Politics on the Island of Ireland is changing. The emergence of Fine Gael in Northern Ireland over the last year is a product of that shifting political landscape.
Fine Gael is a party which seeks to respect and support unionism, both in its political aims and its cultural values. We believe it is fundamental to the prosperity and preservation of peace on this island that the people of Northern Ireland, not just the majority, should be allowed the freedom to be who they are and enjoy a sense of belonging.
In any question over the future of this island, and in the envisagement of a ‘New Ireland’, how all traditions and cultures are valued is the most fundamental element to our island’s success in the future.
The fostering of close cross-community relations requires cooperation across every part of the community and closer links between unionists, nationalists and the Irish Government are essential.
Increased representation from Northern Ireland in the Oireachtas has been a catalyst for successful all-island political discussion. Since his election to the Senate in 2018, Ian Marshall has offered a unique and principled unionist voice to Irish politics.
However, I believe this should go further; the allocation of Senate seats to Queens University and the University of Ulster is something that I will be advocating for and would ensure that the views of citizens and unionism in Northern Ireland are always heard in the echelons of Leinster House.
Fine Gael, in its approach to politics in Northern Ireland, has started forming ties with grassroots unionism. The Taoiseach has formed a Northern Ireland engagement group which is chaired by Fergus O’Dowd TD, which I am honoured to have been appointed to. The group aims to engage and cooperate with all political entities and cultural groups in Northern Ireland. This is a distinction from our counterparts in Fianna Fail who have preferred to partner with only one party and ideology.
Earlier this month, the group travelled to Belfast where we visited the Museum of Orange heritage, we met members of the Orange Order who expressed their hopes and their concerns over the future of our island.
Equally, the formation of a branch of Fine Gael in Queens University earlier this year, which I chair, demonstrates our party’s willingness to offer unionists and nationalists a platform to discuss issues affecting both parts of the community.
Fine Gael does believe however, that in the current negotiations of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the backstop is essential in ensuring that a hard border does not return to our island.
This firm position is not about annexing Northern Ireland or threatening unionism, as some would suggest. It is, rather, about protecting the Good Friday Agreement, which is sacrosanct, and ensuring that travel and trade – both north-south and east-west – continues to be seamless. It will protect businesses, farmers and unions both sides of the border.
While the economic argument is important, what is more important is preserving the cultural ties on this island. That is why the common travel area between Britain and Ireland is something which the Irish and British governments are committed to maintaining post Brexit.
The absence of the power-sharing institutions at Stormont has left a lack of political leadership when it is needed most, the return of power sharing-should be the priority for political leaders in Northern Ireland.
There is warmth for unionism within Fine Gael, more so than in any other party in the Republic. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson spoke at our national conference in March and there are some within our party who advocate for a return to the Commonwealth of Nations.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed his satisfaction for an Orange Order parade to occur in Dublin. We are a broad church, and these are all discussions we must have when looking to a New Ireland.
Since its foundation, Fine Gael has been a party of law and order. That is why we reject Sinn Fein’s impulsive calls for an immediate border poll. A poll at this time would only fracture relations and in my view would be a threat to peace.
This must be a cross community discussion and encompass the views of everyone on this island. While there is a stipulation for it under the Good Friday accord, it will take more than just a simple majority vote to make a United Ireland successful.
A plan must be put in place and collaborating with unionism will be essential to the success of a New Ireland. A new Ireland must seek to unite people, not only land.
To conclude, in Northern Ireland there is a population who feel exclusively British and value that identity and there are those that feel exclusively Irish and value it the same, and there is a population who combine both identities comfortably and even a growing number who identity as neither.
Fine Gael, and I, recognise that divide but want to ensure that each side’s traditions, values and beliefs are respected under any current or future constitutional arrangement.
Fine Gael is offering a hand of friendship and cooperation to unionism; I hope unionism will extend the hand also.
• Jude Perry is chairman of Queens University Fine Gael and a member of the party’s Northern Ireland engagement Group