December 11, 2020
Michelle O’Neill’s QUB lecture on the centenary of partition

During the course of this decade, from 2012 to 2022, we are marking the centenaries of seminal events which have shaped modern Irish history over the past century. 

These events have too defined our relationship with Britain over the past 100 years. It is a relationship that has been characterised by colonialism, partition and political division- towards peace, reconciliation and renewed co-operation. 2020 has marked the anniversaries of much darker times. 

In 1920, the Black and Tans were introduced, and the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomás Mac Curtáin, was murdered. Shortly after, Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Terence MacSwiney died after 74 days on hunger strike. 

And in this month 100 years ago, the Government of Ireland Act was enacted in the Westminster parliament, forcing partition on Ireland. The Government of Ireland Act came into force on May 21st 1921. And the British King, George the fifth, convened the then parliament in Belfast City Hall the following month, with James Craig becoming Prime Minister of the Northern State. 

Unionism will choose to mark these events in a way in which they see fit. And, unsurprisingly, the British government has proposed it should be an occasion for celebration. Nationalism, however, will see it differently. For Irish republicans and nationalists, there will be no celebration of the partition of our country. It has failed the people across this island.

It’s worth noting that the British monarch, during a visit to this island a number of years ago, acknowledged that ‘with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not at all’.

Irish nationalism and republicanism will present our political perspectives and experiences of partition.

Discrimination and state repression were the lived experience for successive generations.

Unionists have a separate narrative; theirs was a different lived experience.

The bottom line is that partition did not have an upside. It created an exclusionary ‘Orange State’, the consequence of which was political conflict. However, these historical events and experiences will be placed in their contemporary context. The political, social and cultural consequences of what happened during the decade 1912 to 1922 continue to reverberate throughout this island to this day.

And while we try to heal the wounds of the past, we must also live and strive in the present, and look to the future together. The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement have created an alternative to conflict. The Good Friday Agreement has provided a peaceful democratic pathway to Irish Unity, which I believe will become a reality during this decade. The constitutional future rests on the principle of consent, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

Today’s Assembly is unrecognisable from the previous iterations of the old Unionist regime at Stormont. Today, the Executive is formed by, and is representative of all, the people in the North. That is the difference to the failed regimes that went before. 

The once monolithic unionist majority has gone. And, the notion of a perpetual unionist majority – the very basis of partition – has too gone And, like Brexit, there was, and is, no good partition. It cannot be sugar coated. So, the objective reality that partition rests at the heart of many of our divisions here in the north, and between Britain and Ireland, cannot be ignored

Brexit has exposed the undemocratic nature and failure of partition in Ireland and it has created the biggest constitutional crisis for unionism in a century.

The circumstances of Brexit have created new political, social and economic uncertainties for Ireland and Britain. But significant new realities and opportunities have also emerged.

The issue of Irish unity has taken on a new dynamic because of Brexit. Demographics are changing and, so too is the political landscape. This cannot be ignored.

I see no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power sharing with unionism in the Stormont Assembly, while also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which examine Ireland’s future beyond Brexit.

Similarly, there is no contradiction in unionism working the existing constitutional arrangements while taking its rightful place in the conversation about what a New Ireland would look like. 

We can do this while maintaining our independent distinct political identities and working in the best interests of all of the people. Today, we are not only witnessing the realignment of Irish politics on this island, we are shaping it. We are entering a decade of opportunity where the freedom to choose our own future will be decided by the people on this island alone.

How we live together

How we work together

How we share this island together This is a defining moment in the history of Ireland. And the decisions that all of the people on this island make now will shape the direction of our island for the next generation. Now we have a decision to make about how we engage with the history and politics of next year.

We can continue arguing over the past throughout 2021.

Or, we can choose a different discourse by beginning a new progressive conversation about how our divided traditions can share a future of opportunity on this island.

To begin mapping out an agreed future together.

Let me be very clear. We don’t want 2021 to be characterised by division and rancour.

What we want to do is have a political conversation that asks the question, is there something better for all of us on this island?

As we approach the centenary of partition, I am advocating for one where republicanism, and unionism, and others, contribute to a national conversation.

Let us not refight battles of the past. It is time to bring people together. We can open doors and . . We can let this future in. We must give people hope, and our young people opportunity. None of us own this debate. It is time to hear all voices.

A space has opened up for all citizens to have a conversation about the type of future society they want.

So there is an obligation on those of us making the case for Irish unity to offer a coherent and persuasive view of what the future will hold for the north under new arrangements.

A properly informed and facilitated debate about constitutional change is needed across this island and between these islands.

A new national dialogue has already begun about future constitutional change. The Irish government should accept its responsibility to facilitate that discourse.

A defining watershed has opened in respect to relationships in Ireland, and between Ireland, Britain and the European Union.

It is time to commence a planned transition to Irish reunification, and national reconciliation must be at the heart of this transformational process.

I think it is fair to say that there are those of a British/unionist identity who are starting to assess this. This is not to say they are not British, nor have they given up their allegiances. But I believe that they are being challenged to rethink their economic future.

We will set out, with confidence, our analysis, our experience and our vision of an open, inclusive and agreed Ireland. The political momentum on change is moving in that direction. Citizens are looking to the future to see where their interests are best served. Change is certainly in the air. It is imperative that we must promote reconciliation, as opposed to deepening division. We have lived a century apart, and partition has failed.

We have lived for much too long, back to back. It’s time to start living side by side.

It is my conviction that Irish reunification and reconciliation are inseparable.

And I believe that the current public discourse on constitutional change in Ireland must also address the challenge of building a reconciliation and healing process.

A new constitutional settlement in Ireland, based upon a progressive national democracy, would provide a durable framework, guaranteeing civil and religious liberties, and democratic rights for ALL citizens.

A new agreed Ireland, built upon the unity of all of its people, should put reconciliation and healing at the heart of both civil and political institutions.

That is a society which embraces acknowledgement of the past but will make healing central to its future.

A stark choice confronts us – a narrow, inward-looking vision of Brexit Britain or the open inclusive vision of a New Ireland. 2021 should be about inclusive conversation. This is a time for debate, big ideas and a public discourse that threatens no one.

I want to look to a new future, beyond partition, to the creation of a new Ireland built on equality, reconciliation and respect.

As a political leader, as deputy First Minister and Joint Head of Government, I am committed to building a common cause with our unionist colleagues, and others, for a shared society that makes room for, and gives respect to, every citizen

In April 2018, I attended an event in Queen’s University marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and seated beside me was a young man from a unionist tradition. And we got to talking about building peace and the future. This was a young man, whose family had been directly affected by the conflict. And what he told me has stayed with me. He said he was open to the idea of a united Ireland but that the future had to be one that wasn’t about victory.

So, let us look to a future that is not about victories but a future that is filled with hope and with opportunity, and one in which we are all equal and feel a sense of belonging.

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