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Will Scottish independence bid spur talk of Irish reunification?

A majority of Scots decided in the Sept. 18 referendum that they were better together with the United Kingdom than on their own.

Conor Murphy, a Member of Parliament for Armagh and Newry, dreams of the day citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland get to vote on reunification.

"Both (Scotland) and in Wales, and indeed in England -- where there's a growing English nationalism -- there's going to be a shakeup in the union, that has implications for the north of Ireland," said Murphy, a member of the republican Sinn Fein party, in Vancouver on Sept. 18 during a three-city tour of Western Canada.

The Good Friday Agreement, the multiparty, 1998 power-sharing pact that led to the end of armed, sectarian conflict, contains a provision for a so-called border poll.

"We've called on the British and Irish governments to set a date into the future to allow a proper, structured and reasoned and informed debate," Murphy said. "We don't have an informed debate in Ireland about reunification, about the cost of duplication on the island, about the resources available to the Irish nation, how much we actually get from the British treasury in the north, how much we pay into the British treasury in the north. Those figures aren't even available to us."

Murphy said economic development opportunities will remain hindered without harmonization of currency, taxation, healthcare and education systems on the island of 6.4 million, of which 4.6 million live in the republic.

"All of those things act as an economic barrier. Even though people can freely cross the border -- we don't have checkpoints anymore -- the ability to do business and access services is still restricted," he said.

Austerity measures after the global economic crisis forced many young Irish to migrate elsewhere for jobs, including Canada. The unemployment rate recently hit a five-year low of 11.5 per cent in Ireland, substantially higher than Northern Ireland’s rate of 6.6 per cent. A North American-style proliferation of big box stores for the bargain conscious is causing boarded-up storefronts in town centres.

"It is a sad indictment of the way the country has been run; you see town centres dying on their feet, and a kind of breakdown of the social fabric of towns as well."

Meanwhile, the face of Ireland is becoming increasingly multicultural. Once largely homogenous white and Catholic, it has benefitted from an influx of immigrants from mainland Europe, Africa and South America.

"A new Ireland, a better Ireland would be a healthy mix of our own best and brightest young people that have been able to stay, work and live and a healthy mix and influx from other countries to help enrich our society," Murphy said.

Before the Scottish referendum dominated headlines, the death of Protestant preacher and Democratic Unionist Party politician Ian Paisley dominated news both north and south. The polarizing Paisley, known during much of his adult life for virulent anti-Catholic and homophobic hyperbole, died Sept. 12 at age 88. Like Murphy today, Paisley sometimes traveled to speak to the Irish diaspora in Canada.

"In the last couple of years, and it was a small portion of his political life, when he did go into power sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein, he did so with good heart. I sat around the executive table with him, I was one of the (Northern Ireland) cabinet after 2007 and I found him very warm and very friendly," Murphy said. "I knew very clearly about his background, but he took a decision that once he decided to opt for power sharing that he would provide some leadership in his community that said it was okay to do this."

Ultimately, Murphy said, history will judge Paisley.

"We knew the two sides of him, we knew he was prepared to show leadership when it mattered, but I'm sure many other people had a negative experience of him."

Like Paisley, Murphy also made a transformation of his own. He was 18 in 1981 when 10 republican prisoners starved to death in protest. He joined the Provisional IRA, but a year later was jailed for five years for explosives possession. After his release, Murphy became politically active in the affiliated Sinn Fein. First a district councillor in 1989, then a member of the Northern Ireland assembly in 1998, he was elected to Parliament in 2005.

"As far as I was concerned, and many of the people involved in the IRA, armed struggle was the last option, a last resort," Murphy said. "It wasn't the preferred way of doing business, because it brought a great pain on ourselves as well as other people, people going to jail, people dying. We always understand that if an opportunity for peaceful resolution to try and address the same issues that brought about the armed conflict that we were obliged to try and explore it."

Last year, he met Queen Elizabeth II in Windsor Castle. "Something I never envisaged myself doing," he said.

"It is a journey, but life's a journey whether you're involved in politics or not, you have to adapt to new situations and you have to try and chart your way through it. While you hold firm to your principles of wanting political change in Ireland, wanting to see a united Ireland, wanting to see ourselves in charge of our own destiny, wanting to see reconciliation."

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

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