A united Ireland will only succeed if its creation is endorsed by convincing majorities in the north and south of the island, Leo Varadkar has said.
The Republic of Ireland’s deputy premier said while “50% plus one” was enough “on paper and in law” to win referenda on unification, he said in reality such a margin would not be a “recipe for success”.
In a speech at an Irish unity rally in Dublin organised by Ireland’s Future, the Fine Gael leader warned that those advocating the “dream” of a united Ireland must ensure constitutional change is not seen as “nightmare” by others.
The Tanaiste said the aspirations of unionists could not be “silenced” or “wished away” as he cautioned that unification could only be achieved through consensus.
He said compromise would be needed when it came to designing the shape of a united Ireland, suggesting that a devolved parliament at Stormont could be retained in a new state, with Northern Ireland also having a separate police service, health service and education system. He said existing north-south and east-west political bodies may also continue.
Some members of the audience at the 3Arena booed when Mr Varadkar outlined the structures that he thought could potentially be retained in the event of reunification.
Mr Varadkar, who will once again become Taoiseach in December, said “cross community engagement” both within Northern Ireland and between north and south was currently “far short” of what would be needed to build a “new Ireland”.
The Fine Gael TD, who has made clear he does not think the conditions are currently right for a border poll, said there was danger of placing too much focus on referenda, when the priority should be on trying to increase engagement and build trust.
“A shared, united and new Ireland is something that many Irish people have dreamt about for many years,” he told the rally.
“It is a noble and legitimate aspiration, and one that I share.
“It is an idea that has come a long way in a very short time. When I was growing up in the 1980s, an event like this would have been criticised for being destructive and divisive, if it happened at all.
“Decades of violence sullied the dream of unification.
“In the 1990s, peace changed everything. Old hatreds were replaced by a new hope. We won the freedom to dream anew. We dared to ask what was the next stepping stone in our national story.
“But with that freedom comes a challenge, a responsibility on all of us to ensure that our dreams do not become someone else’s nightmare. A challenge to avoid replicating the mistakes of the past. Imposing our will on the unwilling.”
Mr Varadkar said a recurring theme in Irish history was the failure to find a “solution that works for all”.
“We know what that has led to: a history of resentment, violence, bitterness and betrayal. A legacy of pain. A divided Ireland. A divided people,” he said.
“There are opposing dreams on this island which cannot be ignored, cannot be wished away, and cannot be silenced. Those approaches failed in the past and they will fail now and in the future.
“Our own long history has taught us that a dream imposed by force is no dream at all.
“What has succeeded is respect for other opinions, a willingness to work for the collective good and a belief in consensus. Ourselves together.
“We need to acknowledge that cross community engagement in Northern Ireland and between the North and the South remains far short of where it needs to be if we want to build this new and united Ireland.
“There is a distinct danger that we could focus too much on a border poll and on future constitutional models, and not enough on how we enhance engagement, build trust and create the conditions for a convincing majority for change, which is what we want
“So we need to engage with unionists that we have here today and that growing group who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish and indeed those who identify as both, that middle ground. We also need to acknowledge the right of northern nationalists to have equal recognition in this debate.
“We can’t build our future based on narrow majorities or on the wishes of just one community. For these reasons, I believe our objective should be to secure as large a majority as possible in both jurisdictions in any future poll.
“50% plus one may be enough on paper and in law, and I don’t dispute that for a moment, but a majority so narrow is not a recipe for success.
“Our only hope depends on presenting a proposal – north and south – that will be able to achieve democratic consent and this will involve compromise.”
Mr Varadkar said there was a need to develop “imaginative” models for what a united Ireland could look like. He suggested that could potentially involve Northern Ireland retaining a devolved parliament, its own courts, education system, police and health service.
“Some might see that as no change, but the biggest change would be the most important one – the sovereign government would be the Irish one,” he added.
“The right to be Irish, British, or both, and accepted as such would continue, as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. In the main, symbols would not change without agreement.
“Colleagues, it cannot be a forced set of relationships, it cannot be based on ultimatums or demands.
“It should not be the triumph of one tribe over the other. Because otherwise we will all suffer and it won’t succeed.”
Mr Varadkar concluded by stressing the need to include unionist voices in future conversations on unification.
“I believe we need to have more events like this, and we need to fill them with more voices who challenge our views and force us to confront uncomfortable realities,” he said.
“And we need to applaud those views as strongly as we cheer those who tell us what we want to hear.
“That will send out a message – across this island and across the world – that we are genuinely interested in what can be achieved together.
“I believe we can do this in the years ahead. We can make this a shared dream for a shared island.”
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