A response to Andy Pollak talk on “The South is not ready for unification”…

At one point, after his talk, Andy was asked: “So has Partition been a success?” to which he replied with a horrified “No, it has been a disaster”.

But that does not mean partition has not had major effects. Blogging at the European Tribune and on Slugger O’Toole has taught me that we might as well be on two different planets. There is almost no appreciation of N. Ireland politics in Ireland, never mind Europe, and vice versa, much N. Ireland political discourse takes place in almost complete ignorance of European politics.

So much so, that I felt compelled to write The external influences on Northern Ireland’s political future for Slugger O’Toole in an attempt to redress the imbalance.

And so it is that many unionists, as well as Brexiteers, are convinced that the EU will fold when confronted with the blatant illegality of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a Bill that both candidates for the leadership of the Tory Party and Prime Minister have pledged to progress into law.

There is zero appreciation that the EU, without its own army, only has the rule of law and the mutual trust and cooperation of its leaders to safeguard its existence. Indeed, the EU is little more than an amalgam of Treaties and rules combined with the political, social and economic interdependence that decades of cooperation and compliance have enabled.

If the EU were to allow the UK to blatantly disregard its Treaty obligations, what is to prevent every other third party, not to mention the Member States themselves, to disregard every obligation not to their liking. The EU would simply disintegrate into chaos.

That has, of course, been the solemn prediction, not to say the intent of Brexiteers all along. They are convinced that they have merely got out ahead of the EU’s inevitable disintegration and want to engage in bilateral relations with individual EU member states, and particularly the smaller ones like Ireland, whom they perceive as having gotten too big for their boots within the formal equality granted to member states as part of the Treaties.

Ireland, it is confidently predicted, will just have to suck it up and erect customs controls on its border with Northern Ireland if it wants to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, and failing that, it can always leave the EU and re-join the United Kingdom if it wants to avoid a border within the island.

Many unionists are delighted with the mayhem their clever ruse of supporting the hardest possible form of Brexit has created in British-Irish relations. The further they can estrange Britain from Ireland (and the EU) the harder the border, and the more secure their northern redoubt from southern interference.

Or at least that was the theory.

In practice, their intransigence has forced moderate unionists into the arms of the Alliance Party, which, while officially neutral on the constitutional question (united Ireland vs. United Kingdom), in practice didn’t support Brexit and supports the current status quo and would like improved relations with Ireland and the EU.

Andy Pollak argues that southern Ireland isn’t ready for a united Ireland, hasn’t given it serious thought, and has no idea of the mayhem that would ensue if 800,000 angry, embittered, and threatened unionists were forced into a united Ireland following a 50%+1 vote in favour of unity under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

He is half right. Ireland had a coherent policy towards N. Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and joint EU membership. The Good Friday Agreement provided for power sharing within N. Ireland (strand 1), Improved North-South cooperation (Strand 2), and improved East west relations between Briton and Ireland, joint guarantors of the agreement.

In practice, power sharing has operated only intermittently, and is currently suspended due to the DUP refusal to implement the results of the May elections over their difficulties with the Protocol – a matter the Assembly itself was due to vote on and which power the UK Northern Ireland Bill proposes to remove from the Assembly.

The DUP has also refused to operate Strand Two of the GFA, despite Belfast High Court rulings that they are legally obliged to do so.

Finally, the British Government has effectively thrashed strand 3, abandoning all pretence of dealing even-handedly with both unionist and nationalist traditions in N. Ireland, and reducing relations with the Irish government to a low not seen since the events like Bloody Sunday, which played a key role in triggering the Troubles.

The sight of Jeffrey Donaldson, who has opposed the GFA all his political life now posing as its greatest defender, while trashing all three strands stretches even N. Ireland’s enhanced powers of irony to breaking point.

However, it is the manner in which Brexit was carried out, and now the proposal to disapply large parts of the legally binding protocol which may do even more damage to UK/EU and Ireland relations in the long term, as well as completely destabilizing the fragile political settlement brought about by the GFA within N. Ireland itself.

The GFA was agreed when both sovereign powers were members of the EU, and thus, at least notionally, committed to an “Ever closer union” as enunciated in the opening lines of the 1958 founding Treaty of Rome. (The Brexiteer conceit that they joined a “Common Market” which was later subverted into an emergent political union rather ignores the fact that “an Ever Closer Union” was the prime motive for forming the Common Market in the first place).

It was never conceived that either party could leave the EU because no legal mechanism for doing so existed then. Article 50 was only introduced subsequently in the 2008 Treaty of Lisbon.

Thus, joint membership of the EU, an ever closer Union, open borders, and adherence to all three strands of the GFA was the basis of the constitutional settlement Ireland had agreed with Britain to resolve the Troubles in N. Ireland. Indeed, 94% of the electorate in the south had endorsed this settlement which included the deletion of Ireland’s territorial claim to N. Ireland in the Irish constitution

It is thus hardly fair to accuse the south of not having a strategy for dealing with the North just because Britain and the DUP have thrashed all elements of the agreed settlement.

But Andy Pollak is also half right. The manner in which Brexit was carried out, and now the legislation against the agreed Protocol creates an entirely new situation not envisaged by the GFA. It has re-polarised politics in N. Ireland and driven many unaligned and moderate voters until recently reasonably happy to live with the current status quo into a hard-line nationalist position of demanding a border poll now.

The most recent University of Liverpool opinion poll has just delivered the following results:

Sinn Féin 30.9% (up1.9% since the May Assembly elections)
DUP 20.1% (down 1.2%)
Alliance 15.3% (up 1.8%)
SDLP 10.0% (up 0.8%)
UUP 9.6% (down 1.6%)
TUV 4.7% (down 2.9%)
Greens 2.9% (up 1.0%)
Others 6.5%

By the normally static pattern of N. Ireland polls, this is a seismic result if replicated in the next Assembly elections, due by January next year unless the DUP agree to form an Executive. The combined DUP/UUO/TUV vote is down by 5.7%, and the combined nationalist vote is up 3% if one includes the all-Ireland based Green party. Many unionist voters have obviously shifted to the centrist Alliance Party, and some Alliance party voters have shifted further across to the nationalist spectrum.

The vote of parties campaigning to scrap the protocol has declined to 25% and those happy to reach a negotiated settlement with the EU on its precise implementation has risen to almost 60%. This is also reflected in the current composition of the Assembly which is why the UK government is so keen to over-ride the Assembly’ current power to vote on its continuance.

None of this is to say that a border poll, carried out in the near future, and in the absence of a clear definition of what a transition to a United Ireland would look like would inevitably be carried. What it does mean, however, is that in the context of a possible second Scottish independence referendum and the emergence of Sinn Fein as the leading party in Ireland, north and south, calls for a border poll are going to become ever more strident.

In this context, my submission to the Constitution Unit of the University of London report on approaches to a possible border referendum is relevant. We do not want a repeat of the Brexit referendum where one broad and largely undefined principle was put to the people who ended up getting something very different to what had been discussed and advocated in the pre-referendum debates.

Ireland does not do generalised “in Principle” referenda. We vote on very specific wordings to be inserted in our constitution whose meaning and effect has been teased out by an independent judge led referendum commission and which is often accompanied by detailed draft legislation detailing how it will be put into effect. A referendum on a united Ireland in Ireland would have to spell out exactly how it will come about and what impact it would have on the lives of ordinary people.

A border poll in the North should also take place only after the British and Irish governments have negotiated a “Transfer of Sovereignty” Treaty which sets out precisely how sovereignty will be transferred, what transitional arrangements will apply, how they will be funded, and how minority rights will be safeguarded in the new state. This might include the retention of a devolved administration in Stormont at least for a lengthy transition period, with only those “reserved and except powers” currently exercised in Westminster transferred to Dublin.

Policing in Northern Ireland would continue to be the responsibility of a PSNI only slowly merged with the Garda Síochána with a similarly slow and planned transition of security responsibilities from the British to the Irish army.

There is also no reason to suppose that any administrative integration will necessarily consist of a takeover of the North by the southern civil service. Some aspects of NI public administration, for example the NHS and some models of integrated education could become the template for an all-Ireland administrative transformation.

For a United Ireland to make social, economic, political and administrative sense, it would have to be a transformative event taking in the best aspects of both northern and southern systems, and achieving economies of scale and reduced duplication to offset what would otherwise be the crippling cost of sustaining a Barnett style financial subvention.

Sinn Fein assertions that Barnett style subsidies would no longer be required in a united Ireland are reminiscent of Brexiteer “magical thinking,” as is their assumption that 800,000 unionists would meekly accept the result of a Border poll in favour of unification. Like Brexiteers, nationalists have been largely “negotiating with themselves” when it comes to deciding what a post border poll united Ireland would look like.

Not only was the EU disinclined to simply rubber stamp whatever contradictory proposals the Brexiteers ultimately conjured up, it is most unlikely that Unionists (or their proxies in Britain) will simply rubber stamp whatever united Ireland implementation policies even a generously inclined Irish government might propose.

At least nationalist have the excuse that neither unionists nor the British government will engage with any detailed discussions on a united Ireland and they thus have little alternative but to “negotiate with themselves”. Brexiteers had no such excuse: The EU was always willing to engage but has been steadfastly ignored for much of the post Brexit and now post Protocol period.

So why might this situation change in the future? Unionists have little incentive to engage in discussions on a United Ireland prior to a border poll. Their prospects of success in such a poll probably largely depend on creating a “bogey man” of catholic nationalist domination, remote Dublin rule, and great uncertainty as to what future united Ireland governments might enact. For a unionist to engage in discussions on the shape of a future united Ireland now can only reduce this sense of a hugely uncertain “bogeyman” future and this would make a pro united Ireland result in the poll more likely.

Also, since unionism is ultimately about maintaining strong links with Britain, asking unionists to engage in a discussion on a united Ireland is akin to inviting them to commit political suicide. All this might change if a border poll in Northern Ireland is ultimately passed, with unionist then pivoting to making demands that would make a united Ireland as unattractive as possible to southerners in advance of a southern referendum.

However, as I pointed out in a long letter published by the Belfast Newsletter, If unionists want to influence whatever shape a united Ireland might take, they need to get an agreement on it prior to any vote. After a northern border poll is passed, the political system will pivot towards making a southern referendum passable, and that does not include making huge concessions to unionists which would be seen by many southern voters as diluting their sense of independence from Britain.

Here I am in full agreement with Andy Pollak: Southern voters may be hugely in favour of a united Ireland in principle, “in the fullness of time,” and provided it does not result in a wholesale “Anglification” of the south. But throw in huge concessions to the unionist sense of British identity or a huge increase in taxation to replace the Barnett subvention, and support for unification in a referendum could rapidly wither away.

We could then be faced with a doomsday scenario of a NI having voted to leave the UK but rejected by Ireland, surely an outcome all sides should wish to prevent. Thus, any border poll in the North must be preceded by a detailed “Transfer of Sovereignty Treaty” between Britain and Ireland setting out the precise terms of such a transfer.

One might reasonably ask, why would Britain want to negotiate a treaty severing its most western component? Besides the principled declaration that the UK has no selfish or strategic motive in retaining NI, there might also be a pragmatic argument for supposing that Britain might want to do so. Sunak is not the only British politician to have questioned the enormous cost of the Barnett subventions to the British (and in practice, the English) exchequer.

After all the NI subvention has risen from a mere Billion or so some years ago to £10-15 billion in a few years and shows no sign of coming down. What if it were to continue to increase? Britain left the EU in part because of the cost of Membership which was supposed to be retargeted to the NHS. But Britain also gained significant benefits from its net £10 Billion EU subvention. What benefit is it achieving from NI’s continued membership of the UK and a subvention cost which now exceeds the hated net contribution to the EU?

Suppose in the future, an embattled British government, facing an economic and budgetary crisis, was forced to make drastic cuts in public expenditure. Would it not make more sense to make such cuts in NI where neither Labour nor the Tories have any seats to defend? For context, the total cost of the NHS in NI is c.   £7 Billion. Even a 50% cut in the subvention would entirely eliminate it. Would unionists still be so opposed to a united Ireland if Britain and Ireland agreed to share the cost for a lengthy transitionary period of joint authority prior to full re-unification?

This may seem a far-fetched scenario, and unionists like to point out there has been no sign of Britain seeking to cut the subvention up until now. But with Brexit already having reduced the size of the UK economy by 4%, and a winter of discontent over strikes and inflation threatening to return the UK to its pre-EU “sick man of Europe” status, it may become a political reality in Westminster sooner than we expect, and sooner than we are ready for. The least the Irish government must do is prepare contingency plans for such a scenario.

The GFA stipulates that a Border Poll can only be called if the secretary of state deems there is a realistic possibility of it being carried. Many observers have called for greater clarity as to which criteria s/he will apply in reaching such a determination. I have always been of the view that the vagueness of the GFA hides its true intent: A border poll will only be called if the British government has come to the view that it is in its interest to divest itself of NI.

If that is the case voters in a border poll will not have a choice of a safe and secure status quo, underwritten by the Barnett formula, and some magical thinking by Sinn Fein as to how a united Ireland will be funded. It may come to a choice between radical austerity now – including the virtual elimination of the NHS – and an agreement by the British and Irish governments to co-fund it for a lengthy transitional period as part of a transfer of sovereignty treaty.

For Britain this would mean a radical reduction, and ultimate elimination of the Barnett formula subvention. For NI Ireland it would mean some prospect of current living standards and quality of life being maintained at least for the foreseeable future. For Ireland it could mean the dream of a united Ireland being fulfilled allied to the prospect that the costs of transition will be co-funded for many years, and that there will be a considerable length of time for the economic model which has been so successful in the south gradually being extended to the North, making south north financial transfers increasingly unnecessary.

It is only when the economic interests of all the key actors in NI are fully addressed in this way that there is any real prospect of a united Ireland actually happening. It is not, ultimately, about symbols or parades, but of sustaining a quality of life for all. Even then, it may be no easy transition. Some loyalists may resort to violence to frustrate the transition, and here only the full resources of both the British and Irish governments will be able to sustain public safety.

It is a sobering thought, but east west tensions remain in Germany 30 odd years after re-unification and it sometimes seems the civil war is alive and well in the USA over 150 years after its formal cessation. However, the EU has a long and successful track record of incorporating formerly warring great powers – Germany, France, Austro-Hungary and Italy; Former fascist dictatorships like Spain, Portugal and Greece; and former Communist satellite states in Eastern Europe. A little local quarrel in Ireland should not represent a challenge on quite the same scale.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.