Irish unity working group to be set up by Derry & Strabane Council

Derry & Strabane Council is to set up an Irish unity working group in advance of any move towards a Referendum on reunification.

Sunday, 2nd May 2021, 2:53 pm
A replica of the flag hoisted at the GPO.

The motion was proposed by Sinn Féin Councillor Conor Heaney and seconded by party colleague, Councillor Sandra Duffy at the April Full Council meeting.

It read: ‘That this Council recognises that the discussions about a constitutional change is now well underway and this Council has a duty to consult with its ratepayers on this important issue and the implications for the Council area and the wider northwest. Therefore, calls on the Council to establish a working group on Irish unity and to begin a consultation with ratepayers and community and business representatives to assess views on the issues related to constitutional change.’

Speaking to his motion, Colr. Heaney said: “Lenin once said, ‘there are decades where nothing happens and then there are weeks where decades happen’.

Sinn Fein Councillor Conor Heaney.

“I believe Ireland is approaching one of those moments in the time ahead. Just about every major political party on this island, including the DUP’s Gregory Campbell, have now acknowledged that a Referendum on Irish unity is now inevitable in the time ahead therefore we have a duty to begin to prepare for what might happen if a unity referendum was to be positive.

“This Council has done sterling work along with its neighbouring Council in Donegal building the NW city region. However in preparation of ending Partition we must go much, much further than that. To take the approach as some have that now is not the time is actually an irresponsible thing to do.”

Colr. Heaney said the Council should set up a working group on Irish unity to look at the structural and practical changes needed, and could consult with key stakeholders on steps needed to exploit ending of Partition and provide a forum for local people to feed in their views on what they wanted to see in a new Ireland. He urged Unionist Councillors not to “knee-jerk” to party positions on this issue but to engage in the discussions around this issue.”

Alliance Colr. Rachael Ferguson said the matter needed to be discussed with respect and understanding and that she appreciated Colr. Heaney was trying to open up the conversation. “But what this motion doesn’t reflect is the other possibilities... it does not address the fears of other communities, nor does it open the conversation up on what happens if the vote was not for a united Ireland.”

She said the working group as proposed is not exploring all options and said Alliance wouldn’t be supporting the motion as they felt it wasn’t inclusive of everyone and all options.

DUP Ald. Hilary McClintock said her party too would not support the motion nor take part in any working group that might be set up. She said: “This is a one sided approach contravenes all of our good relations work in the Council coming at a time when the British government has invested massive amounts of money into NI through the COVID response, the amazing vaccine roll out - never have we been more grateful to the British government or to be part of the UK.”

Ald. McClintock said it was “not the role of Council” to try to influence or assess change, and said she believed Sinn Fein was “deluded” if they believed they were on a course for a united Ireland.

Supporting the motion, SDLP Colr. Martin Reilly said it was not telling people how to vote but could provide a template for important conversations for people and representatives of all backgrounds. “It’s about consulting with our isn’t just about the six counties joining the 26 and leaving it at that, it needs to be about fundamental change inside both the 26 counties and six counties on what a new Ireland would look like. I think that’s the kind of conversation and work this working group needs to do so we welcome that engagement and dialogue.”

Independent Councillor Raymond Barr said independents with their own views must not be excluded on working groups as had been the case in the past, which he branded “undemocratic”.

Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly questioned some of the terminology used in Colr. Heaney’s motion in terms of a Referendum on Irish unity. “What Irish sovereignty now, because of the Good Friday Agreement, has been boiled down to is a British legislatively controlled border poll. I assume that is what he is talking about. If we are going to play the green card, then I suggest we play a proper green card,” he said, before proposing an amendment removing Irish unity from the original motion to be replaced with ‘the restoration of Irish national sovereignty’.

“Partition has been fostered by the British to maintain their interest in Ireland,” Colr. Donnelly said, adding that a British legislative border poll was not self-determination.

Colr. Donnelly’s amendment failed to get the support needed for inclusion, with five voting for it, 27 against and two abstentions.

Speaking on the original motion, PBP Colr. Shaun Harkin said Partition failed the vast majority of people on this island, and said his party was for ending it and a new Ireland with more equality, more social justice for everybody on the island. He said his party was supporting the motion but proposed an amendment that explicitly includes ‘trade unions, climate justice, women’s, LGBTQ+, migrant, racial justice, all island health, disability, mental health, rail and other social justice clubs’, which was accepted by the majority with 25 voting for, 7 against and one abstaining, and thus incorporated into the motion.

Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher proposed another amendment that ‘all party members and all independent councillors’ be explicitly included in the working group, to prevent exclusion of the majority of independents, which fell.

Independent Councillor Sean Carr concurred that all independents come from completely different backgrounds and deserve to be represented and have a voice on the working group.

Returning to the motion, UUP Ald. Darren Guy said most unionists had no desire to partake in discussions around what was being portrayed as some sort of ‘utopia’ and that his party would not sit on such a working group. “Arguments for a united Ireland and poor and totally unconvincing to us,” he said. “Besides there is absolutely nothing to suggest a border poll is calling up.”

Aontú Colr. Emmett Doyle said he felt there should be a discussion on Irish unity, but said it was sad unionists would not take part. “No-one from a unionist perspective has ever sat down and tried to persuade me of the benefits of the Union.... This isn’t about me over you, but about bringing about a situation where everyone is listened and if there is a case to be made for the Union let’s hear it.”

The original motion from Colr. Heaney, with the amendment from Colr. Harkin, was passed with 22 voting for 12 voting against and one abstention.