Although Irish unity has been a common obsession for more a century we can only marvel at how little it has been considered as a realistic proposition. In the Republic Sinn Fein’s surge at the general election has promoted it to a higher but still uncertain place in an agenda preoccupied with economic reform. In the GFA, the issue was from the start insulated from what really mattered at the time, the winning of the peace and the effective operation of power sharing.
We do not know how two necessarily contingent and concurrent referendums north and south would be coordinated. Even more basically we have little idea of what the Republic has in mind as their offer of unity assuming they eventually make one, or whether a British government would chose to offer an opinion on the matter although they are legally obliged to support a unity verdict.
What we are close to knowing I believe is that opinion polls and surveys alone pored over in a Whitehall office by a British minister are unacceptable as the decisive criteria for calling a northern referendum and therefore triggering the whole process, south as well as north.
A united Ireland will not happen by elision. Belief in its inevitability is all very well, but strong incentives will be needed for a partly hostile and poorer north and assurances for an otherwise preoccupied south. Many in the south would oppose a stampede for unity which would allow the northern tail to wag the southern dog. The dimensions of unity reach far beyond the definitions of binary referendum questions.
So we have yet to set up the drawing board. Buoyed up by the huge surge of support in the Republic and whatever the pressures for economic reform, Sinn Fein will keep up the rhetorical pressure for unity. The government that is eventually formed will not allow Sinn Fein to turn their flank and will respond, but cautiously. Even Sinn Fein know that unity is not the magic bullet and will be broadly content to bide their time, believing that demographics and the run of events are on their side. As a first step, putting the establishment on notice to begin “preparing for unity” can be justified easily enough because almost nothing has been done.
The people can think for themselves, independent of party
In both jurisdictions and in very different ways, voters are no longer slaves to party orthodoxies. They have administered sharp rebukes to major parties. In the North nationalist voters joined unionists in giving Sinn Féin and the DUP a thrashing for three years of Stormont standoff. In the South a few weeks later, record numbers defied the main parties’ blackballing of Sinn Féin and rewarded them with the largest share of the vote. These results are striking evidence that voters in Ireland as elsewhere are choosing to vote with discrimination rather than along the old party lines, making the old sectarian predictions increasingly unreliable.
In the Republic Micheál Martin, Sinn Féin’s most persistent critic during the election is being pressed by elements in his party to share power with them. His record suggests be will not be stampeded into speeding up the pace. For within the moderate nationalist consensus, the emphasis is on reconciliation rather than absorption. Unionism is no longer a false consciousness. Unionist rights are accorded parity of esteem with nationalism. But revisionism has its limits. Sinn Féin will throw down the challenge: does unity then proceed at the unionists’ pace?
Both governments will wish to exercise some control over the complex process of complementary and mutually contingent referendums. They will wish to reduce the risk of a crisis border poll which could threaten stability and automatically drag in the Republic into a premature response. The means of doing so which are also the most democratically appropriate are threefold. One, a majority in favour of a border poll voting in a major election within a time frame should become the decisive criterion for calling the northern referendum. If the nationalist parties disagreed they could withdraw from the Assembly and trigger an election anyway.
Two, the constitutional future of Ireland should be considered as an open question based on the two actual choices, unity and an updated GFA. In both the Northern Ireland Assembly would continue. Three, while the trigger rests with the North, the main responsibility for the form and character of unity can only come from the Republic.
The Irish position
The referendum process we are contemplating is one based on a choice of futures in which generous terms and conditions for unity would be clear and ready for ratification by the people. The Irish want unity based on reconciliation and protecting the peace process. They will not move until they are confident of being able to make the best possible offer. In the final analysis they are prepared to lose the referendums and come back to unity at a later date. If necessary they would restrain northern nationalists from jumping the gun.
Calculating the cost of unity and assessing its affordability is by far the biggest challenge facing the Republic. The state needs to expand considerably to catch up with the dynamic expansion of the private sector which has inflated house prices to near unaffordable levels for the aspiring young. Dublin will not wish to press the unity agenda until they have devised an attractive offer. Crucially this will involve negotiations with the British government on continuing a version of the Northern Ireland subvention.
Before any date is fixed for the referendums they have a great deal to do to adjust the expectations of the electorate to the practical implications of unity. The UK government share that duty north of the border.
A choice of futures
The project should approach the future governance of Ireland as an open question. The referendums should offer a choice of constitutional futures. The survival of the Assembly should be the factor common to both. A simple yes or no fails to reflect the real choice, unwittingly accepts a nationalist narrative and jeopardises essential mainstream unionist participation.
The structure of unity
While it is entirely appropriate for academics to consider different forms of unity, fortunately one is oven ready. The continuation of a devolved Northern Ireland within a united Ireland is the obvious model for at least the initial period of unity.
In other words, one country, two systems, the transfer of the north’s sovereignty from the UK to Ireland, leaving the GFA institutions largely intact and introducing a West Lothian- type self denying ordinance on southern TDs against voting on northern devolved matters. This would be most readily understood by everybody. Most importantly it would give special recognition to unionists by guaranteeing them a role in government in a united Ireland. Assurances for the protection of British and unionist citizen rights would be written into the constitution. A debate should be held on whether the Assembly now part of Irish devolution, should be entrenched in the constitution and whether the UK government should act as guarantor of the rights of British citizens and unionists. The whole package should be wrapped before the referendums to avoid the political disaster of two referendums particularly in Northern Ireland. The settlement could be reviewed years later in a different climate. Approval by an all-Ireland referendum would be appropriate for moving to a unitary state.
The structure and internal character of a united Ireland
Amending the constitutional and legal framework could be the easy bit. More daunting is devising a national plan for harmonisation and integration that describes the character of the unified state. To start with this project should produce the latest estimate of the cost of unity. The subvention from the UK would continue for a negotiated period. The taxation system, pensions and welfare would be harmonised, northern currency would transfer to the euro and a choice made over time between the NHS and the Republic’s state health insurance system. An international Marshall investment Plan heavily supported by the EU would be devised and special incentives created for transferring multinationals to the border region. Some capital city features would be decanted to Belfast and Armagh and a great deal of energy would be expended on arguing over the display of British national symbols. The plan for unity would be implemented over years. In outline form it would be ready for the referendum voters.
The UK position
The British government cannot sit back and rely solely on pleading Irish self determination. They would give assurances required by present sovereignty that they retain legal and moral responsibility for the well being of all their citizens in Northern Ireland until or unless Irish unity is achieved.
Why should the British engage before a border poll?
As already explained, the first reason is to do all possible to maintain stability. In this they are at one with the Irish government. This approach would survive a transition from Conservative to Labour. The key to this is to persuade all sides to respect the result. The British government is legally obliged to implement a Northern vote in favour of Irish unity . Otherwise we are as ignorant of the British position as we are about the Irish. It’s essential to discover the approach of all parties at Westminster to the referendums
A Conservative government may wish to influence the result in the interests not only of NI but “the precious Union” as a whole; Labour might remain neutral or become persuaders for a good unity deal.
With so much transparent planning going on in Dublin it would unconscionable to be left out. This applies whichever UK party is in power. The GFA institution of the British-Irish Intergovernmental council is the natural forum of consultation on preparing for the referendums and the British -Irish aspects of the post- Brexit relationship. But there’s stick as well as carrot. By the term of the GFA, both governments have to be ready to legislate to enable a unity verdict to be implemented.
Opting for the status quo plus
The alternative to unity is a status quo that describes the ideal pattern of relationships between unionist and nationalist, north and south, the UK and the Republic. It guarantees rights and provides the machinery which naturally imposes collaboration in government on previously warring factions.
After each breakdown they have been forced to return. No version of a united Ireland as yet produced achieves that. Unity however dressed up in warm words, can only mean victory for nationalism and in republican minds, for the “armed struggle.”
Have the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement lived up to their promise? In one sense all too well. They have been weaponised by the Assembly parties with nationalists emphasising rights denied and unionists claiming violations of the principle of consent. The British-Irish relationship has survived the Brexit freeze to impose terms on the parties to restore the Assembly. Three years of stand-off ended with the vindication of the institutions. New responsibilities are in prospect to help safeguard bilateral British-Irish and north-south interests once a new relationship is forged between UK and the EU. Arguably the institutions are needed more than ever. Why change them?
It is a fact of life that although the term will be avoided, Northern Ireland will come increasingly under British- Irish joint authority. That the relationship has survived the Brexit freeze is a tribute to its resilience and its relevance to the post-Brexit relationship. It is also in Dublin’s interest to support efforts to minimise trade and regulatory frictions between GB and NI. The question occurs: is the Assembly system the gateway to a united Ireland or its alternative?
The project should examine the robustness of GFA institutions post-Brexit as the alternative to unity for the benefit of unionists and nationalists alike, taking in the proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland’s special status in the single market and the implications, political and economic, of “the border in the Irish Sea”.
The scope of the – arguably increasing – guarantor role of the Irish government in the GFA after Brexit. Is it fully accepted by the UK? Does the Irish government have a GFA veto on direct rule?
The unionist interpretation of the consent principle. Could “a constitutional principle of the first order” be invoked to require a weighted majority in a border poll, in conformity with cross community consent in the Assembly?
Is a special rights regime needed for Northern Ireland? How is the gap to be filled after the UK’s withdrawal from the Charter of Fundamental Rights?
The implications of the UK government’s hints about striking a different balance between the courts, and the government and parliament, changes to the Human Rights Act and future access to the ECtHR, affecting Northern Ireland.
Is the UK government’s determination to end “vexatious prosecutions” against serving and former soldiers compatible with justice for victims – also a burning topic with the Conservative right that could seriously split the Assembly?
In relation to Northern Ireland’s special status in the single market, how effective will be the joint committee’s consultation mechanism to consult Northern Ireland and the Assembly’s role in approving its continuation by simple majority?
How might a UK guarantor role for British citizens’ rights operate in a united Ireland?
What are the possible impacts of the emerging post Brexit settlement on the governance of the whole island and relations between the UK and Ireland?
The Brexit factor
The influence of Brexit as a push factor for unity may be exaggerated. Unionists are learning to grasp the essentials and de-dramatise the front stop. Election to Westminster secures the Union; all the rest is side salad. Northern Ireland is no stranger to all sorts of hiatus between the two islands and on the border. Few realise that work permits for Northern Ireland were required under the Safeguarding of Employment Act for GB as well as the south from the mid 1940s until finally abolished in the 1980s. The NI parties are as one in attempting to mitigate the effects of a border in the Irish Sea and threats to the alignment of standards from the British government’s wider ambitions for a free trade deal. Powerfully influenced by civil society, all parties are likely to continue common cause as advisers to the Northern Ireland protocol’s management committee. Despite their level playing field concerns, any Irish government will seek to defend the North’s real interests. They would have every reason to support trusted trader schemes and encourage EU-destined imports into the island of Ireland to divert from Belfast to Dublin. Brexit barely figured in the southern election campaign. If all goes well, Brexit could fade as a factor in the unity debate. However an unknown quality is the feeling among some unionists that Boris Johnson “betrayed us over the front stop. He has dismembered the Union already and we might as well go in with Dublin.”
The way ahead
We have several years’ grace. While its prestige is engaged, the Republic is not desperate to win at any price. In polls and in government thinking, the peace process is paramount. Dublin can envisage a return to the unity theme in several years time. With a coherent plan for implementation in stages after unity, negotiations are much easier. The Irish government can assume EU and American goodwill and a degree of British compliance. Regular briefings as the plan evolves would take place within the British Irish intergovernmental conference and in ministerial meetings. To succeed the plan will have to be politically and economically generous.
There are lessons from the ongoing Brexit experience. In the pre-referendums phase, the aim is to ensure no surprises.
The moral authority of a single referendum in each jurisdiction would be decisive. The people have to know what they’re voting for.
All efforts should be concentrated upon it. A second run of referendums on the modalities would mean fighting the first all over again. If after several years, moves towards a unitary state were deemed necessary, a second referendum would be required but within a united Ireland where it belongs.
Handling the transitions
There are two transitions, the first coming after unity verdicts. The southern referendum would be a constitutional referendum following a unity result in the northern border poll. The Dail would have legislated for its terms in advance of the referendums after years of national debate and intergovernmental discussions. The Assembly would receive regular briefings from both governments but would not be in a position formally to negotiate because of a unionist veto. As all sides would be fully informed of the consequences of the vote in advance, the period for passing legislation and implementing the result should take months not years. There would be an advantage in taking it on the run rather than dragging it out. If a second transition to a unitary state was deemed necessary, it would take place several years later within the context of Irish unity.
Would unionists boycott a border poll?
Their side might win it with the respectable alternative. A yes to unity verdict is not to be taken for granted. With a choice of futures a boycott makes no sense. They would campaign for the continuation of the Assembly in an updated GFA status quo but would need a margin of others to win it. The one certain way to lose is to rely on mere negativity to win. The centre ground will probably swing it. Opponents of unity should adopt the positive alternative of a shared future and close collaboration with the south while retaining formal British sovereignty
Once they agree to respect the result, the logic of a boycott falls away. Peter Robinson’s injunction to respect the result implies taking part in the vote. A complete boycott is unlikely. The DUP might split and the Ulster Unionists would be likely to comply.
Unionists will want to hold the Assembly together to prove their essential case that they are the upholders of democratic legitimacy against the tradition of violent republican revolution. Reluctantly they will acknowledge that this time the two governments have not acted behind their backs as in 1972 and 1985.
Many unionists will in any case be proxy participants in parallel talks about unity or its alternative. They may seek to persuade Dublin of the virtues of dual choice. Unionist civil groups have already held meetings with the taoiseach about forging closer relations without constitutional unity.
The dominant unionist instinct is statist. They rebelled when they felt the Liberal government of 1910 broke the essential contract between the state and the citizen. Despite many grumblings the contract has held since 1921. They can have no complaint if the same majoritarianism that sustained the unionist position for a century finally goes against them. Their specific objections to unity with a priest ridden poverty stricken south unreconciled with Britain have disappeared. They are thrown back on their legitimate preference to remain in the UK by the principle of consent. The border poll is the unionists’ instrument too.
A loyalist threat of violence
The fear of violence against a hard border was often seized on by ardent Remainers. Just think what the response might be to the prospect of no border at all. In some minds, Dublin’s assurances to protect the peace process will invite challenges to it. The aim would be to frighten off soft support for unity. But contemporary loyalism is divided between support for reconciliation that attracts funding and small gangland factions. A loyalist agitator Jamie Bryson associated with the banned UVF is a voice of loyalist opposition to power sharing. Political opposition is currently grouped around the traditional Orange Order. This could coalesce into an escalating protest campaign but not enough to halt the momentum towards a border poll. If somehow a faction was able to organise to plant bombs in the centre of Dublin as loyalists did in 1974, universal condemnation and the determination to press ahead would prevail.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London