3 March 2019
The Sunday Independent
© 2019 Independent Newspapers Ireland Ltd
Senator Mark Daly has spent the last two years meeting unionists. He talks about their hopes and fears for the future, writes Niamh Horan WB Yeats: “I have no hope of seeing a united Ireland in my time, or of seeing Ulster won in my time; but I believe it will be won in the end, and not because we fight it, but because we govern the country well. We can do that, if I may be permitted as an artist and writer to say so, by creating a system of culture which will represent the whole of this country and which will draw the imagination of the young towards it.”
IF Mark Daly is anything, it’s tenacious. When he first ran for the Seanad in 2007, he was taken aside for a friendly warning and told he was wasting his time.
Undeterred, Daly took a leaf out of Dale Carnegie’s book — and rather than learn from the success of the sitting senators (for they were unlikely to share their tips), he sought wisdom from those who had failed. “The poor man learns from his own mistake, the rich man learns from others,” smiles Daly, now perched in his office in Dail Eireann.
At the time, The Wind That Shakes The Barley had just been re-fought in the War of Independence — sent a copy of the movie to the voting councillors, along with a letter a 27-year-old family member had written to his parents, hours before he was executed at dawn in the Civil War.
It was a personal touch that made Daly stand out during his 26,000km canvassing drive around Ireland and helped the unknown Kerry man to beat three sitting Fianna Fail senators on the first count.
Now he is on another mission. To warn the Irish Government to prepare imminently for a United Ireland — or face the consequences. He says the reality is a lot closer than we think. He predicts it could happen “within five years”.
But the Government’s unwillingness to engage on the issue, for fear of violence, will unintentionally cause more harm down the tracks. “With Brexit, nobody provided the facts until it was too late, and before the banking crisis, nobody spoke about the housing bubble or the banks being in trouble until it was too late,” he says. “We need to learn from history.”
His office is awash with nationalist emblems. Behind him, his family’s letter, tattered, hangs framed on the wall. A full-sized Tricolour greets you at the door and, on his bookshelf, personal messages from former US president Bill Clinton, President Michael D Higgins and United States congressman John Lewis, who famously led the march across the Alabama bridge as part of the Black Civil Rights movement. In the inscription, he tells Mark to “keep the faith”.
Daly asserts that a referendum on a United Ireland is only a matter of time. He warns, that given the most possible outcome to Brexit is a hard border and that, for the first time Northern Irish opinion polls show 56pc of people would vote in favour of a United Ireland in such an event, we must outline our vision now rather than rushing to react when a referendum is triggered.
He knows the struggle ahead. He has spent the last two years meeting former loyalist paramilitary leaders over pints, and speaking with unionist politicians and church leaders about their hopes and fears.
“Some are saying that, maybe a United Ireland would be better than a Brexit Britain. There are 40 shades of orange. They are contemplating it for the first time, but the problem is, nobody in the Republic or in our Government, has given them the vision or explained what this new Ireland would look like.
The truth is it’s not going to be the nightmare that unionists believe, or the dream that Republicans expect. It will be a ‘New Ireland’ with compromise.”
On their biggest fears, he says: “I have met unionist farmers who firmly believe we are going to take the land off them. The former members of the security forces believe, that when we get the files, we are going to prosecute them and carry out a witch hunt. And in the communities, they ask if the statues will be removed, if the names of the streets will be changed. We need to make sure they understand now that we won’t impose [our will]. Those symbols are important to a lot of people and we have to be generous with our neighbours.”
Daly says one of the unionists’ strongest-held beliefs is that “they will be better off financially as part of the UK”.
He points to the facts: “In many instances, the North would be economically better off as part of a United Ireland. As it stands on the UN human development index, the Republic is ranked sixth in the world, while Northern Ireland, on its own, would be 44th. Brexit would put it below 50th.”
But, he stresses, the main threat to unionists “is not an issue of economics — it is one of identity”.
He recalls: “They say to me: ‘what would you think if someone said Munster is re-joining the United Kingdom? Would you feel that your home is becoming a foreign land?’ They fear they can’t be British in a new Ireland,” and he says if the Irish Government does not start mapping out its policy now and engaging with people, “those fears will be exploited”.
He says: “By not addressing loyalist fears and concerns, and by not engaging with them now, you are putting in place a scenario that, without people understanding what that future will look like, when that referendum is called, some kids in the most disadvantaged loyalist areas will be used and radicalised to continue the status quo. Then we could spiral back into the Troubles. But that doesn’t need to happen if we plan and engage now.”
He then turns to fears in the Republic. Namely, that a United Ireland will make the nation poorer. Daly says the figures paint a very different picture.
“I worked on a report with senior IMF economist Gunther Thurman, who previously worked on the cost of German reunification and he found that, although some people think the income of Northern Ireland in a reunification scenario leaves a €10bn deficit, in reality it would be closer to €700m. The challenge we now face is getting the facts out there to both sides, before it goes to voting.”
Daly understands that “in politics, the immediate takes over from the important” but it’s the Government’s complete absence of a single document on uniting Ireland which he calls “reckless”.
“I was talking to someone, off the record, in the Department of is a filing cabinet or a room somewhere that is filled with all the issues that need to be addressed?’ They told me there wasn’t. I asked ‘do you have a file?’ No. We don’t even have a sheet of paper. They have nothing. There is no plan. It’s carelessness of a monumental scale,” says Daly, “when this issue, more than any other, is going to define the next 100 years.”
Still, he is not going to rest until the Government begins to wake up to the need to outline its policy. In the corner of his office, stacks of thick green copies of a report, which outlines the future challenges of peacefully uniting Ireland, are ready to be sent out to every government minister, secretary general and the chairman of each departments’ risk committee. The report which he compiled was the first by a Dail or senate committee on uniting Ireland.
“I’m sending them out a letter, outlining that in the Constitution, it says uniting Ireland is not just an aspiration, but an obligation that the Government must achieve. So, I am asking each and every person, what they and their department are doing about it?” He points out: “We will see a unionist minority in 2021 and a unionist voting minority by 2023,” and adds: “A small amount of people can cause a huge amount of harm. We don’t want it to get to that point. All the work that should be done, in advance of a border poll, should be started now.”