Sinn Fein have launched a discussion paper titled “Towards a United Ireland”
The document is available in both English and Irish with each translation coming to roughly 28 pages each. If you want to read it for yourself, here is the full version.
In this post, I want to highlight some of the key passages and how I feel they could be improved in creating a more coherent offering for a United Ireland that has been lacking within mainstream Nationalism for decades.
There are bits of this document that bring out the greatest hits of Sinn Fein’s argument for Irish unity such as correcting the wrongs of partition in the first instance and the Good Friday Agreement’s impact on the political dynamics of the island.
What I want to focus on below are some of the newer ideas proposed in the document and how they (in my view anyway) should be developed.
On Page 6 they make this point;
Appointment of an Irish Government Minister of State with the dedicated and specific responsibility of developing strategies to advance Irish unity and coordinating the Government’s all-Ireland policies;
What I would point out here is beware the Korean example. In the Republic of Korea there is a full department that looks after reunification issues for the government. However, over the past decade in particular this department has been consistently downgraded as the country looks toward economic development and other sets of relations with their Northern counterparts.
Any minister of state or departmental responsibilities have to be relevant for a prolonged period of time, otherwise the portfolio becomes redundant. How can this person within the government really make change and properly steer and develop policies within this sphere? A lot of thought needs to be put into how this cog fits into the machinery of government on the island of Ireland; otherwise it just becomes another Department of Economic Planning with lots of reports issued, but no real clout within the administration.
I would define right from the outset, this minister of state will do a, b, c & d. For me the key issues should be Border Region development, liaison to the NSMC and the British-Irish Council and North-South Cooperation. Since the 1960’s, North-South has been plagued by the lack of any overarching goals for its purpose, the development of the National Development Plan is a key opportunity to properly put some kind of coherence behind this policy agenda.
New Relationships in a New Ireland & New Ireland-New Politics
The proposals above set out some sort of direction of travel towards the concept of “Sovereignty Association.” Some within the Sinn Fein base will regard this as a form of heresy, the idea that some link might still be retained between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. However, I would point out that this concept is not entirely new, the Quebec separatist movement adopted this approach in 1980 and then their Scottish counterparts effectively borrowed this in 2014. The sovereignty of Northern Ireland will change over to the Republic of Ireland; however, there should be no hesitancy in keeping a continued association with the United Kingdom. It’s madness to think that with an inter-linked relationship over centuries that no form of relationship should continue.
Keeping Northern Ireland- This state is nearly a century old, it is a part of the machinery of government on this island and whether some folks on the Republican wing want to recognise it or not there is a degree of ease with its existence within many sections of the community. A lot of our citizens subscribe to not a British identity or an Irish identity; rather they view themselves as Northern Irish. Writing the state into the blueprint for a United Ireland is a prerequisite towards telling those voters and those who hold those views that quite simply as republicans, we get it. For those who like the devolution model, the alternative model has to be one based on federalism which takes the devolved assembly to the next level of governance in terms of its powers and place within the governmental structures of the country.
This administration has to be able to govern Northern Ireland as the electors of the Assembly wish it to be governed. It must be able to have the powers to decide on key issues and be able to opt out of certain national programmes that might not suit aspects of the Unionist community. The idea of a single unitary state is something that I believe has passed its usefulness as a political idea. After nearly a century of Northern Ireland, the overwhelming majority of Unionists and some sections of the Nationalist community recognise the need to have some form of administration in Belfast. Writing this into the plan, is no cop out or a sell out, rather it is recognition of the realities of political life on this island.
Recognising Northern Ireland as a “Distinct Society”- The document does talk of a new constitution for Ireland and a Bill of Rights for its citizens which is a positive policy. However, I would take this a step further and propose the creation of a distinct society provision that recognises Northern Ireland as a distinct society within a strong and united Ireland. There rightly should be recognition of the Unionist traditions and it is important that under the sovereignty association model that some continued link is able to happen for Unionists to keep that attachment to some key British institutions. Moreover, the Orange Order being recognised not just in the constitution, but also in other aspects of our cultural life is important.
I would also propose here some international arbiter to be brought in to ensure that this process takes place and is doing fairly to the Unionist community. Republicans must be as open as possible on this issue and have nothing to fear by letter others examine the process and make sure that Unionism is properly protected within a United Ireland structure.
A new relationship with Britain
The document outlines some aspects of the relationship with the United Kingdom and some of the positive developments that have taken place since 1998. I would propose that the party develop some coherent policy for how these relationships might be managed and give some new ideas on the topic. The example of the Nordic Council might provide a useful template here as to how the UK and Ireland could cooperate with one another in some formal body which meets regularly and can actually coordinate relations in certain areas between our two countries.
Price of Partition
On this topic, I often think of the Benjamin Franklin quote “Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” Folks like Newton Emerson might drive some people in Sinn Fein nuts, but his views are worth reading on this subject and those who point out some fiscal issues should be engaged with, not dismissed.
The simple reality is that there are economic issues around unity in terms of maintaining the public sector in Northern Ireland. That’s why the slogan of making Northern Ireland work needs to be put into practice. The economic approach towards Irish unity needs to two pronged, 1) Selling the huge private sector strengths of the Southern economy and batting back the sometimes argued “Zimbabwe Narrative” that others try to put out about the Irish economy. 2) Making the Northern Ireland economy as prosperous and less dependent on the British exchequer as possible (this means moving away from constantly demanding more money from them for some policy areas).
There are some interesting proposals in this paper, which I would urge both critics and supporters to engage with. I don’t agree with everything in the document, but I welcome anybody who is trying to provoke a discussion on the practicalities of just how this can be done. I cannot state how important it is for republicans to break out of their comfort zone and listen to those who will really press the case against some of these proposals. It is only by talking with your critics that you improve any proposals, talking to those who agree with you simply creates an echo chamber, that’s why I hope a discussion paper such as this could lead to some new thinking on this issue.
A direction of travel for me has to be the embrace of the concept of sovereignty association with a federal republic within a wider Nordic Council style institution to ensure cooperation between Britain and Ireland. This will require a journey for many and for some they will have to climb down off of some grand visions and address some real concerns. If this document is to move the debate, it needs to be about creating the winning conditions for a future border poll to take place and broadening the tent. The concept of a united Ireland needs to be as relevant to folks on the Ormeau Road as it is to folks on the Falls Road. There cannot just be simply better slogans, but a better way of doing business. If we are truly going to have a New Ireland, then let’s have something genuinely new and if we are going to sell Ireland PLC to the Northern people, let’s start by talking about the enormous strengths that exist in modern Ireland. I have long believed that you cannot tell people consistently that the South is corrupt state in hock to developers on the Monday and then make the argument for Irish unity on the Tuesday. As David Cameron found during the EU referendum, if you spend your days knocking an institution, why should voters believe you when you ask them to suddenly back it.
This leads me to final issue and that is how this is sold in Southern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, we often look inward and think how we can get Irish unity across the line here, but make an assumption about the South. Key aspects of the model have to be about better public services for the South in terms of re-thinking configurations and provisions. We have to spell out clearly why Joe Bloggs in Limerick will benefit from this new dispensation and more importantly why he/she should vote for it.
The modern case for a United Ireland can no longer be about “Brits Out,” it has to be about jobs and why we can create more of them, it has to be about opportunity and why we have more of them, it has to be about rewards and why this change will be worth it. In essence, advocates for a United Ireland have to be about “Better Days,” and why control moving from Westminster to Belfast and Dublin gives us the economic, social and political freedoms to make our own mistakes, but also to better the lot of our own people. The French Republic is based upon values of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, the American Republic has “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness,” the Irish Republic has to be based upon values of Reconciliation, Rebuilding and Recovery for all corners of the island.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs