better future.

We should be hopeful and optimistic for our shared future across this island, even if we do not necessarily agree on what constitutional form it should take. With the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland mere weeks away, conversations regarding the future of Northern Ireland’s status are once again at the fore of our discourse.

Brexit and Covid-19 have undoubtedly contributed to this resurgence by highlighting the importance of enhanced engagement and co-operation across the island. Regardless of whether one supports a United Ireland or not, it cannot be denied that increased co-operation is to everyone’s benefit.

We cannot have discussions regarding a New Ireland without acknowledging that tensions are on the rise in Northern Ireland. Though this does not indicate a return of the Troubles, any violence is hugely concerning. When we have discussions regarding Ireland’s future, we must recognise these strike a note of fear in many communities. While we should not apologise for a desire to achieve a United Ireland, we also cannot ignore or discount these concerns.

The newly established Shared Island Unit by the Irish government, which prioritises open and honest discussions between communities, is an important vehicle for us to listen to the fears of certain groups regarding our future; to address them and promote meaningful dialogue. This is how we will build the engagement which is key to building a truly shared Island.

The Good Friday Agreement must be the cornerstone any engagement. The goal of, “partnership, equality and mutual respect” is as relevant today as 23 years ago. We must maximise the use of the Agreement's institutions, including the North South Ministerial Council, British Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. These provide vital outlets for not just North-South discussions but also East-West, which are ever more important given the UK’s exit from the EU.

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All this must be done regardless of what constitutional future one aspires to. However, if the time comes for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to declare a border poll required, this work will have need to have been carried out. It should be the foundation for a detailed and formulaic planning on what a New Ireland should be.

A United Ireland will not simply see Northern Ireland assimilate into today’s Ireland. No discussion can be off the table as no aspect of the future of the island can go unaddressed.

I believe an Electoral Commission with an external chairperson should be established creating a Citizens’ Assembly with individuals from across the island to shape what a New Ireland will look like. The resulting work should be debated and amended by a parliamentary committee from each of the Assembly, the Oireachtas and Westminster before returning to the Citizens’ Assembly for the finalisation of a vision for a New Ireland. This should then go to the people by referendum in each jurisdiction.

Discussions will need to be had on what a New Ireland will look like in practice. A crucial starting point is who will pay for a United Ireland? Whether there is a phased reduction in the UK subvention to Northern Ireland of approximately £10 billion per year, or if Ireland will fund this cost must be discussed. Regardless, we must convince the Irish taxpayer that any initial cost of a United Ireland will be worth it.

The fates of an economy can change dramatically over time. When Northern Ireland was created, it was the economic driving force of the island. Clearly the tide has shifted and while the Northern economy has lagged, the Irish economy has grown exponentially, largely due to EU membership. Continuing EU membership will be obvious for any New Ireland.

Conversations are also needed on what our political, education and healthcare systems will look like. Should we reserve positions in our parliament for those from the North? Will our education system continue as it or become blended with that of Northern Ireland? The NHS is hugely important in Northern Ireland, affinity transcends any political identity; a New Ireland will need a healthcare system that draws on the strong points of existing systems and ensures a level of care that is enhanced from the status quo.

There is clearly a huge amount of work to be done. The priority must be placed on growing relationships and building trust. The work will not be easy, it will require patience, compromise and imagination but it can be achieved.

Neale Richmond  is a Fine Gael TD (Member of Parliament) for the Dublin Rathdown constituency

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