Is it time to consider a new confederation of the Islands?

Slugger O’Toole is undoubtedly the most successful blog site and the ultimate soapbox for debate in Northern Ireland at the moment: a Speaker’s Corner in downtown Cyberville for New-Age ranters.  Not too sure if Slugger would let the likes of me have a blog on this site or not?

If I could get on there I would have to be very careful what I said as Slugger’s followers love to challenge and even ridicule: especially anything that might be from a Unionist perspective.

If I could get a blog on there, one thing for sure, I couldn’t mention parades: or that I feel we should all be permitted and encouraged to celebrate our differing cultural identities in a respectful manner.

It would most definitely not be a good idea for me to suggest that the Parades Commission’s rulings on the Twaddell Impasse are illogical and perpetuate division: that their actions demonstrate naive belief in, or acquiescence of, the big Trojan horse bluff.

Or, to go a bit further and suggest that the Northern Irish middle-class adversity to the Unionist working-class marching band culture is unhelpful: or even obstructive  towards reconciliation, understanding and mutual respect.  No, that would be a complete waste of blog space.

Similarly, it would be a bad idea for me to argue that the timing for the political decision on changes to flying the national flag at Belfast’s City Hall was all wrong and that the issue should have been debated as part of the bigger picture: as part of an effort to translate the Belfast Agreement into a single narrative instead of the ingenious two. And to point out that this again was all tied up with the Trojan horse would also be futile.

No: highlighting such opinion would get me certain attack and ridicule on a Slugger response page. What I would highlight rather, if I got the chance, would be the need to look beyond our current divisions that are so securely entrenched in the dysfunctional Stormont. Politicians can spin as much as they like but we really are stuck in a political abyss that benefits nobody but the politicians. A creative exit strategy is required.

Slugger just might afford me the opportunity to express my views on the need for a restructuring of government in the British Isles: a federalisation of regions to provide greater regional fiscal control within the framework of a united nation. And, wait for it: I would also suggest that we need to consider the currently EU-controlled Republic of Ireland in any political reshuffling of the British Isles. Oh I know: I hear you.

Let’s face it though the times they are indeed a-changing and this is a sign that academics are also tuning in to changing times.  We’ve just recently been through an agonising Scottish Referendum which had potential to break up the United Kingdom. I am very grateful that this campaign for Scottish independence was unsuccessful as it would have deprived all of us in the UK the opportunity to have a civilised debate on our collective future.

The next big issue for the UK of course will be around the UK’s membership of the EU. It seems pretty evident to me that unless Westminster can negotiate a whole other arrangement with the EU then a majority will be voting to get out.  For many this will seem to be the only option but as with the Scottish Referendum it would bring potential for difficulties and division within these islands.

First of all, how would the Scots react, and would this bring about calls for another referendum on whether or not they would separate from the UK and sign up to rule from Brussels?  But just as significant: where would that leave us in Northern Ireland? We could end up with a real border again: between the UK and the EU, right across of our wee island. This would be wonderful for the smugglers but somewhat inconvenient for the rest of us.

For now, the ROI seems to be quite content with its subservience to their grand masters in Brussels: no doubt causing the revolutionary insurgents of 1916 to turn in their graves. This situation already affords a dense bureaucratic curtain of smog to ensure the cover up of dodgy dealings on both sides of the border.

The lofty ideals of accountability and transparency in government have blown off with the westerly winds across Europe: a UK out of the EU and a ROI even further in the grip of the EU would create an even thicker curtain of smog for corrupt bankers, government ministers and bureaucrats to act behind. Not to mention the bad guys of course.

I can appreciate, for Irish Nationalists, it does sound idyllic to still strive for a united Ireland with one government and one currency and all that. Life could be so much simpler, eh? Big problem though is that the majority of us folk in Northern Ireland are opposed to the notion of a Dublin, Brussels or Berlin controlled All-Ireland that would be politically separated from the rest of the British Isles.

This has been the determination of the people in this part of Ireland for the past couple of millenniums and the status quo looks set to be maintained for at least another millennium or two.

So, in the scenario where the British part of this island would no longer be part of the EU the border would surely need reinstated for a whole host of logistical and legal reasons. No one seems to be talking about this yet: time to get our thinking caps on.

Is a confederation of states within the British Isles unthinkable? Ireland has long since demonstrated that it can be a strong independent state that could easily co-exist on equal terms with any other state within the UK. And, after all, we’ve had a century or so to get over why Ireland and Britain fell out in the first place.

Surely a new political alignment of UK and ROI would make sense? With more devolved regional economic control surely achieving accountability and transparency in local government would be easier? Could that fresh political environment then not more readily facilitate local, and national, pride and desire for local economic growth?

Okay there would be wee logistical obstacles such as international laws, currencies and debts to the EU: but the way things are shaping up across Europe there are going to be big upsets happening soon anyway. And of course there would be other wee hiccups over details like royal families and presidents and things.

Perhaps that could be sorted by calling it something like the Confederation of the UK and ROI:  with each region or state deciding if they wanted a portion of their taxes to go towards supporting a royal family or not?  Basically if you didn’t want to pay up you wouldn’t get a queen or a king.

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  • Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the monarchy has been the main reason cited by several Irish Nationalists for not wanting to consider the prospects of any new political alliance between UK and ROI. It is also likely to become an issue of major debate within the UK at some stage in the near future. Very complex issue though and a whole other debate for Slugger on another day no doubt.

  • Matthew

    Is the term British and Irish Isles more correct in theses enlightened days i wonder ?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    It’s interesting to read Kearney on this. He actually offers no serious answer, simply fidging the matter. I went to some of the talks he gave in the 1980s and 1990s and he occasionally spoke about “exorcising teh demon of Soverignty.” But it is a problem that is just surfacing through the fudges of the EEC. We elect a patliament to Westminster, say, and yet it is not the final arbiter of power, of Soverignty. It does not have final control of law, or of th ecomomy, or even of national defence. While people are becoming used to this, the implications for each and every one of us are serious. In these aspects of our lives our representatives have only partial control. The actual control vacuum formed begins to be filled with private bidies such as multi-nationals, etc. I simply cannot see how this kind of mess will not be replicated in any situation where there is no final repositary of power to, in theory, protect us against such encrochments.

    And I simply cannot see how this Soverignty issue would not arise in any coulcil of the isles (I think this was origionally Kearney’s phrase, but I may be wrong).

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Actually Willie, I was attempting to support your cultuarl stance, rather than suggesting that “everything is politics”. I believe that Politics is only one representation of the reality we all experience one means of describing it. I’d believe, as a painter and writer myself, that Culture is actually the superior partner amongst possible forms of representation.

    I’d certainly never wish for you to “convert to politics” and limit your Cultural perceptions in its all too glib snares!!!

    As I’ve said often enough on Slugger, I have no dog in this fight politically, and vote for none of the main parties here, so I may criticise (and in turn be savaged by) both ends of our political see-saw.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Forgive me if I am in any way sidetracking things. The Cruthan mention was simply a bit of teasing fun on my part, but there is a serious point I think we may disagree on.

    I think that all culture, all reality in fact, is rooted in memory (“Memory we are told is the mother of the Muses” as Yeats’ favorite poet Landor tells us) and that history is simply the deep memory of the community. Without our history we are in the demented daze of amnesia, and I’d feel that the inaccuracies that litter our popular versions of our history are expressions of this mental fog. Political health like personal mental health needs a healthy and accurate memory.

    I’d entirely agree, however, about the manipulation of ordinary people by the powerful and unscrupulious. A great number of my Slugger postings are attempts to straighten out the “ball of wool/kittens” aspects of our common deep memory and of historical misconceptions.

    And as an Emma Goldman/Kropotkin style Mutual Aid/Decentralisation Anarchist since the mid 1960s I’d entirely endorse “That’s why I am putting it out that we should be exploring options where the common people might have the most input into the governance of the land they live in.” The more, the better. I don’t expect someone else to dictate my interior design or what I eat or read, so why should I accept them telling me how to live other aspects of my life, especially in regard to the interests of the multi-nationals (or even simply of loval developers)?

  • Niall Chapman

    I’d even settle for a truly independent Northern Ireland

  • Well, that is very interesting indeed. Perhaps only a slightly different approach to the scenario that I’ve been projecting.

    And let’s face it: people in both Britain and down south think that us Ulster folk – regardless of what side of the fence we’re on – have either been dumped here from another planet or that we are just a bunch of nutters stuck in a medieval time warp.

    To pursue the notion that you have thrown out of “..a truly independent Northern Ireland” to me it would have to be considered in conjunction with what our relationships would then be with our closest neighbours and their government institutions in London, Dublin and Brussels.

    Yes, very interesting indeed. Although I can already hear a volley of abuse being fired at the very thought.

  • Possibly. Or how’s about – The big island with the wee island beside it positioned in the Atlantic Ocean just off the NW coast of France?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The Dark Isles….

  • Tacapall

    Willie yes I agree we are all like Starlings if you wish, we Irish are just from a different swarm but obviously we could both protect our environment and use our numbers to our advantage but you dont seem to understand or see that I am pointing out the Cockoos in your nest, ie the Crown and inner city London, these parasites are feeding off us and using our numbers for their protection. I dont need to re read through all your posts to know your not really serious about making that progressive change you are asking the Irish people to make. Yes you are consistent on saying you want those Irish people not currently controlled by Westminster to join in an equal partnership with Britain, you would even be willing to compromise on the issue of the monarchy for those Irish people, but you still speak in a way that would lead me to believe that those six other Irish counties and its Irish people would not be afforded that same luxury. So what would really change for the Irish people as a whole when you want us to trust these people again ?

    Heres a wee look at the history and present antics of those Cockoos in the square mile.

    Heres another good souce for the history of the East India Trading Company –

  • Tochais Siorai

    That’s only a recent development, Willie. You might recall that the UK fought a nasty little war in an attempt to prevent Ireland’s secession long after the US Civil War.

  • I can certainly empathize with your insights and concerns on this. It is true that there needs to be a central government that has the full support of all the regions or states in order to ensure clarity and confidence around Sovereignty.

    It may be too idealistic to assume that the more power that is devolved to regions the greater the likelihood of accountability and transparency. But one thing for sure is that the greater that central government becomes the less chance there is of policies that will benefit the freedoms and opportunities of the lesser beings on the geographical fringes, That’s why I believe the way that Brussels seeks increased powers is something that should greatly concern all of us on this island

  • Niall Chapman

    To be honest it was just a thought, and there are a thousand reasons why it would be a bad idea, lack of resources being the main one, at least in the south they have some tax revenue coming in from the fossil fuels of the west coast, in the North there’s zip.
    Also the lack of people, there are roughly 1.6 million living in the North and many more young people leaving due to the sectarianism or lack of job prospects, I left myself and wont be back because of the divide, it just takes up too much of what people think about (I dont even live there anymore and still come on here)

  • Actually there’s nothing there that I could disagree with. Great insights most eloquently delivered. Your definitely a powerful man with the pen – or at least the keyboard.

    And I suppose it follows then that we’re both recognizing that differing understandings of history are at the root cause of division in Ireland. But how do we move beyond something so ingrained in us to find a new pathway towards a more diverse and expansive consciousness?

  • George

    There is a degree of truth to this comment but it works both ways. Since the Act of Union over 200 years ago, the unionist population never cared about the idea of an Irish nation state or building a country with the others who lived on this island. Their loyalty and what they cared about was maintaining their place within the Union, regardless of the consequences to Ireland as a whole.

    While Ireland is the only state created in the wake of World War I to have survived to this day, Northern Ireland has continued as a part of the United Kingdom. Some would say it has lived a semi-detached existence within the Union but the bottom line is that life for the unionist population has continued as before. They have felt part and parcel of British life for the past century and lived through the events of World War II, enjoyed the benefits of the NHS, BBC etc.

    In the meantime, the population south of the border has gone through isolationism, economic turmoil, oppressive church interference, grinding poverty, mass emigration and a myriad of other issues as a result of deciding their future lay in independence from Britain.

    But what our great grandparents, grandparents and parents endured (and in some cases caused) has left an indelible mark on the population of today. The idea of a confederation appears feasible to someone from Norther Ireland for the simple reason that it does not really involve a deviation from the path followed until now. It is considered through a prism that sees confederation between Britain and Ireland as bringing benefits to Ireland (and Britain) without any obvious drawbacks for Northern Ireland.

    For the people of the Republic, however, it would be to turn the clock back almost 100 years to see if there is actually an alternative to independence. It is to put the efforts of the previous generations in getting us to where we are today at nought and to say “start again”.

    The problem is that the Irish people now have a century’s worth of new history and experiences. Our loyalty is to this reality, however flawed and however imperfect. It is not caring about separateness from Britain it is about building and creating a togetherness amongst ourselves.

    There are so many things about Northern Ireland that threaten this togetherness, which I think is the main driver of anxiousness rather than an obsession with separateness from Britain.

    The idea of once again climbing into bed with Britain would simply shatter any sense of togetherness that currently exists in Ireland (Republic of). It would result in huge political instability and dubious economic benefits.

    There is no upside to it for us, just risks. But if the UK left the EU then we would look to try solve the new added problems such an exit would bring, A common economic and free trade area would be a benefit as would a continuation of the Free Travel Area that currently exists between the two jurisdictions while greater cultural links would also be welcomed.

  • True enough. But in fairness they would probably have let Ireland secede much earlier if it wasn’t for the intransigence of Ulster Unionists. They did pass the Home Rule Act in 1914 and had been trying to facilitate Home Rule for some time prior to outbreak of hostilities – in 1919 I think it was.

  • For the people of the Republic, however, it would be to turn the clock back almost 100 years to see if there is actually an alternative to independence. It is to put the efforts of the previous generations in getting us to where we are today at nought and to say “start again”.

    I really respect your perspective but I don’t agree with the above. I think it should be possible for the Republic to negotiate a new political arrangement that could amount to having greater ” independence” than it currently experiences as part of the EU. The consideration of new alliances would be progressive rather than putting the clock back 100 years -especially with the growing disquiet within the EU and the potential for considerable change that would effect each member state.

  • You should know that thinking out loud is dangerous. But you are right. There would have to be a whole new approach to local economy before Northern Ireland could consider going ” independent”.
    I left myself for 21 years and came back. Not really that bad a wee place.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Delighted to hear we agree Willie. And very much a fountain pen man as well as using the convenience of the keyboard. My own solution would be to engage with more accurate versions of the history, facing as much truth as any of us may. I do not think this would effect the true essence of our cultural identities, simply the dross of historical misunderstandings, but it would involve attempting a common history, rather than two partisan versions.

    My own model for this would be my grandfather’s old friend and mentor F.J. Bigger, a man who was interested in, and sympathetic with, every instance of tradition and culture locally (have you seen his early photographs of Orange Institution events?)

  • Thanks for the links but I am already fully aware that shady dealings, abuse of power and corruption are rife within the British establishment. It is also rife within the Irish establishment and in the EU. Which is perhaps the primary reason for my exploration of the possibility that a region may be able to create more immunity from the accesses of power if it has greater autonomy.

    “..but you still speak in a way that would lead me to believe that those six other Irish counties and its Irish people would not be afforded that same luxury.”

    I think this is really at the crux of our difficulties. I get your point that northern Irish nationalists would still be stuck within a Northern Ireland who’s majority would still support the monarchy – and so what would be in it for you?

    It is a dilemma and I don’t have an answer for it – -at least not at this time of night. Maybe in the morning. But I still think we all need to explore options that put our grievances based on our historic past behind us. Otherwise the next generation will just inherit more of the same.

  • George

    But what is “independence”? One of the main reasons for joining the EEC back in 1973 was so Ireland could wean itself off its continued almost total economic dependence on Britain post “independence”. The Irish currency was pegged to sterling for over 50 years after independence and 80% of exports went there as Ireland was isolated economically and politically. Today Britain accounts for 15-20% of exports.

    Ireland decided to go into the EEC of its own free will and there is no groundswell movement to leave despite all that has happened. In that way it is different to the UK which has always had a more sceptical and at times Europhobic view towards membership. The same level of disquiet simply isn’t there in Ireland.

    People are acutely aware that Ireland does not have hard power, needs a stable currency that isn’t easily preyed upon, and has to remain open to markets, people and ideas. The price for this in the current global environment is having to join with others. The UK, by contrast, feels more than capable of going it alone.

    Granted a decision will have to be made if the UK leaves the EU (note nobody is talking about Ireland leaving first) as it would raise serious issues but forming a confederation with the UK simply isn’t a viable alternative, economically or politically.

    Do we leave the euro and rejoin sterling? Do we give up on the European free market? Do we end the freedom of movement of workers?

    Ireland’s economy is built on the premise that it is global and open. The choices are either to go it alone completely following any British exit or stay where we are.

    For what it’s worth, I think in the long run any British exit will cause greater problems for Northern Ireland than the Republic. We will have the ability to adapt to this new reality far easier and unfortunately for the people of Northern Ireland any resultant economic or political instability caused by the possible appearance of hard borders on this island will be much more keenly felt north of the border than south of it.

  • Now that would be something – one common history instead of the current two partisan versions. Not too sure if that’s achievable but the process of attempting it could be valuable in itself.

    I’ll try to check out the work’s of FJ Biggar

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Frank Bigger edited the second series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. He was a High Church Anglican, and a “Cultural Nationalist”, but one who championed the entire diversity of Ireland’s cultures. When he died in December 1926, his friend Alice Stopford Green wrote in her obituary in the Irish language Anglican journal, “The Gaelic Churchman”:

    “He had what is far from common, a vivid sense of the dignity, the value, and the wide range of the history that lies behind the people of Ireland… He had a jealous care for the preservation of old monuments and carried on a ruthless and necessary war against their desecration. The wide information he had gained by ceaseless observation, and by his remarkable collections, was at the service of every worker for Ireland. His brilliant experiment in safeguarding Shane’s Castle as a possession of the people, a centre for their gifts, open to them freely at all times, and duly honoured by them, was a new and admirable lesson to the country…

    To him nothing of Ireland was dead. There must have been many who felt a new life kindled by his abrupt and startling phrases. In this generation, which lives practically without any historical background, we miss an Irishman whose range, if not scientific, was large and true. We do not yet realise how original was his life’s work…”

  • Niall Chapman

    I suppose you’re right, its not that bad, people (myself included) just love to moan sometimes

  • Strong valid points. I acknowledge your account of the advantages for the Republic of cutting its umbilical chord with the UK. But the ROI is now a strong, confident nation, in spite of the recent collapse of the Celtic Tiger, so the problems of the past are surely not so relevant.

    My train of thought is that everything connected to the EU is bound to change. I’m no expert but history would suggest that it is inevitable and all the signs at present are that the result will be a change in relationship between the EU and, at least some of, its member states.

    There is no way of knowing at this stage if the UK will at some point make a complete break from the EU. In that scenario though I suspect it would be just as problematic for ROI as it would be for NI if there was a land border between UK and EU on this island.

    A scenario that is probably just as likely is that the UK, and other European states, will remain part of the EU but with a new new relationship/ agreement with Brussels. Even then though this would surely have a direct impact on how ROI would interact and trade with its neighbours.

    Your valid concerns, “Do we give up on the European free market? Do we end the freedom of movement of workers?” could well have a different significance 5,10 or 15 years from now.

    But like I say – I’m no expert.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Home Rule would not have led to secession, Ireland would have remained part of the UK.

  • Zeno

    There really are no Nationalists now……. not even enough to get a referendum. If everyone who voted SF/SDLP and Nationalist Independent and everyone who said they were Irish and everyone who said they were Nationalist and everyone who had an Irish Passport voted for a United Ireland…………. and that is a big if, The Yes vote would be defeated by at least 2/1.

  • Zeno

    Yeah, Brussels is much more preferable.

  • Jake_M

    Willie – no harm in sharing ideas but this is waffle. Citizens of the Republic have zero interest in any form of confederation /or closer political links with Britain. Ireland had centuries of disastrous close interactions with Britain and resulting grossly incompetent government. The Republic is clearly not perfect but in the years since independence it has gone from one of the poorer regions of Europe with no infrastructure to one of the better off

    All we have to do is look North to see the legacy of continued union with Britain – a public sector propped up basket case of an economy with constant stress between its communities on the never-ending constitutional question. That’s a shoddy looking product to try and sell …

    You also miss the point regarding the EU and the Irish population view of same. The EU has given Ireland access to wider markets and a voice within a important global organization. The benefits of Ireland’s involvement with the EEC/ EU are many and long lasting and long may it continue unlike it disastrous membership of the union with Britain.

    Been there, done that, no thanks very much.