Jim O’Callaghan’s vision of an Irish unitary state pitched at unionists is strong on optics, but is inevitably weak on substance


Picking up from Mick, I’ve been taking a closer look at Jim O’Callaghan’s speech on preparing for Irish unity, surely our lock down fret of choice – that is, I’ve actually read it. It’s worth reading on merit and not cynically as one of the opening shots in an outsider’s audacious campaign for the Fianna Fail leadership. This is one of the first that grapples with the issues of what a united Ireland might look like.

He speaks respectfully of unionists and their tradition.  He does not quite reject that nationalist orthodoxy of the evil that was partition.  But he understands it.

 It is probably fair to say that partition was not an irrationally political decision. I believe it was not the correct decision; but it was not an irrational decision

What is Jim’s offer?

First, he argues that unionists would have more influence in a united Ireland than in the UK.

(1% in UK   and 11% in a United Ireland ..   means that) .   unionism in a new united Ireland would have a much greater influence in the governance of a new united Ireland than it currently enjoys in the governance of the United Kingdom.

This is a fallacy. Unionists don’t need big percentages to stay in the UK; they’re there as of right, subject to the right of all Ireland self determination. Yes they might want all sorts of other things, more money, no border in the Irish Sea, abortion rights restricted and so on, but on the big one, they’ve got it.

What influence would unionists have in a united Ireland? But there’s a prior question. What would a unionist be anyway? Unionism would cease to exist. It would not be the equivalent of nationalism today. There would be no going back for Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom. Nationalists to adapt Danny Morrison, only have to win once; if they lose they can try, try, and try again beginning in seven years after the first is unsuccessful.. and after that… neverendums?

Jim doesn’t even bother discussing retaining the Northern Ireland Assembly. His is a unitary Irish state.  An illusion is shattered.   In 1998 the idea circulated from somewhere that the Assembly was designed to survive a shift of sovereignty to reassure unionists.   A closer look today reveals very real problems with that. If education and health were to continue to be devolved, why should northern TDs be able to vote in southern health and education matters?   Ireland would have its own West Lothian problem. What authority would the united Irish parliament exercise in the North over the policies closest to people’s lives? And this is just for starters.  Jim can be forgiven here for not going into the questions of one or two education and health systems.

To be fair, in his unitary state there are a couple of northern pleasing, eye catching proposals  

.. in a new constitution I a certain number of cabinet positions would be filled by representatives of unionist parties.

One cabinet minister and a junior minister maybe. OK. Jim notes the operation of D’Hondt for the appointment of NI Executive ministers without committing to it for a unitary state.

But here are the zingers..

..the new constitution could also afford a greater role to the deputy

leader of government (Deputy First Minister or Tánaiste). There would be

merit in requiring that both (taioseach and taniaste) be filled by popular vote


There a hint here that the deputy PM could be a (former) unionist. Both top jobs might be directly elected. This is would be a major modification of parliamentary government.  But I can’t see how it would benefit the former unionists with 11% of the national vote.

It would be beneficial for a new united Ireland to retain a bicameral system with one house sitting in Dublin and the other sitting in Stormont. One could be an Irish Assembly/Dáil Éireann and the other could be an Irish Senate/Seanad Éireann. The latter would obviously have to be given more real and effective powers than those currently exercised by the House of Lords or the current Seanad Éireann and would need to be constituted entirely differently from its present-day counterparts. The Irish Senate could allow for greater representation for those coming from the unionist tradition.

Shades of Senator WB Yeats’ declaring southern unionists “no petty people “in 1922.

Jim makes quite a lot of allowing unionists to maintain British citizenship and British /unionist culture.  Big deal . Given the existing guarantees for Irish citizenship throughout the UK, this is the least that could be offered. To be sure of qualifying they would be advised to apply for British passports before unity would be implemented. Why should British passports to be restricted to those with birth place in the former Northern Ireland? What kind of unity would deny it to all Irish people who automatically qualify for entry into GB under the common travel area?  On cultural matters, would anybody seriously think of banning the Twelfth (although it would ring more than a bit hollow after unity?) Would BBC NI survive as a production presence and paid for by the licence fee? No chance I’d say.

The great question of affordability is for another day. But Jim calmly assumes the survival of the British subvention to be phased out over time. This is conceivable although it would come under pressure from UK taxpayers.

Jim completely ducks the vexed issues of Brexit. He may be right that the EU would accept a united Ireland on the nod. But what would become of “the best of both worlds” and access to the GB single market?  The border in the Irish Sea would be permanent and international, no northern votes on it every four or eight years.

Unsurprisingly, other essential policies of the Republic are maintained:  neutrality for national defence and equality for the Irish language. 

To sum up. While the respectful tone to unionists rings true, the substance of a united Ireland has little in it for those who would prefer to remain in  the UK.  There is indeed a strong logic to creating an Irish unitary state with more of an inclusive flavour; but not one which accords to former unionists a substantial share of power.