The Evolution of Ambiguity…

After an eventful couple of weeks when Colum Eastwood, Dr Brian Hanley and many others besides have been urging us all to “look at what happened” with regard to Partition and Armagh’s recent service of reflection thereof, the historian Cormac Moore takes us on a fascinating – and revealing – trip down memory lane in this week’s Irish News (Oct 27th 2021). In light of burgeoning conversations pertaining to a Border Poll and Irish Unity in recent years, Moore provides a timely reminder that it is precisely when people are at their most hopeful – if not certain – about the end of Partition, that they are most likely to incur disappointment and difficulty at the hands of ambiguity.

After taking us on a whirlwind tour of the back-and-forth negotiations that eventually resulted in Partition as we know it – featuring the uncompromising yet naive De Valera, the equally uncompromising yet much more savvy Craig, the wily Lloyd-George, not to mention Griffith and Collins – we arrive at the core of the Anglo-Irish Treaty itself. Of most relevance to Partition, according to Moore, was Article 12 – which stipulated that: “[if] Northern Ireland opted not to join the Irish Free State…a boundary commission would determine the border:

“[In] accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions”

This ambiguity of this clause, Moore argues, is “central to the problem with the boundary commission” (Emphasis added) – before proceeding to list the fundamental problems that stem from this:

  1. No timetable was mentioned or method outlined to ascertain these wishes
  2. No timetable was mentioned or method outlined to ascertain how exactly economic and geographic conditions would relate to popular opinion, and which would prove most important
  3. No plebiscite was asked for
  4. The clause was open to a number of different interpretations, and;
  5. No time was specified for convening the commission

Whether or not this ambiguity in Article 12 was intentional or accidental, on the part of the British Government, Moore notes that it nevertheless “suited Lloyd-George perfectly” (Emphasis added). Readers familiar with their Good Friday Agreement, who suddenly find themselves feeling a pang of déjà vu upon reading this, are not alone. The ambiguity demonstrated by Article 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty is strikingly similar to that of Article 2 in Schedule 1 (Annex A) of the Good Friday Agreement, as highlighted in my last article, which states that the British Secretary of State (and only the British Secretary of State) can call a Border Poll:

[If] at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland

Who can say whether or not the ambiguity in both of these instances was intentional, to the British Government’s ultimate benefit? It would be the difference between masterful negotiation and sheer dumb luck. Either way, however, the most obvious difference between these instances is that Moore’s third critique of the Anglo-Irish Treaty’s Article 12 above has been addressed in the latter – whether or not a plebiscite is asked for, the Good Friday Agreement nevertheless makes provision for one. In this we can clearly see an evolution of ambiguity between the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

In spite of this, the other problems remain – at least for those who want an end to Partition, a Border Poll, a United Ireland. Above all, the clause in the latter – “if at any time it appears likely” – is undoubtedly an Achilles’ Heel. Moore’s forth critique – that “the clause was open to a number of different interpretations” – is as true of the Good Friday Agreement here as it was of the offending article in Anglo-Irish Treaty. How do we define “appears likely”? More importantly, how does any given British Secretary of State define “appears likely”? It is their call, after all. It would appear that just as the ambiguity of the Anglo-Irish Treaty suited Lloyd-George perfectly, so too does the ambiguity of the Good Friday Agreement suit the present Secretary of State (and by extension, the present British Prime Minister) perfectly.

We have no better indication of this than Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s declaration, earlier this week in his Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 Speech, that “We are, and always will be, one family. One United Kingdom”. It is reasonable to assume he is not just speaking for himself here, but also the British Government. In light of such a belief, it is therefore questionable whether anything would convince the current British Secretary of State (and by extension, the current British Prime Minister) that it does indeed appear likely that a majority of those voting in a Border Poll would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be a part of the United Kingdom and form a united Ireland. Furthermore, it is questionable whether avowed ‘One Nation Conservatives’ would even want to be convinced of this at allregardless of the evidence.

What recourse then, if any, do advocates of a Border Poll and a United Ireland have to fall back on – being at the mercy of the British Secretary of State’s judgement (if not whim), as they seem to be? Little more than hope, I would argue, that the current or future British Secretary of State (and British Prime Minister, by extension) might be convinced by one or more of the following (and act accordingly), which I list in order of what I perceive to be the weight of their authority (if not likelihood):

  1. The election of one or more explicitly pro-Border Poll/United Ireland political parties into Government within NI and RoI alike
  2. In the event of #1, the application of political pressure from both RoI and NI Governments upon the British Secretary of State explicitly to call a Border Poll
  3. In the absence of #1, the overall pro-Border Poll/United Ireland ‘bloc’ gaining the largest overall vote share in both jurisdictions
  4. Reputable opinion polls repeatedly showing a majority in favour of a Border Poll/United Ireland over a period of several years or more
  5. Economic/Political pressures within NI and/or the UK itself, convincing the British Secretary of State (and British Government more generally) that NI is more trouble than it’s worth

All of these options are a gamble, of course, but that is the price of signing up to ambiguity. As Lord Frost repeatedly demonstrates, it is fruitless at best (and unbecoming at worst) to complain about the terms of any treaty you negotiate and sign. When it comes to the Good Friday Agreement, as with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, we must ultimately play the hand we’re dealt.