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Issue #1616      October 30, 2013

A new Ireland? Let the people decide

Next month will mark the centenary of the establishment of the Irish Citizen Army in Dublin.

It was born out of the 1913 lockout and the violence inflicted on workers striking for better conditions and wages. It was founded by James Connolly and Jim Larkin to defend workers. Three years later it marched to the Dublin General Post Office to participate in the 1916 rising.

In 1914 Connolly identified, with a clarity absent among some of those who today would claim to aspire to his politics, that partition should be opposed.

As the 21st-century debate on the future shape of the island of Ireland gathers momentum it is worth reflecting on Connolly’s prescient words.

In the Irish Worker on April 4, 1914 and in Ireland and Ulster: “An Appeal to the Working Class” Connolly wrote: “In this great crisis of the history of Ireland, I desire to appeal to the working class – the only class whose true interests are always on the side of progress – to take action to prevent the betrayal of their interests contemplated by those who have planned the exclusion of part of Ulster from the Home Rule Bill.”

One week later he wrote: “The effect of such exclusion upon labour in Ireland will be at least equally, and probably more, disastrous.

“All hopes of uniting the workers, irrespective of religion or old political battle cries, will be shattered.”

The history of the last 100 years is evidence of the truth of Connolly’s analysis.

It bears witness to the disastrous impact of Britain’s involvement in Irish affairs which has been marked by conflict and colonialism, plantation and division, and partition.

British policy in Ireland has been bad for all the people of this island and bad for Britain and her people. It is that legacy that this generation of Irish republicans is determined to resolve.

Significant progress has been made since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved 15 years ago. We have transformed society in the north. But that transformation has come at a heavy price on all sides.

Over 3,000 people lost their lives in the course of the conflict. Many more suffered injury and loss. Every single violent act was evidence of a failure of politics and a failure of British policy in Ireland.

Sinn Fein is up for the challenge of building a new, democratic and inclusive society based on equality. We believe that can best be achieved in a new Ireland which embraces all the people of the island.

Earlier this year Sinn Fein called for a date to be set for a border poll, which is allowed for under the Good Friday Agreement.

We believe that such a poll will provide a unique opportunity for a historic debate on the failures of partition and on the future shape of this island.

The adverse impact of partition means that the economic potential of the island of Ireland has been severely stunted.

The additional and unnecessary costs of running two competing economies and states on an island this size, the inefficiencies in the duplication of essential public services such as health and education, energy and agriculture, and a relatively small population have added significantly to the financial, political and social consequences faced by citizens.

Partition created two conservative states on the island.

In the north this led to institutionalised and structured discrimination and sectarianism and to decades of division and conflict. However, despite the efforts of tiny minorities to cling to the past, the peace process has dramatically changed the situation and allowed an entire generation to live in relatively peaceful conditions.

One consequence of this is that the political geography of the north has begun to change. The northern state was gerrymandered to allow for a permanent unionist two-thirds majority.

Three of the nine Ulster counties were jettisoned to guarantee this. But the census figures of last year reveal a shift that gives hope that political dialogue, stability and persuasion can achieve even more deep-rooted change.

For too long there has been a presumption that Protestants are unionists and Catholics are nationalists or republicans.

It was never that simple. Now, for the first time, statisticians were able to ask a question about identity. The results were very interesting. Less than half the population – 40 percent of citizens – stated that they had a British only identity.

A quarter, 25 percent, stated that they had an Irish only identity and just over a fifth, 21 percent, had a Northern Irish only identity.

That’s 46 percent of citizens consciously opting for some form of Irish-only identity.

Statisticians and politicians will argue over the significance of this. But what is certain is that the north is in transition. It is no longer an orange state. Politics across this island is in flux. A new Ireland can be what we make it.

The border poll is a key element of this.

It provides an opportunity to focus on the future – to build a modern, dynamic new Ireland in which there is genuine reconciliation, and out of which a more equitable society can emerge.

Crucially it is about letting citizens, not governments or political parties or interest groups, determine the future. Of course this is a huge challenge. Change is not easy. But change is necessary. And those of us who want to shape that change, so that equality and a rights-based society can prosper, have a duty to proactively listen to the concerns of unionists.

They are fully entitled to be part of this process and the new Ireland which emerges has to be one which reflects their rights alongside the rights of other citizens.

That in many ways will be the test of our endeavours.

Gerry Adams is president of Sinn Fein and was a keynote speaker at Towards a New Ireland – a New Phase of the Peace Process conference, hosted by Sinn Fein at the London Irish Centre.
Visit www.londonirishunity.com for more details.

Morning Star

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