Televised debate on the future of a United Ireland draws huge reaction from all sides
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Televised debate on the future of a United Ireland draws huge reaction from all sides

THERE HAS been a huge reaction to a debate on a United Ireland which took place in Ireland last night.

RTÉ hosted a special episode of Claire Byrne Live yesterday evening which asked the question, 'A United Ireland- What Would It Mean'?

The subject alone is enough to pique the interests of those living across the island of Ireland and beyond, but the panel for the debate promised an explosive episode.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald as well as DUP MP Gregory Campbell, former Taoiseach John Bruton, Andrew Trimble, Naomi Long, Joe Brolly and more appeared on the show throughout the night for the wide-reaching debate.

When the debate was announced, many braced themselves for a fiery free-for-all due to the immense sensitivity of the subject and the fast-held opinions and identities of all involved.

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However, audiences were left surprised and impressed as the debate, for the most part, passed off without incident, and the show has been praised by the public for ensuring "good, balanced and measured debate".

The episode allowed both hard-line Unionists and Republicans to have their say, as well as introducing opinions from people who identify as neither, and those who identify simply as Northern Irish.

The debate began with a discussion between Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar,  which in the Dáil can sometimes dissolve into 'whataboutery' and snide remarks with no real substance.

But this was not the case yesterday evening, as both stated their points and even agreed with each other, debating respectfully and without interruption.

Mary Lou McDonald pointed out that, between the Brexit vote and the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of the Northern Ireland border had been thrust into the spotlight in a way as it had not been before and said a border poll was an inevitability.

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Leo Varadkar agreed that a border poll would happen and it was important to begin the conversations as to how to accommodate the one million people in the north who identify as British, but said setting a date for a border poll now would prove divisive.

Commenting on the show, one person wrote on Twitter "So far this is a really enjoyable watch- measured, reasonable and well thought out points from both sides. No shouting match and well moderated."

Journalist Aoife Moore took to Twitter where she wrote "It's almost as if two leaders can have an intelligent debate and disagree on a topic without tearing strips off each other.

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"If we set Leader's Questions in the RTE Studios can we have more of this?", and those replying admitted it was "refreshing" and "pleasantly surprising".

Former Irish rugby player Andrew Trimble appeared on the show where he explained that there was a "growing middle ground in Northern Ireland and they don't want to be forced to choose" between a United Ireland or remaining in the United Kingdom.

His remarks were praised as a "refreshing perspective", who was "speaking for a new generation who are rejecting binary ideologies and rather seeking informed conversations to better understand each other".

A controversial moment in the debate came when GAA analyst Joe Brolly was muted for 'name calling' the DUP when no member was present to defend themselves; Brolly had stated some members were racists and homophobes.

The decision to cut Brolly divided opinion, with some saying it was a necessity and others stating it was unfair as certain DUP members have been publicly embroiled in racism and homophobic rows in the recent past.

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Unionist activist Jamie Bryson who once said he would rather "choke on his own blood" than be part of a united Ireland, said it didn't matter how the 'new Ireland' is packaged or what is done to try and accommodate unionists, "a New Ireland, an old Ireland or a 'I can't believe it's not a United Ireland Ireland', it's never going to be tolerable for unionism."

Alliance leader Naomi Long stated that there was much more that needed to be done in Northern Ireland to ensure peace and stability before Ireland can be united, and said that if Unionists and Republicans in the north looked different from one another, "people would be shocked at the depth of segregation in our society".

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Responding to this, one viewer wrote that Ms Long was "getting straight to the real problem in Northern Ireland. Segregation.

"It's invisible to the outside world but permeates every aspect of life here. Integration of our children is the only way to truly start to come together for a real shared future."

However others challenged this idea, suggesting that if Northern Ireland is still so segregated 100 years after it was founded, this was a reason to make a change rather than retain the status quo.

Throughout the debate, it was generally accepted as fact that a border poll would be taking place in the coming years due to the measures written out in the Good Friday Agreement; polls and the census show that demographics in Northern Ireland are moving in such a way that could trigger a referendum on Irish unity.

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While former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has previously suggested 2028, the 30 year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, as a potential date for a referendum, John Bruton said last night that this was too early.

Similarly, current Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who was questioned by Claire Byrne without the presence of other members of the panel, said it was more important to hold conversations on sharing the island and ensuring people north and south have a voice that can be heard rather than calling for a united Ireland.

He argued that it was not the right time to set a date for a border poll or to call for a united Ireland, as should either side win by even 1% it would cause an enormous divide, and cited issues such as Brexit as examples where this has happened before.

The Taoiseach also admitted he one held 'simplistic' views on Northern Ireland and a United Ireland, describing them as 'Brits Out' views, but said his politics and opinions had changed since visiting the north as a student and befriending and listening to unionists.

The debate also included opinions from Irish and British people in the north, as well as analysis from Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter and more.

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You can watch the debate in full-- and it is well worth watching-- on the RTÉ Player here.