First a critical assessment of the Report on Referendums within the island of Ireland by an old colleague with definitive cross border credentials, Andy Pollak, A brilliantly reasoned but not balanced exploration of future Irish unity referendums….
If a majority opts for unification, then the transfer of sovereignty must occur, whether governing arrangements [for a new united Ireland] can be agreed consensually or not.” This is the report’s central contradiction (as it may be in the 1998 Agreement itself)…
This is a group of academics – eight out of the 12 are Irish – who seem almost exclusively interested in the process of movement towards unity. There is almost nothing in this report about the reformed structures and processes that might be necessary to keep the North as a fair and functioning region of the United Kingdom in the event of such a defeat. Unfortunately, the only recognisably unionist person on the group, emeritus Professor Arthur Aughey of the University of Ulster, had to withdraw from it on health grounds.
Poor old unionists! Even this high-level group of academics can’t bring itself to include a unionist perspective. This may be a brilliantly argued piece of analysis by a distinguished group of political scientists, lawyers and sociologists But didn’t one of them think it prudent to point out that this major lacuna in their work leaves them (or at least the Irish members of the group) open to charges of pro-nationalist partiality?
Now my own..
What does it say about the state of demand for Irish unity, that it took a core of a few London constitutional experts, most of them innocent of Irish politics, to suggest to all concerned that if they’re seriously interested in a united Ireland they had better start preparing for it? Judging from the reaction to the final Report on Irish referendums that has eventually emerged, the advice has been respectfully received, ranging from those convinced a United Ireland is inevitable to others aiming to take out fire insurance against it, but so far excluding mainstream unionists.
Counter culturally the authors have produced a long document about principles and process, intentionally bereft of a vision to inspire or reassure. They have rather successfully avoided falling into the elephant traps of the politics of today. The politics are there all the same and we discuss them here. Bending over backwards to be neutral and largely written in the impersonal, the thrust of the report is nevertheless about achieving unification. It is a great pity the authors haven’t revealed more about how they reached their conclusions. This might have been as illuminating as the conclusions themselves.
How or whether their advice will be taken up literally remains to be seen. The time may be ripe in five? ten years? The Report outlines in graphic detail how best to use the time. The cliché is that politics on both sides of the border are at their most fluid since partition a century ago, the Troubles notwithstanding. Everything is up for grabs in Britain too. In the south, ending partition is about reconciliation not revenge. The loss of a Protestant majority does not of itself guarantee the disappearance of the Northern Ireland into a new Ireland. But to supporters of unification, it presents an opportunity almost within grasp. To its implacable opponents it’s the cue to circle the wagons. In the absence of any constitutional check there is always the rogue factor of a sudden surge towards unity, created perhaps by a final breakdown of the Assembly. In that event an orderly process would then depend on that fragile instrument, the reserved judgement of the secretary of state and the restraining influence of the south.
For all the honeyed words, referendums on Irish unity are brutal binaries. Constitutional referendums are for keeps. Unionists face a triple whammy. To adapt the slogan for the IRA’s bomb attacks against the State’s defences, we only have to be lucky once; you have to be lucky all the time, or at least every seven years. The Report is correct; the secretary of state is barred from calling a “bring it on” border poll to test support for the Union to anticipate a clear majority in favour of unification. The requirement of concurrent referendums north and south greatly strengthens the nationalist hand. Pan nationalism led by the southern government would confront fragmented unionism, the offer coordinated between north and south to overawe resistance. The contest would be starkly asymmetrical.
Sinn Fein are not alone in urging the southern government to seize the moment and begin making the case for unification. While the rhetoric has changed from resentment to reconciliation, behind it lies the fond hope of persuading unionists to accept the presumption of eventual unification. It adopts the peculiar logic of offering them lots of what they don’t want in the belief they’ll eventually accept it. It begs the essential referendum question.
And here’s another problem. The distinguished Irish novelist Colm Toibin wrote recently that “while politicians in Dublin might issue pieties about their longing for an end to partition, it should be emphasised that they don’t mean it.” Toibin may exaggerate but south of the border a serious dynamic is lacking for turning aspiration into project. Meanwhile the North is presently absorbed in struggling to make the Assembly work by popular demand and impressing upon all comers that this community can yet become a responsible partner in any constitutional arrangement.
The requirement of a super majority for unification is out, being against all relevant precedent and has been effectively demolished. 50% +1 is a no brainer. If it finally came to it, how generous would the nationalist offer be? The mooted suggestion of a continuing Assembly to reassure unionists looks doubtful. Devolution within a change of sovereignty might have made sense when unionists had a clear majority. But now? A closer look at a future Ireland reveals a humdinger of an Irish West Lothian problem and argues for a unitary state. Northern TDs could decide on Southern health and education but not vice versa. The argument can easily be made that an amended rights constitution in which British and Irish rights are virtually interchangeable provides better guarantees than limited legislative autonomy, as unionism itself becomes progressively harder to define and is in any case well outnumbered. Work has already begun on these lines. The term “ losers’ consent” assigned to unionists tells us all we need to know.
Today with the erosion of the unionist majority the immobilism of a century is no longer an option but has yet to be replaced. The vacuum may have misled the Report authors into casually dismissing the Union case as “not necessarily (requiring) any further elaboration: its proponents might simply defend the status quo. ...
Which status quo? Would it be the traditional British unitary state echoing English nationalism or Northern Ireland’s position within the UK according to the Good Friday Agreement? If the latter were to win unionist endorsement it could make all the difference between victory and defeat by attracting enough of the centre ground. Leaving out an exploration of the choice for unionists is a serious omission.
As the Report points out, sequencing is vital. Nationalists would make the best offer the Republic’s citizens would stand for; people should know what they’re voting for in advance. The response of the British government is unknown even to themselves. They might invoke domestic pressure from the nations and regions of Great Britain to oppose the generous divorce settlement the Irish seem to expect as a matter of course. Too much can also be made of British indifference. In the teeth of DUP opposition, the present UK government is committed to implementing abortion legislation passed by Westminster during the three year Assembly suspension. It is hardly likely to stand aside entirely on the existential question. Assuming the future of the UK is still at issue over Scotland, they might campaign for the Union holistically or cut Northern Ireland adrift. Labour might be neutral, declaring support for the referendum result. Either way the British approach would hardly be passive. While they do not have a role in the vote, neither the principle of Irish self determination nor the requirements of rigorous impartiality in Northern Ireland’s governance and the conduct of public votes rule out an influential British role.
Unionists need to give up their compulsion to play losing zero sum identity games. They should accept that the reform of a state based on institutional discrimination was bound to produce significant nationalist gains. With the passage of an Irish Language Act, that process will be virtually complete.
An optimal Unionist strategy is twofold: to promote a forum with an open agenda for the all-Ireland future with British and international representatives participating as observers; and to champion the GFA relationships including the legally binding north- south ministerial council. This should become the locus for adopting the shared island agenda on its merits and as a model for the future. The development of an all Ireland economy based on shared membership of the single market once agreement on the Protocol is reached accompanied by long overdue cross border infrastructure is but one example of infinitely desirable initiatives Unionists might seek guarantees against the development of a slippery slope to unification which no Irish government could make. But whole hearted north-south participation detached from the unity question would give them new leverage even up to the point of withdrawal, while allowing their southern partners to demonstrate good faith.
At present it appears to suit everybody to leave the criteria for calling a border poll to the private determination of the secretary of state. It means nobody is committed to doing anything. It is puzzling though that this is acceptable to academics normally arguing for accountability and transparency in constitutional structures. The valid test would surely be the usual one of a decision by the legislature, in this case by simple majority in the Assembly after an election in which parties call for a border poll with clear criteria and within a stated time scale. The UK government would depart from this only to defer it in the event of a violent crisis.
The view of Irish unity is presently severely occluded by external factors unimaginable even half a dozen years ago imposed on a hitherto profoundly introverted dispute. As an unforeseen political development in Ireland, it is tempting to think of Brexit as the modern equivalent of the First World War.
The current priority is for the communities in the North simply to rub along together better. A few groups led by Sinn Fein seem to believe that unification referendums would cut the Gordian knot of the tangle of disputed relationships which otherwise will never be undone. The prospect of Sinn Fein taking the title of First Minister in Northern Ireland and the possibility of winning the leading role in the next Dublin coalition will heighten not only unionist insecurities. Such a government would undoubtedly begin unambiguously preparing for unity. But it would take more than a Sinn Fein surge alone to charge the dynamic. Through the fog of contemporary politics , it is just possible to discern the outline of solutions which in the words of the GFA are British, Irish or both. Stranger things have happened, maybe are quietly happening already.
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