Mícheál Martin’s allocation of resources to a Shared Island programme of work and establishing its offices in Dublin Castle drives forward the constitutional conversation on this island.
Martin’s repeated outreach to unionism at its launch makes this a project which is governmental recognition that the constitutional question is being debated up and down the country but, on the other hand, attempting to assuage any unionist fears associated with that and encourage their participation.
For nationalism and republicanism however, his speech will have disappointed. By couching the entire project in the idea of change and progress being based on consensus he will be seen to have undermined the Good Friday Agreement’s clear commitment on the constitutional status of the north, and an attempt to hand back a veto to Unionism. In many nationalists’ and republicans’ view there is no consensus on the current constitutional arrangements, yet it is maintained by 50+1% of the population, so to ask for consensus before any change were to happen seems like a double standard and an undermining of the Peace Agreement.
The greatest irony since partition is how Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael embraced it and made it work in their interest. They may have put republicanism into their respective sub-titles but that was Free State window dressing. However, since 2016 the constitutional conversation came to them.
When England voted for Brexit and the North of Ireland voted to remain in the EU, the nature of majority consent, and the question of continued EU membership saw the Good Friday Agreement dusted off and read anew. It was a revelation for many that their rights, in particular Irish citizenship rights, were indelibly connected to EU membership. Then when the Executive collapsed and devolution’s failures in the delivery of civil and political rights were exposed, Dublin was caught on the hop with the subsequent northern nationalist/republican demand for a renewed focus on the constitutional question.
That focus has not diminished this year. We have seen the New Decade New Approach debacle where none of the financial or legacy or cultural rights commitments have been honored, the disjointed partitioned approach to the pandemic, the continued disastrous Brexit treaty talks and threats of a no deal. They all act as constitutional change accelerators, as do the comments of Edwin Poots regarding Covid, which was widely viewed as sectarian.
So while Mícheál Martin may well have viewed the establishment of the Shared Island unit and its framing as a way of taking the momentum from, or at least containing, the constitutional debate so that the current political establishment might be protected, it could well end up that wider events will overtake that status quo intention far sooner than he thinks.