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Shared Island: the legacy of John Hume

Etain Tannam, Trinity College Dublin

‘The Border is not a line on the map. It is a mental border built on fear, prejudice and misunderstanding and which can only be eradicated by developing understanding and friendship. This is the real task which faces those who genuinely want to solve the Irish problem. Its weakness is that it is undramatic. Its virtue is that it is the only way’. (John Hume, The Derry Journal, 13 March 1970).

It is poignant that John Hume’s death nearly coincides perfectly with the new Irish government’s Shared Island mission, as nothing reflects his influence more than the concept of the shared island, uniting people not territory, a concept influenced greatly by his admiration for the EU model of post war reconciliation. UK and Irish membership of the EU was assumed in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, an agreement that reflected Hume’s belief in the EU as a successful peace project.

However, Brexit ripped that assumption apart and reignited the issue of unification - of territory not people. Northern Ireland’s majority vote to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum, including 85% from nationalist communities, precipitated calls for a border poll on unification particularly from Sinn Féin. Although Sinn Féin too referred to the aim of tolerance and respect for unionist identity in its 2020 manifesto for the Irish general election, in 2019 it called for a border poll in 5 years and as such emphasis on consent and reconciliation seemed less central than holding a referendum within a relatively short time frame. Only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the authority to call a referendum on unification. However, the Irish government’s policy approach towards unification is obviously relevant to the management of the issue.

In contrast to an irredentist traditional nationalism, rather than referring to unification, the new Programme for Government states that’ we will draw on the underlying core guiding philosophy of consent and respect for all traditions on our island in our efforts to achieve a consensus on a shared future’. Of key importance is that a new Shared Island unit has been created in the Department of the Taoiseach to ‘work towards a consensus on a shared island. This unit will examine the political, social, economic, and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected’.

The shared island document is striking in various ways. It is the first time that an Irish government has set out a clear and detailed policy to Northern Ireland to Britain since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and indeed since the 1990s. It seeks to manage strategically Brexit-induced tensions in Irish/Northern Irish and British-Irish intergovernmental relations. Also in Hume’s tradition, who viewed internal cooperation in Northern Ireland, cross-border cooperation and British-Irish intergovernmental cooperation as equally important (the 3 strands), the programme places all three strands firmly at its centre, emphasising working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK government to achieve various policy outcomes.

Thus, a strategic review of British-Irish relations will occur in 2020/21 and the government aims to reinvigorate Strands 2 and 3 of the Good Friday Agreement. The shared island document sets out to enhance the role of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference that comprises both governments and the British-Irish Council that comprises government representatives of Northern Ireland, Ireland, Westminster, Wales, Scotland and the Crown Dependencies. It also pledges to re-energise the North-South Ministerial Council, dealing with cross-border cooperation in designated policy areas of mutual concern. Overall the Irish government seeks to deepen relations with the Westminster government and also bilateral relations with Scotland and Wales.

Unlike an earlier draft, the Programme for Government does not mention unification and also unlike an earlier draft, it refers often to the role of the Northern Ireland Executive in devising a shared island. This emphasis has been repeated often by the Taoiseach, stating that a border poll would be too divisive. In short, the Irish government’s policy to Northern Ireland in the post-Brexit years is clearly in the tradition of John Hume’s gradualist approach and not of traditional nationalism.

It is not surprising given the complexity and supremacy of John Hume’s intellect, that there are unanswered questions and dilemmas in his absence, especially in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Thus, Mark Durkan, his successor as SDLP leader, has emphasised that the Good Friday Agreement’s stipulation that unification should occur by majority decision-making rule was no accident or rushed decision. Hume as a parliamentary democrat, was adamant that just as Northern Ireland’s status in the UK was based on majority support (unionists), so too should nationalists’ unification preference be implemented if they later form a majority of the electorate. Hume’s emphasis on democratic legitimacy to prevent violence necessitated the 51% rule. However, there is keen awareness that a united Ireland on the basis of a slim majority in Northern Ireland would be highly destabilising. Thus, the Irish government’s policy squares the circle of majority rule versus parallel consent by adopting the Hume tradition of uniting people first, not territory.

Whether the vision can be realised depends on various factors, but UK governmental engagement is vital. There are doubts over whether this will occur given the large agenda faced by the UK government and by its current disarray and leadership. Moreover it failed to engage about Northern Ireland early on in the Brexit referendum process. However, although imminently engagement may be limited, another lesson from John Hume is that long-term persistence with a clear message achieves what seems unachievable. Micheál Martin shares both Hume’s tenacity and his long term commitment to the shared island aim.

There are many potential pitfalls ahead, not least instability in the Irish coalition government, exhaustion in reeling from one crisis to another (austerity, Brexit, Covid-19), but fundamentally John Hume’s legacy is that belief in change, even in the darkest of times, can make change happen. His legacy is not just the peace process of the past, but the shared island of the future.

Etain Tannam is an Associate Professor in International Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin

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