In recent years, the institutions and principles underpinning the 1998 Good Friday Agreement have come under strain. Varying flashpoints of strife have seen the first generation who has grown up under the agreement engage in unrest in different areas. Brexit has not helped matters as some sections of loyalist communities feel that their union with the United Kingdom comes under threat as a result of the provisions within that action. It is in front of this backdrop that the 2020 general election in the Republic of Ireland was fought.
While issues which decided the outcome of that election were grounded in the 26 counties, Brexit had certainly complicated the matter of the relationship between all people on this island. It could be assumed for this reason that, as part of the programme for government negotiations, there were provisions put in place for mechanisms and initiatives to look once again towards the relationship between different communities on this island.
The net result of this negotiation was the formation of the ‘Shared Island Initiative’ within the Department of the Taoiseach. This initiative was set up with the aim of discussion and promoting improved dialogue between communities both north and south, as well as providing additional capital investment towards strengthening political, social and economic links on the island of Ireland. In looking at the motivation and likely direction this initiative is likely to go, we must examine the position of this particular government on the National Question.
Fianna Fáil claims to be the constitutional Republican Party. Their policy on unity and the 6 counties in the last general election was one of reconciliation and once again looking north for consensus. They espoused policies of investment in the infrastructure and institutions that will be shared between both jurisdictions in order to move closer to unity. They made a point of wanting extensive Irish-British cooperation on the issues surrounding Northern Ireland.
Fine Gael’s stance in the election centred around more specific infrastructural investments and initiatives such as school exchanges to enable people to share the island on which we live. They made the point explicitly that they believe in the territorial unity of the nation by consent.
The Green Party ironically is the only party of the three with elected representatives in the 6 counties, yet their manifesto contained the least content in relation to the 6 counties. One of their main proposals was that the government would support calls for a proper opposition be formed within Stormont as a step towards normalising politics in that institution.
With the above in mind, it can be argued that the Shared Island Initiative is a decidedly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael initiative. It seems to combine the acceptance within Fianna Fáil of the broad idea that dialogue and investment needs to occur in pursuit of peaceful unity, combined with Fine Gael’s similar policies of targeted infrastructural investment within the measures that eventually made it into the agreed programme for government.
The Shared Island Unit seeks to hold dialogue between different communities on the Island with a particular emphasis on those who have felt underrepresented in conversations to date. The unit would also commission various research undertakings to underpin the ideas discussed and flesh out the conversations that were had. Conversation and Research is complimented by the Shared Island fund, which is a commitment by government to spend €500 million over 5 years on infrastructural investment on capital projects that will benefit integration of the north and the south.
It will be very interesting to see the direction this initiative heads in the coming years. One gets the impression that it is a decidedly more of a brain child of the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin than any of the other leaders, given his stewardship and support of it in these initial stages. Martin has been very softly - softly in his approach to the issue of the North both within and without his party in recent years.
Although his party has been registered in the north since 2007, they have yet to field candidates in elections, despite commitments in recent years, most previously in the 2019 local elections. It would have to be assumed that this is an attempt to progress unity in a way that appeases his traditional Party base who would style themselves as republican in outlook, without rocking the boat too much with the Unionist and Other communities.
In the context of issues surrounding symbolism and Brexit in recent years, it was very clear that something needed to be done by the Republic with regards their relationship with the 6 counties. This new initiative is the effort this government has mustered. If it can bring in the voices of younger people, women and other historically marginalised communities into the debate of what shape the island, north and south, takes in the future, it will have been a worthwhile exercise.