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Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement debate -
Tuesday, 1 Jun 2021

Engagement with Ireland's Future

Our engagement this morning is with Mr. Niall Murphy and Ms Laura Harmon, representatives from Ireland's Future. On behalf of the committee, I welcome them to the meeting. Before we begin, I have to read out a note about privilege. The evidence of witnesses physically present from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings that a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter.

Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given. They should respect directions given by the Chairman and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the person's or entity's good name.

I invite Mr. Murphy and Ms Harmon to make their opening statement.

Mr. Niall Murphy

I am much obliged to the Chairman and the committee for extending their invitation to us to address them. The focus of my opening statement is on the questions that have arisen in regard to the constitutional future of our shared island in the context of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

I am the secretary of Ireland's Future. Our organisation was established to advocate for and promote debate and discussion about Ireland's future, including the possibility and viability of new constitutional arrangements on the island. We are guided by the values of the Good Friday Agreement and are dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and equality and fostering mutual respect between all views and traditions that share our island. Ireland's Future considers that any move to new constitutional arrangements requires serious thought, consideration and planning. We believe the requisite planning for these potential changes must be broad, inclusive, detailed and comprehensive. Constitutional change must be, or can only be, on the basis of consent of citizens of the island of Ireland, as informed by the Good Friday Agreement, and I have forwarded a copy of our mission statement, outlining our values and objectives, for members' consideration.

I would like to give an overview of some events and activity which we have been engaged in with Ireland's Future. Prior to the event of the pandemic, we had organised a series of conferences and town hall meetings, all of which were exceptionally well attended to give expression to the ongoing societal conversation in relation to constitutional change. Our Beyond Brexit - the Future of Ireland conference was organised in consultation with the then Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was addressed by the leaders of Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Green Party in the North, the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Dara Calleary, and the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh. The event was attended by more than 2,000 people. There was a very stressful couple of weeks in the run up to it. We did not know how well attended that might be but were overawed by those in attendance and the mutual sense that swept through that hall that day. That was followed in 2019 by well-attended events in Newry and also in Croke Park which were addressed by, among others, High Court, Mr. Justice Richard Humphreys and Professor Seamus McGuinness of the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. I have included copies of the event literature for the committee's collective attention.

Our events were complimented by public letters to the Taoiseach appealing to the Irish Government in the first instance to consider the position of Irish citizens in the North in the context of what was then an emerging rights vacuum, then latterly with regard to the then deepening Brexit crisis. Ours has been an evolutionary experience, I should add, addressing concerns at they occurred at that moment in time. Our most recent letter, in November 2019, urged the Government to convene an all-island citizen's assembly as a forum to enable discussion on future constitutional change.

That letter of November 2019 was signed by 1,000 prominent Irish citizens two thirds of whom were resident in the South and also by many citizens of the Irish diaspora. Prominent signatories included actors Adrian Dunbar and Stephen Rea, film director Jim Sheridan, the mayor of Boston and now US Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, writer Eoin Colfer, poets Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan, musicians Christy Moore, Aoife Scott and Sharon Shannon, economist David McWilliams and commentators Fintan O’Toole and Martina Devlin as well as our own Frances Black, whom we are proud to have as chairperson of our organisation. I should say "our" in the greater collective because Senator Black is obviously a member of this committee. All of our public correspondence are included in the event literature, for the Waterfront, our event in Newry and Croke Park and they can be reviewed at the members' convenience.

With the event of the pandemic, our activism was required to go online as Zoom became our new normal. Indeed, this has permitted us to increase our reach and to deepen the meaningful conversations that are ongoing. The calibre of contributors that we have been able to attract, aligned with the breadth of viewer participation, has been remarkable.

The standing, range and influence of people involved with Ireland's Future and the vast reach that we benefit from is evident from our most recent series of podcasts, which I have included in my submission. They have attracted exceptional viewerships for both live and post views of these webcasts and addressed, among other issues, in May 2020, the implications of the pandemic for health provision across the island and the consideration of an all-island health service, which was Dr. Ilona Duffy, Professor Gabriel Scally and Professor Jim Dornan, who, regrettably, has since passed away. I would like to take this public moment to express our sympathy with the late Professor Dornan's family.

Later, in May 2020, we held a webcast on the economic recovery beyond Covid and considered an all-island economy. That webcast was addressed by the economist David McWilliams as well as economist, author and adviser to the SDLP at Stormont, Paul Gosling, and Patricia McKeown, a trade unionist from Unison. In June 2020, we held a webcast on Brexit and the Irish Protocol which was addressed by our own Brian Feeney, Tony Connelly, the renowned expert from RTÉ, and Owen Reidy.

In October 2020, we held A Vision for Ireland - the next generation of Irish voices, which was an exceptionally vibrant and future-thinking webcast whereby all of the participants were under 30, and included Senator Eileen Flynn, Laura Harmon who, I think, was having technical difficulties and I hope has been able to join us, Conal Ó Corra, a language activist, Neil McManus, a county hurler for Antrim and Denise Chaila, the rapper and performance artist from Limerick. In December 2020, our own Martina Devlin held an online interview with Congressman Richie Neal, chair of the influential US House Committee on Ways and Means.

Most recently, in February 2021, we held A New Ireland – Warm House for All. That was, I am proud to say, was our most successful webcast. It has attracted more than 40,000 viewers across all platforms. It was unique in so far as all of the participants were from a traditionally unionist background. Belfast born, award winning television and radio broadcaster Andrea Catherwood chaired the conversations with Mark Langhammer, a trade unionist-----


Mr. Niall Murphy

Other participants included Denzil McDaniel, the former editor of the Impartial Reporter in Fermanagh based in Enniskillen, Reverend Karen Sethuraman, a Baptist minister from east Belfast, Glenn Bradley, a former British soldier from the Shankill Road, and Trevor Lunn MLA, formerly of the Alliance Party. This was a significant event as it gave evidence of an ever-widening range of people who are contributing to the conversation about Ireland's Future. New voices are speaking up. They are from all backgrounds and they are asking questions and joining us in the conversation about the future of Ireland. We are delighted and proud that Trevor Lunn MLA has since formally joined the research and publication sub-committee of Ireland's Future. Indeed, last week Reverend Sethuraman also formally joined Ireland's Future. I am so privileged and proud that people of such talent have joined our organisation. Obviously, the committee will be familiar with their contributions have heard their evidence recently.

Ireland's Future appeals to everyone, but particularly to the Government in Dublin, to listen attentively to this conversation and to begin planning and preparing for constitutional change. We accept that we have taken a public position on this sensitive topic and to do so, we feel that we have to put our indepth thoughts and analysis on the record.

Insofar as that is concerned, we have conducted our own research, are in the process of conducting more research and have produced literature by way of publications setting out the deliberate steps that require to be taken to effect constitutional change in a responsible, legal fashion consistent with the Good Friday Agreement. I have attached with the literature to this opening statement our three published research documents to date: Principled Framework for Change, published in November last, which was followed up by Advancing the Conversation, The Way Forward, in January 2021, and, most recently, Planning for a Strong Economy in a New Ireland, which was published on 25 March. All such publications were also joined with an in-depth conversation in our own webcast.

Chair, might I inquire as to whether Laura Harmon been able to join us. I know that Ms Harmon had some technical difficulties there.

Not as yet. You may like to read her paper or address if you wish, if that is helpful. We have a copy of it here but we would be happy if you read it.

Mr. Niall Murphy

Thank you.

Our analysis with regard to a citizens' assembly is supported and shaped by the finest internationally acclaimed academics, and that is that the pathway to concurrent referenda is most likely to be achieved through the convention of a citizens' assembly. Such an assembly would be rigorously impartial from external political influence. It will commission its own research, reports, and economic modelling. It is a well-worn constitutional path.

Members will all be familiar with its benefits. This path has already led to successive civic movements and has been decisive in securing positive outcomes for progressive changes through referendums.

The civic assembly is a forum in which political issues would be discussed by its membership and, ultimately, voted upon. Typically, it would be made up of citizens selected at random but could also include a number of elected politicians. It should hear expert evidence and produce recommendations. In addressing the models of reunification it would serve to counter some of the mythology and fears that surround Irish reunification, namely, the block grant, issues around healthcare provision, taxation and education standards.

The civic assembly could be set up to allow a government to entrust the people with setting the direction on a controversial subject, for example. The result is then one that can be kept at arm's length or embraced depending on the political temperature of the day.

The most notable recent example is the constitutional convention of 2012 to 2014 and the Citizens' Assembly of 2016. The convention recommended the extension of the presidential voting franchise and received wide support in the Oireachtas but the matter has yet to be put to the electorate for approval. I am sure we will return to this topic in our discussion. The Citizens' Assembly sat for 18 months. Among other things, it recommended the repeal of the eighth amendment's prohibition on abortion in the State.

With regard to what a citizens' assembly on Irish reunification might look like, if a citizens' assembly were to consider proposals for Irish reunification, it should and could include political representatives and citizens from both jurisdictions on the island and possibly Britain. Non-participation by elected unionist politicians has been flagged but should not prevent it taking place. The conversations of this committee are illustrative of that fact.

Constitutional change is already upon these islands; Brexit is constitutional change. The only responsible course of action for the Irish Government is to undertake what it reasonably can to prepare for the next stage of Irish self-determination, whatever choice that may be. I assert again that it this would not be a preconditioned citizens' assembly but a genuine organ that we must listen to.

A citizens' assembly would also consider what constitutional amendments would be necessary to the Irish Constitution to ensure continued adherence to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. It would be an opportunity to examine the competing models of reunification on the basis of reliable information and data. It should, in particular, consider the responsibilities on the Irish State to adhere to the obligations of the sovereign power in Northern Ireland.

With regard to practical arrangements, in the Republic, the citizens' assembly would be set up by a resolution of the Oireachtas and be funded by the Department of Finance. Its terms of reference would be set out in that resolution. It would have no formal role to require or even recommend constitutional or legislative change in the Republic but would command considerable political importance. The Irish Government would be required to respond to its suggestions and it is our view that this is a project that must be initiated by the Irish Government. The possibility of a joint Irish-British constitutional convention modelling reunification is unlikely.

In conclusion, the event of Brexit has changed everything forever. The constitutional security of the North, as part of the United Kingdom, has been thrust into terminal decline by Brexit. Brexit was not something that anybody in Ireland, North or South, proposed, argued for or wanted. A border poll is the constitutional pathway back to the EU for all citizens resident in this island to reset the democratic deficit that Brexit represents. The Good Friday Agreement, which was overwhelmingly mandated by the people of Ireland on both sides of the Border, provides an inbuilt democratic and legislative pathway out of this madness with a Border poll.

The debate is happening. It has been acknowledged by the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, among other senior members of the Judiciary. It is a conversation that is happening in staffrooms, coffee shops, school car parks when people drop their children at school and at the side of football pitches up and down the country. This debate needs to be informed by rationality and planning because it cannot be characterised by the recklessness, ill-preparedness and arrogance of the Brexit debate. The Irish Government, the European Union and the United States Administration need to begin planning for what I consider to be the inevitable. A reminder of this is to be found in the growing number of initiatives that are producing useful research output, much of which accords with our established positions and supports our efforts or assists our thinking. The preparations are now well under way and gathering pace.

We note the valuable work being undertaken by the analysing and researching Ireland North and South project, ARINS, a collaboration between the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame's Keough School of Global Affairs. This work includes, for example, an excellent contribution by Dr. Adele Bergin and Professor Seamus McGuinness on living standards and quality of life on the island of Ireland.

The shared island unit and the ESRI have launched a significant new research programmes which will explore areas such as health and education on the island. We also note with interest that the University College London's working group on unification referendums has essentially followed our lead in calling for extensive advance planning and preparation. The report notes that the years of acrimony over Brexit highlights the real dangers of calling for a vote without adequate advance planning.

If the Good Friday Agreement really does underpin new relationships, no one needs to be anxious about this invitation to a conversation about how we share our island in the future. A border poll is wholly consistent with the vision laid out in the Good Friday Agreement. Our island is on a path towards concurrent referendums on whether people would prefer a united Ireland, and thus EU membership, or wish to retain the union with Britain. It is the fundamental outworking of democracy. This is acknowledged within the internal constitutional legal orders of both states, underpinned by international law, and recognition is implied by the EU in its endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. Making use of the arrangements to test the principle of consent or the right to self-determination at the appropriate time and with proper preparation should provoke no one. Planning has commenced and the Governments must catch up.

I am more than happy to attempt to address any questions, queries or concerns that may arise.

Cuirim fáilte roimh Niall Murphy agus roimh a ráiteas tosaigh.

I thank the committee for allowing me to contribute first. Unfortunately, I must leave around 10.40 a.m. to attend a meeting of another committee of which I am Chair. I thank Mr. Murphy for his presentation. It is difficult to speak on one's own and not have the support of Ms Harmon. It is a pity we lost her due to technology problems.

I work with Ireland's Future and Mr. Murphy and love the vital work that they do. The group represents civil society whose voice needs to be heard. I will never forget my first time in Belfast when I attended the Beyond Brexit event. It was unbelievable. The energy I felt in the room that day and the fears felt by people about what was going to happen with Brexit rang a bell for me. Ireland's Future developed from that event, which was held on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. There were many speakers, including the then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney. I will never forget the panel of speakers who spoke on that day. One of the panel, a man from the unionist community, said that nobody had contacted him to have a conversation about what new constitutional change would look like. He was, he said, open to that conversation.

I remember another occasion when I visited Belfast as a member of the committee on Brexit. As members who were on that committee will remember, we met various people, including representatives of cross-community groups and the farming community, who expressed concern about the impact of Brexit on their business.

There was so much fear from people regarding Brexit. Ireland's Future plays an important role in that regard.

I want to thank Mr. Murphy for attending. I have one or two questions I want to ask him. How would he see Ireland's Future working alongside the Irish Government's shared island unit? How does Mr. Murphy see this committee supporting what he is doing or what would he like us to do? How does he see this best going forward?

I want to highlight the Warm House For All event. It was one of the most inspiring and informational events I have ever seen of all of the events that Ireland's Future has run. It was so powerful. How can we engage with the 20% of the people in the North who are classified as undecided and also with unionist communities?

Mr. Niall Murphy

I thank Senator Black for those questions and observations. It is a privilege to have Senator Black as our chairperson. I am cognisant of how busy she is and of how attentive she is to her role in the Seanad.

Taking matters one by one, the shared island unit is something that we welcome. It is convincing, we collaborate with its work and we are obliged to be one of the official consultees, specifically when the shared island dialogues are convened. We have been asked to contribute and we have contributed speakers to each shared island dialogue which has occurred. We have undertaken consultation with and offered advice and opinion to the civil servants within the shared island unit. However, more needs to be done by the Irish Government. The unit is welcome and it seems to be well resourced, albeit some of the finance has been recycled from previous commitments. Insofar as its work is important, we do not consider that it is consistent with where the conversation is in real terms. Real evidence-led research to inform more concrete planning needs to be undertaken but it is welcome as a first step and we wholly embrace the opportunity to work with it.

This committee has an important role in setting the agenda and in holding the different mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement to account. In my day job, I work as a solicitor in Belfast and I have enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the various academic research models that have been ongoing. I most thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to work with Professor Colin Harvey at Queen's University Belfast and have observed the rulings in the High Court in Belfast regarding Raymond McCord's application for judicial review.

I understand and appreciate the law relating to schedule 1 of the Good Friday Agreement. It is important to understand and communicate that whereas the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may call a border poll at any time, he or she must call a border poll if it appears likely that a majority would: "express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland." I would respectfully submit that the threshold of evidence for that has already been reached in terms of electoral results. The Northern jurisdiction returns 18 MPs to Westminster and the majority of those represent a united Ireland constituency. When it comes to city and county councils in the North, there are four councils which would broadly have a united Ireland perspective and four which would broadly have a United Kingdom perspective. Belfast City Council, the largest council in the North, would genuinely have a neutral constitutional preference but one which we would consider leans more towards reunification. Electoral results would inform us that the evidence threshold has been met for the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discharge his obligation under schedule 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

On what this committee could do, whereas we consider that the evidence threshold has been met, we want to know what evidence the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is judging. It would appear that he is not using what should be the most fundamental parameter in a democracy, namely, electoral results. Therefore, what is he using? There are difficulties with polls. When a poll is broadly in line with one's thinking, it is to be welcomed. When it is not, then one contests its reliability. We respectfully consider that this committee could usefully correspond with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ask him what evidence he is using to discharge his obligations under schedule 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The evidence sessions that this committee has been engaged in have been very productive and insightful and I trust they have been beneficial to its members. It might be time that this committee considered producing its own report on the prospect of constitutional change on our island during this decade. There has been great benefit from the five evidence sessions that have been convened so the committee may consider appointing a rapporteur to pull together its published opinion on the topic. I would urge the committee to write to the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to publish his response, if and when received, and to comment on and debate how it considers the efficacy and the constitutional politeness of his response. The committee should consider if the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is taking the issue seriously or if lip service is being paid to what is a fundamental part of our Good Friday Agreement. Those are two action points which could be sensibly addressed by the committee.

I mention the Senator's final point. She correctly observed that our Warm House For All event was transformative insofar as it provided a neutral, honest and genuine space for voices that perhaps do not often find expression in political unionism to be heard. As I said in my opening remarks, we are so proud that Trevor Lunn, MLA, and the Reverend Karen Sutherman found it within themselves to consider that our organisation was one they felt they could contribute to and one in which their voices would be honestly cherished, which they are. We want to continue that work, take it forward and maintain the level of outreach which we have undertaken in good faith to date. The most organic, natural and responsible place for those conversations to take place is in an all-island citizens' assembly with the space and the subject matter being completely neutralised. In that way, we can get the gloves on, get down and dirty, get the facts, commission, assess and review the evidence and make recommendations.

I hope I have answered the Senator's question.

I do not know whether I have any more time.

For clarity, Senator Black has two and a half minutes left. I apologise for not telling the Senator earlier.

Ms Harmon was meant to speak about decisions because she was very involved in the previous referendum and preparing for the citizens' assembly. I do not know whether Mr. Murphy can answer my next question and I ask him not to worry if he cannot do so. What does he believe will be the main issues that will have to be considered by the proposed citizens' assembly?

Mr. Niall Murphy

In the immediate context, the legal position as to how constitutional change can be managed and given effect to is one that needs to be discussed, debated and understood. It is our firm view, and two of the research publications we have published speak to this, that the full outworking and expression of the Good Friday Agreement resolves itself in the respect for the principle of consent. It is almost 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent has not yet been tested. What would anybody have to fear from getting a barometer on testing the principle of consent? I have spent my entire life observing the principle of consent. Generations older than me and younger than me deserve the opportunity to test it. Within the lawfulness and the constitutionality of a border poll being reflected in Bunreacht na hÉireann and the Good Friday Agreement with regard to its success, we then must examine the minutiae of all of the systems and how we would meld them and truly become one new unitary state sharing one island, and what this means for a civil service, a police service, a health service or an education service. I have to say I was very enlightened to read the observations of Deputies Neale Richmond and Jim O'Callaghan in their public essays and lectures to the university in Oxford. There was some very blue-sky thinking.

Discourse is defined by people who are willing to take a public position and seek comment on it. The most natural constitutional place for this to occur in a democracy and a republic is within a citizens' assembly. I do not believe we would find time to assess any of these issues in a morning's session in a committee. They all require the appropriate expertise and data. It really is only the southern Government that can critically test tax yields, demographic population shifts and where services will be required. If one were to attempt something as significant as a realignment of constitutional arrangements, all of these things must be very well tested in advance. We have seen the madness of an ill-prepared and ill-defined question on an unsuspecting public. We have seen how it convulsed the body politic in Britain. We must learn from this experience and undertake not to repeat it, which is why we feel our call for work to be done now is critical and appropriate.

I thank the witnesses.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

Our speakers in this round will be Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, Mickey Brady and Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh.

When five minutes remain I will tell the speakers. I apologise for not telling Senator Black.

Gabhaim buíochas le Niall Murphy as an chur i láthair cuimsitheach atá leagtha amach aige ar maidin. Bhí sé iontach maith. Gabhaim buíochas leis freisin as teacht os comhair an choiste. Mr. Murphy made a compelling presentation on the sheer volume of work that Ireland's Future has been involved in. The research it has been doing leaves so many others in its wake with regard to the necessary work and the very impressive and positive engagement and outreach it is doing with other communities. I acknowledge this and it is very important that the committee does so.

The volume of work and range of engagement is reflective of the discourse and debate that is live in our society. In many ways, the Oireachtas and the Irish Government in bringing together a citizens' assembly would need to catch up with this discourse and the debate out there already. Recently, we took a positive step when the Seanad agreed an amendment to call on the Irish Government to establish a citizens' assembly. I want to get Mr. Murphy's views on the political and symbolic importance of this and where it rests in the broader discourse.

Much of this relates to aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and the various grounds. Within this context, unilateral decisions can be taken and moves can be taken by the Irish Government, one of which would be the convening of a citizens' assembly, and a range of others that are non-threatening and would in no way undermine the structures of the Good Friday Agreement. They would be entirely in keeping with constitutional and other political obligations.

What are the views of Mr. Murphy on a call for the Irish Government to hold a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to citizens outside the State, obviously to include those of us who are Irish in the North? The Government tells us that in the course of the pandemic it is unable to hold a referendum, and we all accept this given the restrictions placed upon us. It is a necessary and required obligation the Government needs to fulfil. Is this something on which Ireland's Future will engage with the Irish Government?

Mr. Niall Murphy

Senator Ó Donnghaile has raised several issues and I will address them one by one. The recent motion that included the amendment was exceptionally welcome and was perhaps the first time the concept of a citizens' assembly was publicly validated by a political motion. I am wholly cognisant of the fact there is an element of symbolism to this but it must be noted it is indicative of a political reality and responsive to the growing momentum. There is a wider, deeper and more engaged conversation going on with regard to our collective future.

There is more that can be done. The Irish Government, in our respectful analysis, should publish a Green Paper on Irish unity that identifies steps and measures to inform a successful transition to a single island unitary state. There should be an Oireachtas joint committee on Irish reunification with the task of outlining, driving, monitoring and reviewing the transition towards Irish unity. We had hoped the incumbent Taoiseach might have appointed a dedicated Minister of State with specific responsibility for developing strategies to advance Irish unity.

The South Korean Administration has a Ministry dedicated to the potential for reunification. Scotland established a constitutional unit within government to do this. The opportunities and challenges for Scottish independence were previously outlined in a 670 page document called Scotland's Future. People sometimes wonder where we got our name. That outlined the Scottish Government's vision of how Scotland could and would transition towards independence. That was in 2013. It set out the implications of independence across monetary, fiscal, industrial and social policy and set out its position with regard to constitutional issues and defence policy. There are explicit nuts and bolts that need to be considered in the discharge of this issue. Whereas the motion was obviously welcome, it should be considered as a starting point to a long line of governmental work which needs to be undertaken.

With regard to presidential voting rights, I recall attending the launch of Votes for Irish Citizens Abroad, VICA, in EPIC. I was inspired by the ambition and the articulate nature of the advocates who wanted to take on responsibility for being the persuasive voice for that referendum. That referendum will happen and I am confident that it will pass. I do not note any political party in the South that objects to it and all of us have family all over the world.

My father is from Blackwatertown on the border of Armagh and Tyrone. I see Michelle Gildernew, who will understand the tension between Armagh and Tyrone. He was the youngest of 12 and all of his older brothers and sisters had to emigrate, so I have as many cousins in America as I do in England, and more than I have in Ireland. They are proud of their Irish heritage and would welcome the opportunity to be engaged in the election of our next President. I am personally aware of the necessity of Covid restrictions. I spent 17 days on a ventilator last March and April. I almost died on 30 March. I absolutely understand and will always respect the need to be cautious but that does not inhibit the preparation for that referendum. We are hopefully emerging from the worst days of this pandemic. Brighter days are literally and metaphorically ahead of us. Now is a responsible time to begin to undertake the preparation for that referendum, which I hope, trust and expect should pass with gusto.

Mr. Mickey Brady

I thank Mr. Murphy for his comprehensive presentation. It is good to see him looking so well after Covid. It certainly has not dampened his enthusiasm. I have been fortunate enough to attend a number of meetings that Ireland's Future has organised. The Warm House For All meeting and the great response to that has been mentioned a couple of times. What response is Ireland's Future getting from the broad unionist, loyalist and Protestant community?

Mr. Niall Murphy

We have engaged with people from a cultural Protestant, unionist, loyalist background who are democrats and understand and appreciate what the Good Friday Agreement means. All of us collectively appreciate and will protect the peace which is so valuable to all of us. There is sometimes reticence in some of the consultations that we have had. We have a series of ongoing confidential conversations that we have undertaken, which will remain confidential, with a view to building confidence, increasing levels of understanding, and dismantling some fears and myths which are honestly and genuinely held. It is a positive opportunity to do that, which we embrace. There are many misconceptions about what a new nation might look like but there is also an opportunity in those conversations to provide assurance that there will be an honest and genuine respect for the British identity in a new Ireland. We have to recall and appreciate the political reality that that will be a substantive constituency in a new political arrangement and that that, in and of itself, means that their own voice may be significant in the mechanics of the electoral cycles.

I will not attempt to speak for unionism other than to say that I will publicly observe that unionism and unionist people are noble. They are my friends, neighbours and work colleagues. I do not want any new constitutional dispensation to be one where there is any sense that they feel that their citizenship is being eroded, much less denied, or that their identity is not cherished. We need to work with those important concepts to understand and appreciate what their concerns are. Whereas we will undertake and continue to undertake public and confidential conversations, the most natural and appropriate place for those concerns to be articulated is in an all-island citizens' assembly. Political unionism will grapple with the potential for a constitutional change. That difficulty needs to be respected and given as much understanding and latitude as possible.

Changes have happened and are happening on our island. Brexit has changed everything forever. Constitutional change is already upon these islands by virtue of Brexit. Our democratic expression was ignored, which is a grave difficulty that we have had to endure on this island. We need to work together to make sure that all voices and identities are genuinely heard. I emphasise the word "genuinely". It cannot be lip service. I would not want to encourage the inception of any new constitutional arrangement where anybody felt that their identity was lessened, cheapened or not afforded appropriate respect because that is an experience that I have lived. It is a lived experience for people of an Irish identity in the North. I would oppose that as strenuously in a post-reunification scenario as I promote the enrichment of our own culture at present.

I will ask questions quickly and Mr. Murphy might answer them as he goes.

I thank Mr. Murphy for his ongoing work and Senator Frances Black as well. I wanted to ask the Ireland's Future representatives to speak to the significance of resolution 117 by the US Senate foreign relations committee. That committee has spoken in one voice on accountability, reconciliation, prosperity and its unwavering support for the Good Friday Agreement.

I note what Mr. Murphy said about the role that legislators can play. In particular. I am interested in the European Parliament and what it can undertake by way of research on the implications of the reunification for the EU.

Mr. Murphy spoke about the fundamental barometer being electoral results. I wanted to ask about the significance of the results of the census when they come out and combining these with the electoral results. He will not have time to answer that in this section but perhaps after he answers the other questions, he might address those points.

Mr. Niall Murphy

Absolutely, and if time defeats us, I hope to return to those themes throughout the meeting.

I was asked about resolution 117. We all know and understand the important role that American Administrations have played in negotiating and securing our peace. Those involved take great pride in their role. I have often travelled to America wearing different hats in my professional work. There is a genuine and in-depth understanding and defensive self-pride in the role that America has played in its foreign policy. This assuredness really stood up for the Good Friday Agreement at a sensitive time during Brexit. That is why we took the view it was important to conduct the interview with Congressman Richard Neal, who is chairman of the ways and means committee. It was not the then US President, Mr. Trump, who would sign the trade deal with post Brexit Britain but the ways and means committee. The committee made it crystal clear, as did Ms Nancy Pelosi, Congressman Brendan Boyle and Mr. Marty Walsh, that if one hair on the head of the Good Friday Agreement was ruffled, there would be no trade deal. That is an important critical resolution and one that should give us collective confidence for the path we are currently discussing. I am unsure what time I have left.

You are over time, Mr. Murphy, but I was giving you another minute to finish off. I am adding three minutes to the other groups. You have one minute left if you wish to take it.

Mr. Niall Murphy

The European Parliament has a critical role to play. Part of the change in the tectonic plates that informs where we are at present is Brexit. There is a significant growing centre ground in the North. This is possibly represented by an opinion poll showing the strong performance of the Alliance Party. They want to be European citizens. If they understand and appreciate that their British identity will be respected and maintained then they would prefer to be members of the EU rather than the UK. It is not necessarily membership or citizenship of a new Ireland but their British identity within the EU that they would like to see reflected. Considerable work should be undertaken with the European Parliament. If there were a public declaration as to the support that might be afforded to the inception of a new state, it might give more assurance to all of us on how that process of transfer might be undertaken.

I thank Mr. Murphy for his answers. I am adding three minutes to all the groups to give the same amount of time to each group and individual party. I will now call on Fianna Fáil. The people who were here earlier were Deputy Brendan Smith and Senators Niall Blaney, Erin McGeehan and Ned O'Sullivan. I am unsure if Deputy Smith is here.

I am substituting for Deputy Smith. He has had to leave the meeting.

I have no issue with that at all. You were both here at the same time so I do not mind who goes first. Senator Niall Blaney is a committee member and I will ask him to speak first.

Senator O'Sullivan is substituting for Deputy Smith, who has had to leave for another meeting.

I thank Mr. Murphy for his presentation and for the work his group are doing. They seem to have done considerable work in the recent years. I find the conversation interesting because we are on a similar pathway but we seem to have different concepts of how we get there. We have agreement that unionist and Protestant communities on either side of the Border and their rights and British identity need to be respected and enshrined in any future arrangement. Where we part ways is how we get to a conclusion. I want to delve into that element of it. Please do not shoot the messenger but there is a train of thought that Ireland's Future is aligned to Sinn Féin. That view is not only held by unionists. That is also a view held down south and it is important that Ireland's Future addresses that. There is a fear in unionism. This train of thought is feared in unionism circles. I would like to know the response of the Ireland's Future representatives to that.

The work up to the Good Friday Agreement was crucial. There is no way that the agreement could have been established and pulled together under the terms of the citizens' assembly. The work behind the scenes was vast and went on for years. An extraordinary volume of work was done by many people behind the scenes to build trust in unionism. We seem to forget that unionist parties came to the table and agreed to the make-up of the Good Friday Agreement. They agreed to what was in the agreement. They agreed on the constitutional wherewithal for a referendum.

We have this idea that we need to drive on with the citizens' assembly, that it represents everyone, that we will have a border poll and all will be rosy. That is where I separate from Ireland's Future because we have a great deal of work to do to build trust in Northern Ireland. We cannot afford to have a border poll without gaining that trust. That is achievable. We have one shot at doing this right. I do not disagree on the question of a citizens' assembly but I believe the work being done at the moment by the shared island unit, as presented to us two weeks ago, is over and above what a citizens' assembly would do. Currently, the unit is reaching out to more than 130 community groups. I would like organisations such as Ireland's Future that represent nationalist views to take on and do more of what the shared island unit is doing by going into unionist and loyalist communities or to consider going into loyalist heartlands and have these conversations with the people there. They should bring in speakers from those backgrounds. Ireland's Future could do tremendous work by taking that approach.

Mr. Murphy's colleague, Colin Harvey, came in. I was critical of him when he presented an EU paper because it was not an EU paper and he had not consulted widely with unionists. Mr. Murphy and Professor Harvey could do critical work. I would like to hear Mr. Murphy's opinion about that. Is he open to doing that kind of work?

Mr. Niall Murphy

We are absolutely open to working with anybody who is content to discuss the future constitutional well-being of this island. However, I want to correct immediately the assertion that the Senator has now made in this public forum that Ireland's Future is connected to a political party. I took time to prepare the detailed literature we have published to allow it to be circulated to the members of the committee in advance of this meeting. I am not sure if Senator Blaney received that literature in time or if he had the opportunity to read and reflect on it. All our public pronouncements, made on the public record, make crystal clear that we have no affiliation to any political party.

It will be appreciated, however, that our focus is on the constitutional future of the island and in so far as that is the case, we will of course consult political parties. We have consulted Sinn Féin, as we have consulted the SDLP, the Alliance Party and Fine Gael. I had an exceptional couple of hours in Belfast two years ago with a delegation of ten members from Fine Gael. I have not had the opportunity to speak with representatives of Fianna Fáil on that same basis and I would welcome the opportunity to do so. If Senator Blaney is able to pull together a delegation for me to meet, I will come to the South. As a Donegal man, the Senator is from the north.

Mr. Niall Murphy

He is closer to me than he may think. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss our organisation in more detail with representatives from Senator Blaney's party.

On the Senator's more substantive point, we will do all we can, we will speak to anybody anywhere and we are open to any invitation. We have never refused an invitation. As I said, we have undertaken and are undertaking confidential conversations and I hope we will be able to take those conversations into the public sphere.

One concept on which the Senator touched was the issue of fears, concerns and sensitivities. I wholly appreciate that as we step into a new era, we must be genuinely sensitive to people's fears and concerns. That works two ways, however. Some of the irrational, illogical fears the Senator expressed in respect of our organisation might be true of how people in the North sometimes consider that our sensitivities are assessed and managed in the South. In recent months, we have seen Irish citizenship being made a mockery of, with citizens born on this island being told that while they might think they are Irish, they are not and are actually British. That Emma de Souza had to go to court to confirm that and was exposed to great financial jeopardy for asserting that most fundamental principle was a disgrace and a mockery. That happened in court.

We have seen the Good Friday Agreement all but torn up in front of our eyes at the despatch box by a member of Her Majesty's Government when he said the British Government would break international law to do what it wanted. We have seen our rights as European Union citizens discarded against our democratically expressed wishes. We have seen victims of our conflict treated with contempt by the British Government when it tore up the Stormont House Agreement. We have seen our cultural rights being bartered in respect of Acht na Gaeilge, the Irish language Act, in circumstances where that had been agreed by all the political parties in the New Decade, New Approach document. Sensitivities operate in both directions. When one sees the Stormont House Agreement, New Decade, New Approach and the Good Friday Agreement being cherry-picked, à la carte, that is a very difficult position to tolerate.

I hate to interrupt anybody, and I apologise for doing so, but we have only a few minutes left. I will allow Senator Blaney to reply to some of those charges, or however they might be described.

Senator McGreehan will contribute next.

That is fine.

I thank the Chair. I hope everyone can hear me. I am in the convention centre. I welcome this debate. Any day that I can have a conversation on working towards one island and a united Ireland is a very welcome one. I congratulate the witnesses on the work they have done. Why does Mr. Murphy consistently fail to recognise the work the Irish Government is doing? Why does he downgrade the research undertaken by the Irish Government and the actions it has undertaken to work towards Ireland's future? Why is it thought that the research of Ireland's Future is on a different level and that it is the only way forward? It is surely the case that there is nothing more legitimate in working towards a shared future than the work being done by the Department of the Taoiseach.

Does Mr. Murphy not recognise that an incredible amount of research is being conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, to scope how we can converge as an island in areas such as healthcare, education, an all-island economy, foreign direct investment, FDI, and services? The NESC is doing research, with the title "Digging Deeper, into how we can work together, considering public policy on the environment and social and economic issues. The groundwork is being done but I feel it is consistently being downgraded and not being recognised.

I am from the Cooley Mountains and this is my world. All my life, I have dreamt that we will get to a point where the Department of the Taoiseach would be creating and developing documents on how we work properly on a shared island and towards a future united Ireland. In that context, does Ireland's Future recognise that more than 400 people have already engaged in an all-Ireland conversation on policy? Legitimate and well regarded non-political researchers are working towards creating policies on how we can converge as one island.

I thank the Chair. I will avoid the preliminaries because I have so little time. I welcome Mr. Murphy and I am sorry that Ms Laura Harmon is not here because I have great respect for her, especially in the role she played in the referendum campaign for the repeal of the eighth amendment to the Constitution.

Originally, Ireland's Future was mooted as a kind of an open forum and a neutral voice to facilitate debate and discussion. Mr. Murphy just said that the organisation had now adopted a position. Did it take it long to come to that position? It seems to have been a little rushed if the group was originally just a neutral forum. Suddenly, it is not a neutral forum but a lobby group for a united Ireland and a border poll. Does Ireland's Future have credibility at this stage to put itself forward as a vehicle to encourage unionist, loyalist and other points of view through its auspices?

I respect the answer Mr. Murphy gave to Senator Blaney in respect of Sinn Féin involvement.

I must put the following to Mr. Murphy. Several commentators and journalists have noted, and one, in particular, has stated that he sees Ireland's Future as an outreach programme for Sinn Féin. Mr. Murphy has stated otherwise. I will not go into detail, but anyone who studies the organisation's social media accounts, the likes, dislikes and comments and regular columns of its members, will note that there is a Sinn Féin flavour about them. I am a countryman. I believe that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Mr. Murphy needs to provide more answers.

In respect of the funding of Ireland's Future, in particular, where does the funding come from? Obviously, the organisation has a fairly big budget for a voluntary, non-State organisation. Can Mr. Murphy assure us that the funding does not come from Sinn Féin or any of its subsidiaries, friends or any such group?

My final question-----

Mr. Niall Murphy

Yes. I can do that immediately. That assurance is given.

In relation to Sinn Féin or its subsidiaries providing the organisation with money?

Mr. Niall Murphy


Perhaps Mr. Murphy can provide a fuller answer about Sinn Féin in his response.

Finally, would Mr. Murphy agree that the Good Friday Agreement was based on the spirit of reconciliation, a coming together and mutual respect? Does he agree that the primary function of the agreement was to enable people to live together in the one space, as Seamus Mallon said? Does he agree that the politics of the North for the last 20 years have been a futile waste of time, insofar as neither of the main parties has tried to address the challenge that was put in front of it? Now, while we have a fractured and fraught situation, with so-called peace walls around the cities, the organisation is now proposing that we have a constitutional border poll.

In fairness to the witness-----

Is the organisation not putting the cart before the horse? Is it not creating difficulties rather than helping? Would it not-----

Senator O'Sullivan, I am sorry but I have to interrupt. We have limited time.

-----decide to get behind the shared island initiative and leave the leadership to the elected representatives of this country?

I must ask the Senator to listen to me. I know that it is his first time attending a meeting. I must inform him that there were three minutes for a reply and now there is a minute and a half. I propose, in view of what he has said, that the time for the response should be increased to three minutes, which is fair to our witnesses to enable them to respond.

I wish to state that the witnesses are most welcome here. Every party is welcome here, no matter who they are or who they are not. We want dialogue and I respect everybody's point of view. I wish to make it clear that in my opinion, Ireland's Future does fantastic work. We need to have more dialogue with the unionist community. That is the big problem that we face. It is not about the dialogue between ourselves as such, as nationalists, but with people who are not nationalists and have to look to the future on our island. That is my honest opinion.

Mr. Murphy has three minutes to respond.

Mr. Niall Murphy

When was the last time the Senator had the opportunity to come North?

I do not know why that is relevant. We have little time to talk about it. I-----

As Chairperson, I wish to make it clear to everybody-----

I have been in the North several times. I have relations in the North. I visit my cousins in Enniskillen regularly.

Mr. Niall Murphy

The Senator's comments-----

Hold on. I do not want to have to adjourn this meeting. I ask Mr. Murphy to listen to me. As Chair, I am trying to keep order. I can understand that people get hot under the collar at meetings. That is fine. However, as far as I am concerned, Mr. Murphy has almost three minutes left to respond. Let us move away from personalities and answer the questions. I will make sure that everyone is treated fairly. I do not want any interruptions or any personal charges to be made at this stage.

Mr. Niall Murphy

I find it difficult to reconcile that with the vitriol that was just visited upon me by Senator O'Sullivan. I would like to inquire whether the Senator received the correspondence that was submitted to the committee in advance of the meeting.

In fairness, Mr. Murphy, I am in charge of this meeting, not you. You are our guest and you will be treated properly and appropriately. Charges have been made and you are getting an opportunity to reply to them. I will answer that question. Senator O'Sullivan is attending the meeting as a last-minute substitute for another member. Therefore, I do not believe that he will have seen the correspondence.

I want to stick to the issues. I ask Mr. Murphy to respond again. Let us respect each other.

Mr. Niall Murphy

I respectfully encourage the Senator to avail of the opportunity to read our published positions. We have taken public positions and have submitted to the public record detailed publications. I encourage the Senator to read them. We also submitted our mission statement and documents setting out our background, values and ethos to the committee. I encourage him to take the time to reflect on the documents.

I would be more than content to meet with him and spend more time engaging so that he can gain a better understanding of our organisation. I fear that the Senator has not fully appreciated our aims and objectives and our intentions, which are crystal clear from our website, webcasts, public meetings and research documents. I fear that the Senator has a deep misunderstanding and misapprehension in respect of our organisation. I would like to assist him in understanding our aims and objectives more comprehensively.

He raised the issue of finance. We receive no finance whatsoever from any political party. I am more than happy to place that on the record. Details of a patron scheme are available on our website, whereby anyone who reads, reflects on and understands our work and would like to contribute to it, can become a patron of Ireland's Future. It costs €10 per month, nominally. Some people pay more. Most people pay €10 per month. We have also receive some donations from different people to a larger and more significant extent. Our budget is not-----

The time is up in this section. I must move on to Fine Gael, followed by the SDLP, Alliance, Sinn Féin, Labour and the Green Party. Unfortunately, there is only just over 30 minutes remaining. We started late, so I will allow time for that. However, we must still stick to the two-hour limit, as per Covid rules.

I invite the Fine Gael members to contribute.

It is nice to meet Mr. Murphy again. This is fourth time that I have met representatives of Ireland's Future in the last year. Any contribution in this area is to be valued. That is the case not just in respect of Ireland's Future but also the other groups that we have met and the work of the shared island unit.

I must say that I am concerned about some of the language used. I hear people talking about playing catch-up and the need for the thinking of one side to catch up with the thinking of the other. That is not helpful language. It presumes that there is a right and a wrong. That is not what we are all trying to do. What we are trying to do here is to build consensus and agreement. Senator Blaney made a very good point about the work that went into the Good Friday Agreement that was about building consensus and relationships. That is what the focus should be. I do not think that it is valuable for people in this conversation to say that one group needs to catch up with another group, irrespective of what group that is. That is one point I would like to make.

I am sorry that Ms Harmon is not present, as she was deeply involved in the work to repeal the eighth amendment. I would ask her and perhaps Mr. Murphy, how they feel, when we put so much emphasis of the promotion and protection of human rights, that 14 months after women's healthcare services were made legal in the North, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is now going to the High Court about access to women's healthcare?

Is there a role in all of this for an all-island discussion on that issue? Is any work happening in that area?

Presidential voting rights were mentioned. I too look forward to a referendum on that issue but, within that, we must also discuss the funding of political organisations on an all-island basis and how all of that works. Is there a role for that within all-island discussions and as part of Ireland's Future work too?

My questions for Mr. Murphy are on the citizens' assembly. I accept he may not be able to answer them but, perhaps, it will be possible to get written responses from Ms Harmon at some stage in the future. I will go ahead with my questions on Ms Harmon's statement, which Mr. Murphy read out. What is his view on the citizens' assembly? Should it include politicians or only ordinary citizens? Both were mentioned. Previous citizens' assemblies in Ireland, on repeal and marriage equality, were made up of ordinary citizens. Is that better than including politicians in them? What is Mr. Murphy's view on that?

On funding, what type and amount of funding would need to be set aside to make a citizens' assembly meaningful and to get a bang for our buck? What type of finance do we need to put behind it? In terms of the practical arrangements, points a) to e) in the opening statement provided by Ireland's Future refer to how it must be a project led and initiated by the Irish Government. That is fair enough because the possibility of a joint Irish-British constitutional convention modelling reunification is unlikely. What will be the make-up of this citizens' assembly? Will it just be a bunch of people from the Republic of Ireland discussing the issues? How do we get engagement from the Northern Ireland institutions? If they are not willing to engage, do we just go ahead with a South-Republic of Ireland-centred citizens' assembly? Can we get more detail on its make-up and how we would proceed with that? What role do the Northern Ireland institutions, if any, have to play in a future citizens' assembly?

I thank the witnesses for coming today. It is very interesting and important to listen to all the contributions. I challenge the witnesses on what I see as some contradictions between the different statements in their contribution. I read Ireland's Future economic paper and I respect what is in it but as elected representatives on this committee, we also had the opportunity to listen to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, which presented quite different conclusions. We have to acknowledge the different perspectives and analyses of these points. Ireland's Future's mission statement, included as part of their statement today, is about advocacy and promoting debate and discussion about Ireland's future, but it also commits to a position. This has been acknowledged, which is fair enough. To be clear, whether Ireland's Future is a debate group or is a campaign group is important in the presentation.

I have a concern about tone, in Ms Harmon's provided statement in particular. Her statement, delivered by Mr. Murphy, described an arrogance about the Brexit debate and yet the group's paper presents a border poll as inevitable. I find the tone of those statements contradictory because, of course, while change is inevitable over time, setting the outcome at the outset is not necessarily the solution. A border poll is not necessarily the mechanism for change. Change will come through thoughtful, creative, citizen-led conversations about all aspects of life. A border poll may be one outcome from that but there may be others. I have a difficulty with setting the outcome at the outset.

On the citizens' assembly, University College Dublin, UCD, is doing quite interesting work on how dialogues can be structured and citizens' assemblies are one model of that. I believe the issues in this are too complex for a single citizens' assembly. I was involved in previous citizens' assemblies but they were on very net points of constitutional change and very neat issues. This is much broader and, indeed, the constitutional point is very much a neat point, notwithstanding the complexity of it. It does not reflect anything like the cultural conversation that necessarily needs to happen. The work UCD does on this, in conjunction with the shared island initiative, will be very interesting.

I will raise an issue not directly related to Ireland's Future but I would like to get Mr. Murphy's perspective on it. The new Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, leader, Doug Beattie, wrote a really good article, published in yesterday's edition of The Irish Times. One paragraph really stuck out for me and I ask for the witnesses' perspective on it. He stated:

There are no column inches with me criticising either the SDLP or Sinn Féin for not taking part in the planning discussion around how to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland. I can understand [this] position, yet I find myself facing criticism because I won’t join a discussion about how a united Ireland can be achieved. Surely people can see that this is an unreasonable ask, and a degree of understanding, as I have shown, stops unnecessary division.

It was a really fair point and I would love to get the witnesses' perspective on it, considering they are engaged with a broad group of people.

Mr. Niall Murphy

I will take the last comment first. That is a fair comment by Doug Beattie. I do not think he, or anybody, would be able to point a finger at any column inches generated by our organisation criticising him for his reticence to become involved in a conversation on constitutional change. I understand and respect that position. I touched upon it in my earlier remarks.

The fundamental issue is that a citizens' assembly might afford, as Deputy Carroll MacNeill said, the sensitive, thoughtful, citizen-led conversation that would permit the space around which difficult party-political concepts might be addressed. The referendum to repeal the eighth amendment posed political difficulties for all parties. The matter was somewhat devolved, almost, and became a-party political. Through that, the true accurate voice was found and the Constitution was thereby amended. It is really that spirit we feel might assist in assessing the true thoughts, fears, concerns and ambitions of those who repose a British identity in the North. As such, the conversation that would occur in a citizens' assembly, informed by the evidence, might provide the political space where compromise can occur.

I absolutely do not recognise the contention that we are involved in a conversation with a preordained outcome. Such an outcome would mean there would be referendums that would pass. I have no idea whether a border poll would be voted for on either side of the Border. However, the event of a referendum is, in itself, a demonstration of democracy. There may be an misapprehension regarding Ireland's Future but the first line of our mission states that we aspire to Irish reunification. For the avoidance of doubt, we hold the position that we absolutely aspire to a single-island unitary state but we want to facilitate a discussion towards that end. Again, as reflected on our mission statement, this is in line with the principles and processes as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. We have been as clear as we possibly can be regarding our position, but a better understanding is needed of what has already been democratically mandated on both sides of the Border, that is, the Good Friday Agreement, which is given its legislative expression in the North by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That was part of what was mandated on both sides of the Border.

It is a logical, legislative and constitutional outworking of the Good Friday Agreement that consideration be given to a poll - a referendum - on the constitutional status of the island. Therefore, it is not divisive to speak about that which has already been democratically mandated. A little more credence should be given to that already democratically-mandated position.

I am sorry to interrupt while Mr. Murphy is responding, but I must comment on the language being used. I refer to phrases such as, "The Irish Government, the EU ... need to begin planning for the inevitable" and "Planning has commenced; the governments must catch up". I do not know if Mr. Murphy is suggesting that it is me or the committee more broadly which does not understand the Good Friday Agreement and what it states, or the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Am I not understanding what Mr. Murphy is saying?

Mr. Niall Murphy

No, I am not-----

Does Mr. Murphy think that we possibly do not understand the Good Friday Agreement?

Mr. Niall Murphy

Well, if it is being suggested that a border poll is something that cannot be sensibly discussed-----

No, I did not suggest that. I suggested that it was not inevitable, whereas Mr. Murphy's language had it as being inevitable, and that it was one of a possible set of outcomes from a change conversation. I never said that a border poll was impossible, rather that it was one of several possibilities. It is also one part of an agreement which deals with a range of other issues concerning reconciliation, the building of trust and mutual understanding.

Mr. Niall Murphy

Yes, absolutely.

Have I got it right this time?

Mr. Niall Murphy

Absolutely, but a border poll is specifically legislated for. In so far as that is the case, therefore, it is as noble an aspiration to commit towards having as sensitive a conversation as can be held around this issue as that concerning the converse argument, which is to persuade citizens in the North that their best interests might lie within the United Kingdom. I respect that is a conversation which has already commenced, is ongoing and I am happy to engage in and embrace such a discussion. However, I refute the contention that it is divisive to advocate for something which is integral to the Good Friday Agreement.

I did not say it was divisive. What I said is that Ireland's Future submission referred to there being an arrogance around the Brexit debate. Specifically, what I said was that so much of this discussion is about tone. I refer in that context to stating on one hand, within a couple of paragraphs, that there was an arrogance about Brexit, while, on the other hand, a border poll is inevitable. I stated that what is inevitable is change generally and what is really important is the way in which that is done. One possible barrier to that endeavour is to set a preordained outcome as the outcome from a process. I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing to say as an elected representative and member of this committee. There is nothing divisive about it. We are entitled to have views and to express them; that is why we are here.

Mr. Niall Murphy

Yes, but there is no preordained outcome to a referendum. It may be rejected in the same way that it may be endorsed. That is the fundamental point. Where we find the opportunity for debate and consensus is in preparing for such a referendum. People will then assume a position and argue and advocate for or against a particular outcome and that is the spirit of democratic discourse. We say there is nothing to fear from engaging in that process. All through our programme of work during the last two or three years, it will be found that we have attempted to undertake that work in as open and transparent a format as possible.

I am conscious that some other questions were posed to me. I agree with-----

We have just one minute left in Fine Gael time and we have approximately 15 minutes left for everybody else. I will move on, if I can, because other people are waiting, including representatives from the SDLP, the Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the Green Party. They all need to contribute within the next 15 minutes. I can see straight away that we will have Mr. Murphy back before the committee again, hopefully. I state that because this is an important debate and we must clear the air on all these issues. Now, I call Ms Claire Hanna MP.

Ms Claire Hanna

I thank the Chair and Mr. Murphy. I am aware that other people will be contributing, so I will keep my comments fairly brief. I thank Mr. Murphy for coming before the committee. It has been a really interesting discussion. Clearly, there are many views regarding tone and pace even among the members of the committee. Before I ask two genuinely-meant questions, I want to pull up Mr. Murphy on two things. A bit like Senator Currie said, I refer to the language about "catching up" - and I can understand where it comes from - that feels a little reflective of the Brexit conversation, where people were ranked by their speed, purity and longevity in adherence to that cause.

From the perspective of the SDLP, the North-South aspect and fulfilling all the potential of the Good Friday Agreement is something we have been dedicated to from day one. If people are, therefore, playing a kind of maître d' role in asking people to come into a process and then being glad that they have decided to join in it, it is important in that context to recognise that the Good Friday Agreement is multifaceted and the border poll is a crucial part of it but that people's work on all the strands and aspects of the agreement also should be respected.

The other brief observation I have as an elected MP is to state that we must be cautious when talking about constituencies. I think the term "united Ireland constituencies" was used earlier. I am humble enough to say that I cannot swear to the constitutional aspirations of everybody who voted for me. Overlaying that outcome on previous election results shows that thousands of people voted for me in the Westminster election of December 2019 who had previously voted for unionist parties. We campaigned very strongly in that election on the issue of limiting the damage from Brexit. Therefore, I am just a wee bit cautious, as the SDLP has always been, about people making every election a border poll. I am also cautious about describing these as "united Ireland constituencies" and ascribing political views to people when they vote on different issues.

I am cautious in that regard concerning not just a diverse constituency like mine but also, for example, in respect of somewhere like Belfast North. John Finucane MP has expressed similar sentiments to what I just said, in stating that those elections in 2019 were unique and it is important to not immediately bag everybody who voted for remain as being for a united Ireland as well. Many of those people, including many thousands in my constituency, will be for a united Ireland. However, I am just uncomfortable for people who voted in good faith on a particular issue, like Brexit, now being put in a basket as part of a "united Ireland constituency" as a result. I think that kind of presumptuousness frightens people and may not facilitate people voting outside their comfort zones.

I also agreed with a lot of points from different contributions. I have two queries about engagement with unionism more widely. It was interesting to hear from Rev. Karen Sethuraman and Mr. Trevor Lunn MLA recently at this committee on the subject of engagement with people who do not come from a traditional nationalist background and who are not instinctively for this conversation. How far will Ireland's Future go to engage with individuals in that regard, as well as more broadly? We had a presentation from officials in the shared Ireland unit and they had also done good work in searching and finding people who were not already plugged into this conversation.

Regarding the final report of the University College London, UCL, working group on Irish unification referendums published last week, has Mr. Murphy had an opportunity to go through it? An interim report was published by the group some months ago. The final report now considers some of the structural aspects which must be examined to have a good, solid and engaged debate and some of the gates that will need to be passed through. I would like to hear Mr. Murphy's response to that report. Has that served to crystalise his thinking regarding the timing of a possible referendum? Those are my questions, because I know others want to come in.

I will take Dr. Farry now. Before he comes in, the clerk tells me that the meeting is allowed to run until 11.35 a.m. Representatives of Sinn Féin and the Green Party are ready to speak. That will not interfere with Dr. Farry's time in any way.

Dr. Stephen Farry

Good morning. I will try to be brief. I welcome Mr. Murphy to the meeting. I do not take a position on a united Ireland, as such, or other constitutional matters but I am very happy to engage on Ireland's future and other matters on a without prejudice basis as to where things may go. I appreciate that a fluid and open conversation is happening in many respects.

Mr. Murphy earlier made reference to the Alliance Party vote and the wider centre ground in Northern Ireland. There is a certain fluidity to that. It will be influenced not only by the offer in terms of any potential united Ireland but also in terms of the push factors and how the UK and Northern Ireland are perceived, and how Northern Ireland is seen to be working or not. It is important to bear in mind that constituency of voters will look at practical issues and can move around in terms of potential opinions, subject to a whole range of factors. Many of the issues of concern about how a united Ireland would look will be practical, rather than symbolic.

I wish to raise two particular points around process with Mr. Murphy. I accept that at some point the Governments need to have a proposition. If there is ever to be a border poll, the proposition would need to be very clear, particularly for those in the centre ground. That will involve the Irish and UK Governments finessing the question and the detailed proposition that will be put to voters in both jurisdictions on the island. Before that happens, I understand the need for a citizens' assembly as part of that process, although we are not at that stage just yet. More work needs to be done around having open-ended conversations. I would suggest to Mr. Murphy that the best people to do that are in universities, colleges and civil society organisations for now. If there is a desire to bring in people from a unionist tradition, the more mutual or impartial the forum is perceived to be, the more likely conversations will get going. If the subject areas are around practical things, such as how the health service would operate in a different situation, that is the type of conversation with which people may be willing to engage, rather than the broader umbrella concept of a united Ireland in general. That may be a better way of getting people involved in those discussions, particularly on a much broader basis.

In a similar light, it is important to try to focus on practical areas of co-operation on a North-South basis. That might just stand on its own two feet or it may become a precursor to wider political and constitutional change. There is still ample scope for co-operation between the two jurisdictions on the island. That needs to be explored much more in the short to medium term anyway, before the wider political and constitutional debate gathers momentum, if that happens, in practice. I appreciate that we are seeing some very disappointing moves against that from the DUP at the moment but, nonetheless, that is where a lot of focus needs to be in the short term.

Those are largely comments but I am happy for Mr. Murphy to respond, including to the questions asked by Ms Hanna.

Covid-19 regulations require us to be out of the room in five minutes. We can push that limit to nearer ten minutes but I am conscious of everybody here and the importance of this meeting. If it is helpful, Sinn Féin and the Green Party are entitled to their second round of questions. If it is in order, would it be possible for us to bring Mr. Murphy in again within a fortnight? That is as soon as we can get him here. We would then continue with the rotation, starting with the representatives of Sinn Féin and followed by the representatives of the Green Party. That would be appropriate and proper. I do not know what the rules are about people going north to visit Mr. Murphy but perhaps the different parties could communicate with him separately through Zoom meetings or whatever because teasing out ideas is important to understand everybody's positions and respect them. If it is in order, I would require the consent of the committee to go ahead with another meeting within two weeks in which representatives of Sinn Féin will be followed by those from the Green Party and a rotation thereafter.

I now ask Mr. Murphy to answer the questions from the SDLP and the Alliance Party within five minutes. That would be the fairest way to proceed. I call on him to summarise his remarks in the understanding that he will be before the committee again within two weeks.

Mr. Niall Murphy

The approach the Chairman has suggested is sensible. I am obliged for the invitation. I will first deal with Ms Hanna's observations. I also welcome the initiatives that have been undertaken by the SDLP in convening a forum within the party that seeks to examine, receive and test opinions on the constitutional future. The new Ireland forum is also an expression of where momentum is at and where the conversation sits. I look forward to engaging with that forum as part of our ongoing network of output.

Ms Hanna also mentioned the working group on unification referendums on the island of Ireland in University College London, UCL, and other universities. I have not read the full report but received the advance summary. After an academically robust undertaking, UCL has ostensibly arrived at the same position for which we have been advocating. Its position on the prospect of a referendum or when it would be held is wholly neutral but it considers a referendum is likely. It suggests that planning would need to start in good time before any referendum is held and that planning needs to be led by the British and Irish Governments working closely with a full range of actors across the island of Ireland and in Britain. We agree in that regard. I have no problem confirming that our analysis is consistent with that of UCL.

The university has also noted the acrimony over Brexit and highlights the dangers of calling for a vote without adequate advance planning. I do not think any person holding a view on Brexit would say the referendum was a well-informed debate on a well set out series of outcomes. Brexit was haphazard and our lived experience of what went on is a sharp and recent lesson as to how not to do referendums. I have no qualms in saying that. We are appealing for planning to commence now insofar as Ireland's future exists. UCL has done its report. The Royal Irish Academy's ARINS project is doing work. The ESRI is doing work, as is the SDLP. That is what I mean when I say the work has started.

Ms Claire Hanna

For the record, I did not ask about that. I do not have a different view on that. Mr. Murphy is presenting that as if I was curious about it. He may be answering one of the previous questions.

Mr. Niall Murphy

I may well be, and I appreciate that time has been limited to answer the generality of what has been put. As for my position on the UCL, I wholly respect Mr. Farry's observations. It is a valid perspective. We have had constructive engagement with the wider Alliance Party, and we have learned from that and hope to continue to do so. Nevertheless, I am cognisant of recent opinion polls that have examined the constitutional preference of those parties that are constitutionally neutral. The Sunday Times examined the issue on 23 January 2021 and found that 38% of Alliance voters it surveyed leaned towards a united Ireland dispensation, while 26% were of a United Kingdom perspective. I accept that we cannot repose too much faith in opinion polls, but LucidTalk on behalf of "BBC Spotlight" concluded in April that 77% of Alliance voters incline towards a united Ireland.

There are ever-evolving shifts and they are all responsive to the position in which we find ourselves. We are in a post-Brexit constitutional era. Insofar as constitutional change is already upon us, Brexit changed our constitutional status. I am no longer able to avail of the mechanisms of the EU to express a mandate within it. Unionism reposes a deeply held objection to the Northern Ireland protocol, concerned that it represents constitutional change. Constitutional change is here already, therefore, and our mission is that we manage it in as responsible and as detailed a manner as possible, and to do so in a form that provides for all perspectives genuinely to contribute and to feel that their constitutional sensibilities are being respected, independent of the outcome. I do not propose there is a preordained outcome. The outcome will happen only through the exercise of the franchise and that is what democracy is all about.

We will adjourn until Tuesday, 15 June. I thank our guests and members for attending and participating.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.33 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 June 2021.