The objective of a new and united Ireland is a legitimate constitutional goal for many

Derry-born academic, Professor Colin Harvey, says the Irish government needs to take direct responsibility for enabling the collective effort of preparing for the future of a shared island

The debate on a united Ireland is entering a more focused phase, writes Professor Colin Harvey.

Many will welcome this as explicit recognition that people should be in a position to make an informed choice when the time arrives.

How odd it would be to anchor the constitutional status of any region on the ‘principle of consent’ and never think to ask people or to let them know the consequences of their answer. Much of what is happening now should be unproblematic and viewed in terms of responsible management. Given that we are talking about one likely constitutional future, it would be silly not to face into it.

Professor Colin Harvey.

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That is what we expect governments and others to do. To think about where Ireland is going and anticipate opportunities and risks. But that is often not the case here.

A desired outcome that is present in the Good Friday Agreement, and in the domestic law of both states, is problematised with a persistent wall of noise. All aimed at making practical work and civic advocacy difficult.

Much of the opposition should be seen in those terms: as sophisticated attempts to derail the conversation about change. Too often this tactic is caricatured as ineffective. That is a mistake, which can lapse into complacency. Those involved in the streams of invective know what they are doing. There is a well-thought through campaign to delegitimise people so that their professional expertise, and the substance of what they say, become secondary to ad hominem insults.

Its obsessive and repetitive nature creates a potentially chilling effect across this society. Who would not want a quiet life in that contested context? However, the negativity appears to be having the unintended consequence of bringing even more people to the table. And that is welcome. The best response is to join in and keep going.

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Advance planning is happening as a matter of basic fact. It is still not at the level or intensity required, but it is hard to miss the ongoing initiatives. This is particularly striking in universities - the ARINS project being only one valuable example - but evident also in the books being published or forthcoming and other forms of outputs. Frank Connolly’s impressive United Nation: The Case for Integrating Ireland is the latest example.

The response often then is: where is your detailed plan or proposal for a united Ireland? Let me be clear: It would be easy for a group of academics and/or others to produce the framework for a united Ireland. A draft constitution is easier to write than you might imagine. But is that what you want? Do you really believe a small group of people should go away privately and determine your fate? I suspect not.

What is notable is the attention to inclusive processes. Those advocating change know that how you arrive at your final proposal matters. There is a shared desire to get this right and to involve people. Thus, the sustained emphasis on civic dialogue and democratic deliberation. Proposals for a citizens’ assembly, an Oireachtas Committee and dedicated governmental attention make good sense as ways to generate detailed reflection and draw upon relevant expertise.

At some point, however, choices must be made based on evidence about the present and preferred future. And here there will need to be candid acknowledgement that not all will agree about the content and shape of a new and united Ireland. As these internal debates develop, it is worth recalling that, even when a united Ireland happens, it will remain imperfect. There will always be challenges, particularly for those seeking to advance equality, human rights and social justice. But, if this is going to be a ‘new’ and transformed Ireland, then the content of the novel components must be considered.

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How should the ‘shared island’ agenda relate to this effort? There is a risk of confusion around the scope of the various ‘shared island’ initiatives. It is common to hear people imply a tension between a united Ireland and a shared island. But that is simply not the case. This is part of the same overall project. When it happens, a united Ireland will be a shared island. It is one of the possible agreed outcomes of the exercise of the ‘principle of consent’/right of self-determination. Avoiding this reality seems counterproductive and limits the potential and ambition of, for example, the Shared Island Unit. That Unit, and associated initiatives, could do much more, if permitted, on how the island is likely to be shared in the future.

It makes considerable sense to broaden and deepen the conversation around constitutional change. The proliferation of projects is heartening. But it does raise the question of coordination and directing these efforts towards practical proposals. This is where the Irish Government, in particular, will have a role. Hiding behind universities, academics and civic initiatives has its advantages. But it is not a substitute for determined, open and well-resourced governmental action. Why, for example, ask the UK Government questions about a ‘border poll’ in the media, when you can table them at the next British Irish Intergovernmental Conference?

It is time for the Irish Government to take responsibility directly for enabling the collective effort of preparing for the future of this shared island. The objective of a new and united Ireland within the EU, enjoying healthy relations with its neighbour, is a legitimate constitutional goal sought by many. Not something to be stumbled into or to fear. But to be ready for and embrace with imagination and courage.

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law in the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, a Fellow of the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Irish Studies and a member of the Management Board of Ireland’s Future.