Ignoring the small issue of a border poll, what might a new united Ireland be like?

(This should have appeared early on Friday morning – until the gremlins got in the way.)

Last week, before the release of the BBC NI Spotlight poll, I talked to a local MLA about the concept of a new Ireland. Over the last few months there has been an increasing level of chatter analysing the mechanics of calling a border poll and interpreting census results.

Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to delve under the instinctive longing and loathing that is so often associated with the notion of a united Ireland to explore what the new state might look like if the conditions could ever be met to have a poll.

Much – though not all – of the commentary comes back to promoting a nationalist ideal of an El Dorado paradise or declaring the unionist nightmare of forcibly cutting ties to the British monarch.

Intellectually it’s a lot more interesting to get beyond the emotion and wonder … What if? What might be the shape of this potential state? How might the population in the north east corner relate to those in the south west? What governance arrangements might be put in place, or indeed left in place? What parts of Northern Ireland’s public sector and civil society would survive, or even thrive? How would the six counties integrate with the twenty six?

And while a poll may be a distant prospect, grasping the Presbyterian principle of ‘not refusing light from any quarter’ I wondered whether a Northern Ireland that is still settled in the Union had anything to learn from new Ireland thinking.

I’d heard Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for South Belfast, talking about the importance of region at an election event a couple of years ago, so I met up with him last week to pick his brains. We talked about identity, economy and his opinion of Sinn Féin’s “flag-waving” activity around the border poll. But first I asked about his vision of a united Ireland.

I think one of the great issues with the debate around the a border poll and in fact one of the great issues within both Irish unionism and Irish nationalism is that we have an awful habit of wanting to either remain in the union or to be in a united Ireland. But if we’re honest with ourselves we haven’t done a huge amount of work in trying to work through what that would look like (if you’re thinking about a united Ireland) or to consider the practical issues around it. How would you pay for it? What system of government might be best? Would it be a unitary state? Or would you have a federal Ireland?

If there was a united Ireland – or a new Ireland as Conall tends to refer to it – what might the state look like in twenty or so years time? That turned out to be a tricky question to tease out an answer. Conall’s vision isn’t wedded to a fixed end point. The journey towards the vision seems to hold the value. But he did offer up some clues:

Should it be a federal place? If it was a federal place, then Northern Ireland would remain. Now many people would argue that if you think properly about the Good Friday Agreement and about setting up institutions in Northern Ireland that support both sides of our community, that have the checks and balances that we have built in to our way of doing government; about the new beginning to policing and the ability to transform something that was seen as a huge part of the problem into something that is now accepted and supported by the vast majority of our people. If you think about all of that then really you’re ending up with a new Ireland that would probably be federal I nature. Now if that’s the presumption, then we all have a duty to turn that presumption into a proper proposition and we can’t delay that conversation.

So what are the things that we need to talk through within this island. We need to talk through what it would mean in terms of transfer of powers. Would we keep an NHS in Northern Ireland? I suspect we’d probably want to. I don’t know too many people – be they former republican prisoners or the most loyalist of loyal people I know – who would want to give up the NHS as we know it today. In fact they want to deepen the NHS. I always say that the NHS is a British gift to the people of this part of Ireland. But the people of this part of Ireland, the people of Northern Ireland, made it their own and have defended it and built it as their own. In fact, people in England and Wales look to our integrated health and social care model here and they say “that’s what we’d like”. And they say that the Northern Ireland NHS is what it’s really about. It’s the most pure in terms of living up to Ernest Bevin’s ambition for a health and social care system.

So my vision of a new Ireland isn’t proscriptive in that I don’t have an immediate solution that says “here it is lads”. But it’s a journey and the journey involves us thinking about questions like sovereignty, questions like federacy, questions like identity in a much more open and expensive way than we’ve ever been able to do so to date.

Would there be a resurgence in the four provinces of Ireland? Would Donegal become part of the “north”? Regional identity was key to Conall’s analysis.

Getting our head around the concept of region is critical to building a new Ireland. I say this for two reasons. First of all Northern Ireland was a contested state. Traditionally nationalists have said “Northern Ireland should not exist, the partition of Ireland was a mistake”. And that is true. But the fact is that post-1998, Northern Ireland has been legitimised in its existence and nationalism has to stop denying this. And there are some parts of nationalist thinking that still do deny it.

We have to embrace the concept of region. The trick to a new Ireland is to make Northern Ireland as it is today work. That is the key to building a new Ireland. To make Northern Ireland as it is today a success. And then the second question is if it is a success as it is today within the United Kingdom why couldn’t it be a success within an Irish jurisdiction.

What about the political organisation of a potential united Ireland? A few more TDs in the Dáil? Might the NI Assembly survive? Conall could foresee the PSNI continuing to police Northern Ireland while the Gardaí patrolled the rest of Ireland.

Éamon de Valera in debates in the Dáil at the time of the Republic of Ireland bill, whenever they were establishing the republic, talked openly and at length about the fact that a united Ireland would nearly certainly be a federal Ireland. O think federalism would be the way of us being able to capture the diversity of who we are. It would be the way we could use to acknowledge regional identities and regional levels of government at the same time as having a national sense of purpose. It would involve sending TDs to the Dáil rather than MPs to Westminster but Stormont would most likely remain. Stormont would most likely continue to run the health service here.

I suspect the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland would be happy to keep having an accountable police service – the PSNI is the most accountable police service in the European Union, more accountable than the Gardaí are. So they might like the idea of regional police service in Northern Ireland and the Gardaí still policing elsewhere in the island.

That’s quite ordinary in other parts of the world. Most European states, with the exception of the UK, are federal. Most Europeans – and we go there on our holidays – have really strong regional identities as well as strong national ones. I think there’s a great duty on us whether we’re nationalist or unionist to begin to respect people’s right to hold a regional identity. And to hold it without prejudice of also having a further level of identity which is there national one.

Would a devolved Northern Ireland cause, say, the West of Ireland, to seek devolved powers too?

Whenever you think about the new Ireland, it is based on the concept of self-determination. That means that Northern Ireland has the right to self-determination and the island as a whole has the right to self-determination. But it would undoubtedly begin a process of exploration about how the new Ireland would be governed. I certainly wouldn’t want to stand here as a northerner by choice and dictate terms to the West or to Munster or to other parts of Ireland.

Conall pointed to different parts of Great Britain having “different levels of ambition for regionalism”.

I’m sure the new Ireland would be no different. Parts of the island would want to enjoy the benefits of devolution, other parts may not. But the point of the debate is that this isn’t a debate about flags. It’s actually a debate about systems of government and public services, it’s a debate about economics, and it’s also a debate about identity not in a simply British or Irish sense but in a regional and then British or Irish sense, or possibly in a regional, British and Irish sense.

There’s no question that in the new Ireland people born and wishing to enjoy a British identity should have the right to that identity. That seems to me to be a fundamental tenet of the new Ireland.

There also no question that the new Ireland will not be a nationalist Ireland. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a new Ireland. The new Ireland will not be something – that as Mark Durkan used to say – either a nationalist pipedream or a unionist nightmare. It will be a place that we really haven’t really haven’t fully thought through yet. It will be a place where identity is probably multi-layered; where governance is probably quite devolved; where, yes, there may be different health systems in one part of the other; where there will be a British element and a British dimension to government whether we like it or not and where Europe will be an overriding context.

After a discussion around Carson’s Irish unionism and Ireland’s place in Europe, Conall summed up saying:

Those of us who espouse a new Ireland need to be expansive and ambitious about how that will be articulated and we need to be very open-minded about the identities that will emerge. And Irish unionism will be a central political tradition and culture. Northern Irish unionism will remain because Northern Ireland would remain.

I asked Conall to list positive economic reasons why Ireland would be stronger united.

He felt that “the structure and nature of the economy on the island of Ireland” was set apart from the “big island next door” in that “the bellwether of our economy is agri-food”. Secondly we’re a relatively young population. There’s a perception that we’re better educated than ”cousins” in Great Britain. And “we’ve developed a reputation and a niche for what’s known in economic terms as innovation – making the connection between a big idea and turning it into an economic opportunity”.

As an island, the biggest cost factor (for manufacturing) after labour is energy. Conall argued that energy is already operating on an all island basis “not for political reasons but because it makes economic sense to do so”. And there was room for further efficiencies and integration, not only in energy, but specialist healthcare and in developing more sustainable economic and environmental policies.

Is there an economic argument? Yes. Has it been proven? No.

Any economic downsides? Might some GB-focussed businesses not withdraw causing churn in the Northern Ireland economy?

Conall evoked the debates around Home Rule when “certain economic interests [in what would become Northern Ireland] threatened to leave and relocate, most notably the ship-building enterprises”. However, no one (speculatively or unnecessarily) left.

You’ll find that a lot of our call centres have operations here and have operations in the Republic and both are serving the British market. The service industry sector – be it professional services, legal services, accountancy services, public relation services, marketing services or more techie [companies] – is highly mobile. What the island of Ireland needs to do, and Northern Ireland needs to do, is to ensure it attracts the type of service industry to locate here which will be incentivised and want to stay for a long period of time. I don’t think the changing constitutional status will be the overriding issue in terms of them staying. It will be cost. If costs go up, they’ll leave. If costs stay stable and it’s a favourable tax environment and they’ve got a good throughput of whatever skills they need, they’ll stay. We need to decouple the politics of this from the economics of this …

Where there is a significant debate to be had, and where we’ve not been honest about it with each other at all, is around the public financing of a new Ireland. What would Britain’s relationship be with Northern Ireland during the first ten or fifteen years of transition? Would it be on the 31 December year X that they just turn the tap off and walk away? Or would it be that they engaged in a gradual decoupling? … Those are the debates that we’re not getting into because people are afraid to go there because they might get an answer they don’t like. But they’re not just political debates, they’re actually public finance debates and solid debates about crunching the numbers and looking at your options.

We talked about the manner of the debate about the possible shape and workings of a new Ireland? Conall was keen to stress that the debate should be elevated above being a party political football.

The last time nationalism sat down as nationalism to talk about what a new Ireland would look like was the New Ireland Forum. Its report is still out there. It says you could have a federal model, you could have a confederal model, you could have a unitary state. That was nearly thirty years ago. That’s the last time there’s been a serious debate about this. I think nationalism is doing itself a great disservice by not sitting down and openly and honestly discussing what it’s vision of a new Ireland would be.

And I’d go a step further: I believe nationalism has a duty to do this. And it has a duty to take it out of party politics. In other words, to find common ground around the vision for a new Ireland [and] the model and the elevate that above party politics so whenever unionism and other political traditions on this island want to engage in a serious contribution they know what they’re talking about. At the moment this is more of an emotional debate than it is a serious political one. Those of us who espouse a new Ireland have to have the courage to be more than just emotional about that espousal. We have to have the courage to say we have nothing to fear from engaging in a serious conversation about what that would look like. In fact we have a duty to engage each other in the first instance, but also to engage unionism if they’re willing to engage in what the options might look like.

Conall described Sinn Féin’s activity around the border poll as “a lot of flag-waving”.

What Sinn Féin are doing is using the question of a united Ireland for selfish partisan gain. The SDLP has been invited to one Sinn Féin event. And I know because I spoke at it and it was in London … I’m not aware that any Southern party – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour – have ever been invited to a single event organised by Sinn Féin to talk about a united Ireland. This is not about having a conversation about a united Ireland. This is about Sinn Féin trying to out-green everyone else. And that’s a mistake.

He added:

The new Ireland is too important to reduce to being a party political football. If you really love Ireland, if you are really interested in reconciliation, if you really care about building a new Ireland, as against just trying to be a big flag-waver, you need to step away from your selfish party interest and you need to be willing to come to the table and sit down who share your national identity but disagree fundamentally with your politics.

The SDLP made proposals for all nationalist parties to sit down and work through the issues around unification four years ago. They raise it each time they sit down with the other parties, but to date there has been no uptake.

Maybe Sinn Féin going off and running their campaign is just their way of being able to let some frustration out. But it’s not responsible. Because what it does is give the impression that this is a party political issue … This is about the shape of our nation, and our nation is not just nationalist. The new Ireland cannot be a nationalist Ireland, it must be something much bigger than that. Therefore it must be done in a more sober, more settled, more thought through, more inclusive way than any single party could ever lead.

Finally, for a new Ireland to be a real possibility, non-nationalists – ie, a lot of unionists – would need to be convinced to vote in favour. Isn’t that an impossible task for the foreseeable future?

I’ve never seen a new Ireland in any other way. Northern Ireland holds the keys to the new Ireland. Northern Ireland has to work for the new Ireland to be possible. If people think that by destroying Northern Ireland they’ll create a new Ireland they’re not thinking through the issue at all. The way you build a new Ireland is to build reconciliation, to build stability, to build prosperity in Northern Ireland and for that jurisdiction to feel comfortable in making its transition from being part of the United Kingdom to being part of a new Ireland.

And that means people of a unionist identity of tradition feeling comfortable with the idea that they may part of a new Ireland in the fullness of time. That Northern Ireland would remain – as I have said – is most likely the best way to move this debate on … would surely be the first step in indicating to those of a unionist identity that we do not want to destroy anything. We do not want to take anything away. This is not about diluting anyone’s sense of identity. It is not about undermining any institutions of government that people hold dear at a regional level. It is not even about altering too fundamentally the political power bases at a regional level. It is simply about understanding that the region is now successful, it is capable of its own self-determination, and it is able to make a peaceful and sober decision to – in its own interests – shift its sovereign status from being that is part of the UK to being that is part of a new Ireland …

The debate about the new Ireland will start with what some people might consider to be preposterous suggestions, like that it won’t be a unitary state, like that it won’t be a nationalist place, but it will end with those suggests – in my opinion – being the reality.

We talked about potential pain in any actual transition.

The biggest barrier most likely will be a question around public finances, around how we protect the public services in Northern Ireland (as we have them today) in a new Ireland, because there are quite big differences. Would it mean we pay a little more here at a regional level? Those are likely to be much bigger debates, I think if I’m honest with you, than debates around something really practical like a phone number.

I’m quite confident that if we take this debate away from being a party political football and we take it on to being a national conversation about the what if, that we will find very imaginative answers emerging from very interesting corners. What is really regrettable is that some people in the political class will just refuse to engage in the conversation. As if they’re scared of the prospect. But sure no one should be scared of a prospect that is rooted in human interest, in democratic validation through referenda, in properly considered processes.

I suggested that if a united Ireland was ever to succeed it would require good community relations on a scale beyond where we are today. The new racism would potentially be north and south. Without solving the problems in Northern Ireland first, is it even worth starting discussions in the public space about models of a new Ireland?

It’s the same debate. You don’t get a new Ireland without reconciliation. You don’t get reconciliation without the truth about our past. So everything is connected. Everything is joined up. The steps are [counting on his fingers] reconciliation, truth, and a new Ireland. That’s quite clear in my mind … For anyone to say we can have a new Ireland and we won’t have dealt with our recent past, we can have a new Ireland and we won’t have engaged in a meaningful process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland – and for that matter a meaningful process of reconciliation across Ireland – they are deluding themselves. You will not build a new Ireland from an un-reconciled people.

Does Conall think he’ll see the new Ireland in his lifetime?

I think I will, because the die is cast in terms of our society moving on. In our journey onwards we are reaching junctions which require us to sometimes look back and deal with the past, sometimes to look sideways and deal with each other, but they invite us to take the next step forward.

I’m not going to sit here and be a prophet in terms of telling you where it will end, but will I see a new Ireland? Absolutely. Will it be in the vision of Pádraig Pearse in 1916? I just don’t know. And I don’t think it’s my duty to look back a hundred years for my guidance. I think it’s my duty to look forward and to be open-minded and imaginative about it. But I don’t want to have to do so in a climate or culture of prejudice against me just because I hold that view.

Thanks to Conall for agreeing to the interview.

If you’re commenting, try to keep within the spirit of the exercise. Imagining and exploring what it might be like, rather than dwelling on the likelihood or your personal preference on whether it happens!

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