New Ireland Forum
The New Ireland Forum was a forum in 1983–84 at which Irish nationalist political parties discussed potential political developments that might alleviate the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Forum was established by Garret FitzGerald, then Taoiseach, under the influence of John Hume. The Forum was initially dismissed, by Unionists, Sinn Féin, and others, as a nationalist talking-shop. The Forum's report, published on 2 May 1984, listed three possible alternative structures: a unitary state, a federal/confederal state, and joint British/Irish authority. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, dismissed the three alternatives one by one at a press conference, each time saying, "that is out", in a response that became known as the "out, out, out" speech. However, Garret Fitzgerald, who described the Forum's report as "an agenda not a blueprint", valued it as establishing a nationalist consensus from which the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement could be framed.
In the aftermath of the 1981 hunger strikes, "physical force Irish republicanism" represented by Provisional Sinn Féin was gaining support in Northern Ireland at the expense of the "constitutional nationalism" represented by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Garret FitzGerald became Taoiseach after the Republic's 1981 general election and announced a "constitutional crusade", including a reframing of the state's attitude to Northern Ireland. He lost power quickly but regained it in the November 1982 election. Before the previous month's election to the reconstituted Northern Ireland Assembly, John Hume had proposed a "Council for a New Ireland" in the SDLP manifesto. Fitzgerald persuaded Hume to accept a Forum open to non-nationalist parties, though in the event only nationalist parties joined. The SDLP's participation persuaded Fianna Fáil to join. The forum was open to "all democratic parties which reject violence and which have members elected or appointed to either House of the Oireachtas or the Northern Ireland Assembly". From the Assembly, only the SDLP participated; Sinn Féin were excluded, and the Alliance Party and Unionist parties stayed away. From the Oireachtas, the three main parties —Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Labour Party— joined. Independent TDs and Senators were not eligible for membership. The SDLP was abstentionist in the Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland Assembly, which meant its representatives were able to devote more time to the Forum.
The Workers' Party decided not to become members of the Forum. The Democratic Socialist Party was ineligible as its sole TD, Jim Kemmy, had lost his seat in the November 1982 election. These two parties organised a separate "alternative Forum" with the Alliance Party, the Irish Independence Party, and others.
There were 27 members and fourteen alternates.
Party Fianna Fáil Fine Gael Labour SDLP Leader Charles Haughey Garret FitzGerald Dick Spring John Hume Members Alternates Secretary Veronica Guerin John Fanagan Diarmaid McGuinness Denis Haughey
Colm Ó hEocha was appointed chairman of the Forum. It had a secretariat staff of 17, seconded from the Irish Civil Service; the salary of the secretary of each of the four participating parties was also paid from the Department of the Taoiseach.
The first session was held in Dublin Castle on 30 May 1983 and the final session on 9 February 1984. There were 11 public sessions, 28 private ones, and visits to Northern Ireland in September 1983 and Great Britain in January 1984. The forum's steering group, comprising the chairman and the four party leaders, met 56 times in total.
Submissions were invited in press advertisements; 317 were received, and 31 submitting groups and individuals were invited to make oral presentations to the forum.
Presenter Session Notes Charles Carter September 21, 1983 Louden Ryan September 21, 1983 Professor of industrial economics at Trinity College Dublin, executive at Bank of Ireland. Seán MacBride October 4, 1983 Brian Lennon October 4, 1983 Jesuit priest based in Northern Ireland. David Harkness October 4, 1983 Professor of history at Queen's University Belfast. Hugh Munro October 4, 1983 Writer Robin Glendinning October 5, 1983 Northern Irish playwright John Robb October 5, 1983 Northern Irish surgeon, member of Seanad Éireann Michael McKeown October 5, 1983 Teacher, writer, and founder member of National Unity and the National Democratic Party. John Biggs-Davison October 5, 1983 Northern Ireland Cross-Community Professional Group October 6, 1983 Desmond Fennell October 6, 1983 Roy Johnston October 11, 1983 Labhrás Ó Murchú October 11, 1983 Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Eoghan Ó Néill October 11, 1983 Director of Comhdáil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, umbrella-group for Irish-language organisations. Micheál Ó Loingsigh October 11, 1983 Irish Sovereignty Movement Sydney Callaghan October 20, 1983 Methodist Church in Ireland minister from Belfast William T. McDowell November 3, 1983 Synod of Dublin, Presbyterian Church in Ireland Federalism and Peace Movement November 3, 1983 Michael O'Flanagan, Michael O'Mahony Women's Law and Research Group November 17, 1983 Belfast feminist group campaigning for reform of divorce law. Clare Clark and Eileen Evason. Samuel James Park November 17, 1983 Former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Church of Ireland November 21, 1983 Richard Kearney and Bernard Cullen December 8, 1983 Professors of philosophy. George Gordon Dallas December 8, 1983 Belfast Presbyterian physician, representing an ecumenical bible study group. Irish Information Partnership December 8, 1983 London-based group collating statistics relating to the Troubles; David Roche and Brian Gallagher Sylvia Meehan January 19, 1984 Chair of the Republic's Employment Equality Agency Christopher McGimpsey and Michael McGimpsey January 19, 1984 Members of the Ulster Unionist Party Clive Soley January 19, 1984 British Labour Party MP Anthony Orr January 19, 1984 Spokesman for a Belfast group of unionist community workers, which submitted papers through the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference February 9, 1984
Separately from its final report, the forum published three reports on the economic cost of Partition of Ireland since 1920, and of the Troubles since 1969; it also commissioned reports from external consultants and experts on the cost and logistics of a united Ireland.
The Forum published its report on 2 May 1984. Its historical treatment heavily criticised the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and the alleged short-term thinking of successive British governments' policy on Northern Ireland. It estimated the high financial cost of the Troubles since 1968, while also acknowledging the high cost of implementing any new political arrangements. It outlined three possible alternative structures for a "new Ireland":
- a "unitary state", i.e. a 32-county Ireland
- a "federal/confederal state" comprising the current states of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
- or "joint authority" meaning that the British and Irish governments would have equal responsibility for the administration of Northern Ireland; advocated by Richard Kearney and Bernard Cullen.
Unionist historian Graham Walker writes, "The Forum Report did reflect a more considered appreciation of the Unionists' distinctiveness and their attachment to the Union, but it was also replete with time-worn assumptions and stereotypes, and a partisan historical narrative."
Before the Forum's report was issued, the Ulster Unionist Party presented a discussion paper of its own entitled Devolution and the Northern Ireland Assembly: The Way Forward (usually called The Way Forward). This described the Forum thus:
- The SDLP and those political parties in the Republic of Ireland presently participating in the New Ireland Forum have all publicly declared their support for the principle that there can be no change in the constitutional status of the territory of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. ... British Governments give a formal written guarantee to this principle ... If constitutional nationalists accept the principle of consent, it is difficult to see, in logical terms, why some insist that the British Government should withdraw its guarantee of that self same principle. The answer to this apparent inconsistency lies in the long term political strategy of those who seek a United Ireland. ... Constitutional nationalists appear to behave upon the basis that every form of pressure, short of direct force, is valid in order to obtain unionist consent. .... The Forum for a New Ireland is an integral part of this strategy. Not only is it a component in the ongoing pressure for consent by producing a charter of republican reasonableness, it is also necessary for it to set up a blueprint for political structures that would, ostensibly, accommodate unionists in a way that the Republic has never been able to do in the past, and which would have been inconsistent with the State’s ethos and existing constitution. It now appears at least probable that this entire strategy is about to fail.
The McGimpsey brothers, members of the Ulster Unionist Party, felt the Forum's report totally ignored their contribution.
- Most people recognise that parts of it were disappointing and unacceptable to the British Government or British people. However, I recognise that there was positive value in its serious examination of nationalist aspirations, its emphasis on the importance of consent, its unequivocal condemnation of violence, its attempt to understand the Unionist identity and its openness to discuss other views.
In October 1984, in a Seanad debate on the Forum's report, Mary Robinson regretted that "the range of contributors invited to make oral presentations to the Forum was too narrow", and remarked that "witnessing the Catholic Bishops and their representatives being questioned by politicians at the Forum may have marked a modest beginning to a healthy separation of Church and State in Ireland." She endorsed the view of political scientists Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden, who stated:
- The Report of the New Ireland Forum has been widely welcomed as the most positive contribution to solving the Northern Ireland problem for some years. Yet, it is equally widely recognised that the Report's prescriptions are totally unrealistic and can only be pursued, if at all, in ways which are inconsistent with the principles it asserts.
- I have made it quite clear ... that a unified Ireland was one solution that is out. A second solution was confederation of two states. That is out. A third solution was joint authority. That is out. That is a derogation from sovereignty. We made that quite clear when the Report was published. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. She is part of the United Kingdom because that is the wish of the majority of her citizens. The majority wish to stay part of the United Kingdom.
Lord Kilbrandon established a committee that produced an unofficial report attempting to reconcile elements of the Forum report and The Way Forward. This report informed the British government's view leading up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Richard Sinnott suggests the Forum report gave Fitzgerald a mandate in the negotiations that produced the Agreement.
Charles Haughey was criticised in the aftermath of the Forum Report's publication for appearing to put a more traditionalist interpretation of its conclusions than other parties. This eventually came to a head when Fianna Fáil, then in opposition party, opposed the 1985 Agreement as incompatible with the Forum's conclusions, while the other three Forum parties supported the Agreement.
The SDLP's view of the "National Question" became the default position of Irish political parties from then and through the Northern Ireland peace process. The SDLP's loss of ground to Sinn Féin in the 1985 local elections in Northern Ireland was attributed in part to the "out, out, out" response to the Forum it had championed.
The Forum has been seen retrospectively an a first acknowledgement by the political parties in the Republic of the need to engage with Ulster unionism and "North-South relationships" rather than ignoring them in favour of the "East-West" relationship with the British government in London. Dermot Keogh called it "one of the most important intellectual exercises in self-definition since the foundation of the state."
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