We need to 'Think 32' and more importantly 'Act 32'

The Derry News will be publishing a series of articles which have been commissioned by the lobby group 'Think 32'. A number of local figures will debate what type of Ireland they wish to see. The series begins with this article by Marguerite Hamilton, a former principal of Thornhill College in Derry.

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Marguerite Hamilton would like to see the Dail remain as the national parliament, with four regional assemblies.

In joining the conversation 'Think 32,' I considered beginning with the Covid-19 pandemic and then wondered, with Brexit looming, whether this should be my starting point.

Both these major challenges have underlined for me the need to 'Think 32' and perhaps more importantly, 'Act 32.'

We are facing a virus that does not recognise borders anywhere in the world and most definitely not the border I seamlessly cross almost every day, never considering that in the half mile journey I make from my home I am moving into a 'different jurisdiction.'

I voted against Brexit, as did the majority of people in the North, fully cognisant of the benefits already gained from membership of the EU throughout the island.

However, when I look to what has shaped my thinking I have to record that from my school days my study of Irish history and our troubled relationship with England characterised by invasion, injustice and economic, social, political and religious deprivations is the key determinant in my desire to see my country united.

I grew up in Derry during the 'Troubles,' witnessing the cycle of resistance that has defined so much of our history and has cost us so much in lives lost, maimed and scarred and the transmission of wounds, on all sides, with which we continue to live.

What kind of Ireland do I want? I want a 32-county Irish Republic, an independent, self-assured country, at ease with its traditions.

I want to see a compassionate Ireland in which the most vulnerable, however they show themselves, those on the margins from whatever ethnic or religious group will be respectfully cared for and their dignity upheld.

Basically, the rights enshrined in the Proclamation 'equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens… with the resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.'

Embracing the spirit of these aspirations will provide the assurance citizens need that the role of government is to see an equitable distribution of the country’s resources, ensuring that we implement the understanding of equal opportunity, i.e. those in need will be properly resourced to live healthy, purposeful lives.

I have, what I believe to be, a healthy suspicion of centralised government. It has been too easy in the past to see a Dublin centric or Belfast centric approach emerge in everything from the development of infrastructure to targeted economic investment.

While factors arising from living in a divided society have been influential, particularly in Derry and west of the Bann in withholding development opportunities, it is also important to note that the highest percentage of medical card holders (an indicator of social deprivation) anywhere in the 26 Counties, is in Donegal. Living on the margins away from the centres of power has held back border communities.

How can we ensure as we go forward that this under funding, under development of the border counties and indeed of other parts of the country will not continue to be a feature of a 'New Ireland'? My preference going forward is that while the Dail would continue as the national parliament, the four provinces would have their own regional assemblies.

The historic province of Ulster would be defined as the traditional nine counties. While I do not under-estimate the strength of feeling on the part of Unionists to being part of a united Ireland, demographic changes as we are already seeing, will alter their current position.

The right to identify as British, a right enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, would be retained for as long as was necessary as the new structures emerge. The scope of the powers of regional assemblies would have to be worked out hopefully in a genuine attitude of collaboration and commitment to the devolution of power.

The differences in health care services and provision are always used as one of the major challenges to all Ireland thinking.

However, the pandemic has shown us that an all island approach would serve us well given the amount of travel, particularly in the border regions.

It is recognised that health care provision in the South is in need of transformation and the Bengoa reforms in the North, if they are to be implemented may provide us with opportunities for joint working.

The model of sharing resources by Derry and Donegal in the provision of some cancer and cardiac services at Altnagelvin Hospital and the location of children’s cardiac services in Dublin are models of good practice and excellence in patient care.

We are a small island and if we are to give our citizens the best possible care, centres of excellence and next practice like those mentioned above will need to be developed.

While there are many examples of trade between North and South the uncertainty of the outcome of Brexit and the weakness of our present position as a small adjunct of Britain again underlines the fragile and precarious position of the economy.

In the North we have too many people who are economically inactive and a well-documented over-dependence on the public sector.

A root and branch review of areas of under-investment would need to be carried out as the new Ireland progresses with a commitment given to seek out opportunities to redress the balance throughout the country.

This is not an easy challenge and would need to be backed up with appropriate educational investment and reform.

In the darkest days of the 'Troubles,' it was hard to find a space for creative thinking.

I believe that space, while still fragile, is being created.

Perhaps our thinking needs to move from 'either or' to 'both and' as we seek to make progress in an Ireland that is sufficiently confident to celebrate diversity and live again the compassion and generosity in all areas of life which are native to our spirit.

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