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‘Shared European identity will lead to united Ireland’

John Finucane pictured with Sinn Fein Vice-President and NI Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and MLA minister for Foyle Elisha McCallion pictured on the streets of Derry while on the canvessing trail.

Sinn Féin will not win a referendum calling for a United Ireland by putting lies on buses or waving flags to appeal to ‘Nationalist sympathies’, according to the party’s new MP for Belfast North John Finucane.

In fact, the disastrous and divisive Brexit has shown precisely how not to run a referendum, he said as he prepared his first keynote speech in Westminster as an MP on Tuesday.

He also railed against the hypocrisy of Ireland’s two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, for insisting Sinn Féin is suitable for sharing power in Northern Ireland but not the Republic.

The former Mayor of Belfast Mr Finucane, addressing the gathering on the case for a referendum – or Border Poll – on Irish unity, said it will take years to undo the damage of Brexit even if the united Ireland side wins a referendum.

Northern Ireland voted by a significant majority to remain in the EU.

Of this, Mr Finucane says: “Our European identity possibly has been taken for granted and not appreciated until it was taken away from us.

“Make no mistake about it, there are unionists who see their future in a new Ireland.”

Such a new Ireland would, he says, be a chance to create a better society for everyone in which Unionist identity is protected.

Mr Finucane told the Irish World: “As an Irish Republican, I am obviously in favour of both a referendum and of winning a referendum.

“I don’t want to win it by writing a lie on the side of a bus. I don’t want to win it by just waving a flag in somebody’s face and appealing to Nationalist sympathies.

“I think this is a debate that needs to get to the nuts and bolts of what people are asking about whether that’s how Unionist identity can be and will be and should be protected in the new Ireland.

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“Our European identity possibly has been taken for granted and not appreciated until it was taken away from us and we then realised exactly how important that was to us.

“I think that will be a strong motivating factor for people. I think people are very proud to be a member of the EU but that’s going to change by the end of the month.

“Brexit is going to be disastrous. Even in its current form, after the British Government finally realised there was a Good Friday Agreement that needs to be protected, it’s going to cause significant damage to people’s lives and the economy here and it’s already caused significant damage and it’s going to take a number of years to undo that even in the event of a successful unity referendum.

“We are dealing with somebody else’s mess because we are collateral damage.

“Brexit has permanently changed the context and the dynamic around the conversation of a united Ireland.

“I welcome that, the fact that the conversation is now on a different level. There’s been nothing about Brexit at all that I think anyone on this island could possibly welcome.

“Possibly the only benefit that I can see in Brexit is a template in how not to run a constitutional referendum.”

Mr Finucane says the lessons of Brexit must be remembered in talking about a united Ireland with no rush towards a referendum and with people being absolutely clear about what they are voting for.

“I think it needs to be very well informed, the debate around it. People need to be very clear what they’re voting for, what they’re voting against.

“I think the debate around the united Ireland is very capable of being measured, of being mature, of being responsible, that’s the way I would talk about it.

“I don’t think that there is anything to be gained from having the conversation about a unity referendum and the new Ireland in a way that is offensive or obnoxious to anybody.

“It should be an inclusive conversation. Are we ready for such a referendum tomorrow? Of course not. There are steps that need to be taken in advance of such a referendum.

“It is incumbent on whatever government is formed after the election on 8 February that the next steps are taken, a Citizens’ Assembly, a citizens’ forum, who can take those reasonable and responsible steps in advance of such a referendum because the demographics are changing.”

Mr Finucane says he believes there are many Unionists who are now looking towards a south they feel they have more in common with.

“Those from a Unionist background are looking to the future. With the greatest of respect to those in England who are for Brexit, a lot in Northern Ireland don’t have any affinity with that, the future that is outside Europe, and they’re looking towards the south. They see a progressive, prosperous, secular society that they feel more in common with.

“Does that mean they would vote for it tomorrow? Of course not, but it means they want to be part of a conversation and the conversation now needs to go the next level.

“There is going to be a section within Unionism or Loyalism who will never vote in favour of a unity referendum. That opinion needs to be respected but there is also a growing number of people within Unionism who want to have more detail.

“The conversation is capable of happening without it necessarily provoking a backlash or resentment. Make no mistake about it, there are unionists who see their future in a new Ireland.”

Asked what a united Ireland would look like, John says: “I think it’s not about stapling six counties onto the 26.

“I think that there’s an opportunity here to create a much better society for everyone.

“I think there needs to be steps taken so that the unionist tradition will be well-respected, and that respect will be enshrined within law.

“Sinn Féin do not own that conversation. We are one voice among many although I would say an important voice but we’re one voice.

“We want to be part of that conversation to help shape what the future looks like. We don’t exactly have a template, but we do recognise that constitutional change is coming.

“The elections even within the last two years are all pointing towards signifi cant demographic change. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those people will vote a certain way, but I think it does mean people are up for that conversation.”

John on left with brother Michael, mother Geraldine and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Both of Ireland’s two main parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have ruled out going into coalition  with Sinn Féin while at the same time calling on the DUP and Sinn Féin to share power in Northern Ireland.

“I think it’s insulting to unionism that on the one hand they urge and encourage them to go into government with Sinn Féin but in the other breath they say that Sinn Féin aren’t good enough to go into government in the south.

“I think that undermines their credibility, I think it’s cheap political point-scoring and there’s also an arrogance contained within it because it’s not for Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to say who will be in government. Unfortunately for them, there’s an election and the people will decide who they vote in.

“We may well see a change of tack after 8 February, there is a degree of immaturity and short sightedness around comments like that. I don’t think it helps relations on an All-Ireland basis.”

John’s father Pat Finucane was murdered in a case of collusion between British intelligence and Loyalists in 1989. He was shot in front of his family.

Despite his party’s policy of not taking up their seats in the Commons, he insists he can effectively represent his North Belfast constituents.

Mental health is a personal priority and he believes that a mental health emergency should be declared: “I referenced mental health many times during the election. I feel if anything, it’s getting worse before it’s going to get better.

“I think the number of deaths and the age of those sudden deaths are, I think, cause for alarm. It should be declared a health emer gency in north Belfast. It’s killing our young people and it’s something that does requires an urgent response.

“I made it very clear throughout the election that I would be there to represent the entire constituency.

“I think North Belfast has so much potential, it’s about unlocking that over the next few years and it’s also about dealing with the immediate concerns that we have.

“We are living in much better times not just from the times that my parents would have raised kids in, growing up as a teenager in North Belfast was very different from the North Belfast of today. That said, I think we always need to be vigilant and we can never be complacent with the peace that we have.

“This Belfast is very different to the Belfast of old. I was Mayor last year, I was councillor and I was always very proud to say Belfast City Council is the most diverse council in Belfast history.

“Eight political parties are represented, and I think that in itself represents the diversity of those within the city. That is a sign of progress. It’s also a sign politics in Belfast are a little more subtle than orange and green.”

John Finucane’s father, the solicitor Pat Finucane, was shot dead in front of his family in 1989 in one of the most controversial murders of the troubles. Two public investigations found evidence of collusion between British security and intelligence forces with Loyalist paramilitaries in both the murder and subsequent cover-ups.

In 1999 ex- RUC Special Branch Agent William Stobie was charged with the murder but the case collapsed due to a key witness refusing to take part. He walked free but was shot dead weeks later by loyalist gunmen. In 2004, the loyalist Ken Barrett was sentenced to 22 years for the murder. The Finucane family have long campaigned for a comprehensive public inquiry into the murder.

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