I HATE the term ‘Brexit’. I spent far too long in a meeting early last summer trying to figure out what it meant and didn’t ask in case I looked stupid, And then I realised: “Oh, Britain Exiting… or something… ugh.” I was then totally distracted from the next ten minutes of the meeting, hating the term and wondering why people use this type of shorthand instead of real words.
I was not overly surprised when English people voted to leave the EU. I was surprised the Welsh did too, though.
Anyway, here we are in Irish nationalist and republican constituencies that did not have a great turn-out but did vote to remain, and as a consequence we are now having an enlarged discussion about our democratic future. And I worry a little. There was limited discussion in our community on European membership. Extraordinary work was done by some, not least Martina Anderson MEP and South Belfast MLA Claire Hanna. I was part of an informed and important conference on the issue in the Balmoral Hotel organised by Martina Anderson in January. However, and this is a big however, this community did not respond to the EU membership question in its droves.
So as we now enter a debate on the matter of Irish unity on foot of the referendum result, we need to reflect on the turn-out in the referendum. If one did not motivate turn-out or participation, it is reasonable to worry that the other might not either, particularly if the argument for unity is based on the EU referendum that saw such low numbers voting. And losing a border poll risks putting the question out of reach for many more years.
On the other hand, the very debate itself may begin a whole new dynamic that develops a momentum of its own. That is possible. Of course, promoting the positives of Irish unity in a more concerted and pointed way than has happened in recent years is a good thing. And so many applications for Irish passports points to this being a good time to do so.
If this is a moment in Irish history then we all need to be part of that. Particularly those who haven’t felt motivated to vote in recent elections. We should all take ownership of engagement in positive debate, but it’s not a given that previously unmotivated people will.
I sincerely believe a united Ireland can unite our people and I agree with Gerry Adams’ words at Easter when he scoped out how a united Ireland creates our collective best chance for social inclusion and prosperity on the island. And I also know there are many who feel that seems far away and are deeply worried about their immediate livelihood and family’s wellbeing following the English vote to leave the EU. Their voices and concerns must be addressed in real time and practical ways. Long-term solutions will hopefully be in the context of a united Ireland, but that debate on the constitutional future must embrace immediate concerns.
An inclusive, open, imaginative response to the current democratic and economic crisis in the wake of the vote holds the potential for positive transformation on our island. No matter what our worries, or certainties, we have interesting times ahead.