The former Tánaiste and Progressive Democrat leader, Michael McDowell, has been writing recently about confederation.1 I may not often agree with his views on social and economic issues, but I have always found his political analysis of the North to be nuanced and insightful. He concluded from the findings of the Irish Times/ARINS opinion polls in December that there is “a very large gap between majority opinions in Northern Ireland and the Republic respectively.”
He went on: “Quite apart from the issue of whether there should be a united Ireland at all (where northern opinion seems at this point to be negative in the great majority), there is a remarkable divergence on the model for Irish unity. In the Republic, most people seem to conceive a united Ireland as a unitary state with Stormont abolished. Not so in the North.”
He wondered whether all possible models of Irish unity have been fully explored. He then posited a third possible model between unity and continued union: “an Ireland in which the Republic and Northern Ireland would confederate on a partnership basis to share a membership of the European Union. Such an Irish confederation would not involve the absorption or dissolution of either part of the island: both might continue to exist largely as they are, but share institutional links such as joint membership of the EU.
“It is noteworthy that a very clear majority (57%) in Northern Ireland favours membership of the EU. That majority could be accommodated in a confederal partnership on the island where EU membership was shared and operated on some form of partnership between North and South. Some formula for joint external status, possibly along a Swiss or Belgian model, is possible. It may not need a shared flag or an anthem; it may not need a single written constitution.” [I’m not sure why McDowell talks about “joint external status” for Belgium, which is a core, founding member of the EU, but maybe he is confusing that country’s relationship with the EU with its complex, quasi-federal political system involving Flemish, French and German speakers, which could be a model for an Irish confederation.]
McDowell thinks it is “somewhat naive to expect unionist politicians to enter an open-ended dialogue focused on the end of the union. There is simply little or no political gain for them in doing so. But by exploring alternatives to a big bang end-of-the-union unitary state scenario, those who believe, as I do, in Irish unity can sketch out a more reassuring and less threatening subject for general dialogue on the island.
“If anything, the Irish Times/ARINS research seems to suggest that the people of the Republic are dangerously disengaged on what the realities are in the North. We have collectively deluded ourselves into thinking that a united Ireland based on a unitary state is likely to come about in the short term. We have not really asked ourselves whether we need a united Ireland incorporating a badly alienated and very hostile northern minority…There is nothing inevitable about Irish unity. Those who want it must educate themselves and work for it. They must first work out what it is that they are working for.”
The picture of two states and societies which have grown apart after a century of partition was confirmed by another Irish Times/ARINS poll last month. This found that two-thirds of people in the Republic say they have no friends in Northern Ireland; more than 80% say they have no relations there, and more than half have not travelled across the border in the past five years.2 So if we want a deeper and closer relationship between the two jurisdictions, why don’t we think about confederation?
The distinguished US-based political scientist, Professor Brendan O’Leary, who has provided much of the intellectual energy behind the ARINS (Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South) project, defines confederations as follows:
“A confederation is a union of states that delegate their revocable sovereignty to shared confederal institutions, and that retain the right of secession. The North South Ministerial Council (NSMC), though it has not been the site of major initiatives and activities, could still prove a stepping stone towards a confederal Ireland. The British-Irish Council…could still become the vehicle to provide unionists with institutional links to the entire Isles in the event of Irish reunification.” Both these potentially confederal institutions – one North-South (and therefore of interest to nationalists) and one East-West (and thus of interest to unionists) – were set up under the Good Friday Agreement.3
O’Leary advocates successive Border Polls: the first one in the North and, if that results in a majority for reunification, a second one in the Republic. He says: “If the key negotiations occur before the Southern referendum, then that may increase the likelihood of an Irish confederation – namely, the formation of a new political system in which two sovereign states are joined together in a common state, jointly establishing a confederal government with delegated authority over both of them for specific functions. This process would necessarily involve the recognition of Northern Ireland as a state proper. The confederation would represent Ireland in the EU and internationally; it would have all-island institutions, which would certainly include a common court, but could also include an army with constituent territorial units, and, probably, a confederal police, devoted to serious crime, although its powers could be delegated to a joint body. All such institutions would have to be negotiated, and some presumably could build on the NSMC.” 4
Why has there been so little discussion about how the North South Ministerial Council and the British- Irish Council might be developed into confederal institutions? O’Leary is largely dismissive of the viability of two-state confederations, noting that they have had a poor record internationally, and stresses an unlikely interim stage of Northern Ireland having to become an independent state before agreeing to enter a confederation with the Republic. But it is still remarkable that this potential outworking of the Good Friday Agreement to provide a possible compromise between the clashing aspirations of nationalists and unionists has been so little explored.
The late Seamus Mallon wrote in his 2019 book A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored), that a 50% plus one vote for unity “will not give us the kind of agreed Ireland we seek…We need both communities in any future constitutional settlement to feel they belong to their common home place in an equal and mutually beneficial way.” His preference was for “some kind of confederal arrangement, because I believe unionists will find it very difficult to feel any sense of loyalty to a unitary Irish state.”
I have quoted the Northern civil service and business leader, the late Sir George Quigley (who was a Presbyterian), on numerous occasions on the subject of a confederal Ireland. He said in 2013: “If there is ever a new constitutional configuration for the island, my guess is that the model by far the likeliest to secure consent is the confederal model…On this basis, the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies related to the powers to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from North and South.” This would “reflect the political and administrative realities of the past 90 years and would entrench a measure of autonomy for both parts of the island within an all-island framework. While protecting and fostering the identities and ethos of the two traditions, it would enable them to work together in the common interest.” Unionists would be able to “maintain special links with Britain.”5
I know none of this complexity will be attractive to the people I call “romantic territorial nationalists”: those in Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail, the Northern nationalist community and the general public in the South whose hundred-year-old demand for reunification is based on the desire to get the ‘fourth green field’ back (these people appear to have forgotten John Hume’s message that “the real division of Ireland is not a line on a map but in the minds and hearts of its people”). However, I hope there are large numbers of realists out there who understand that unity on this basis – with hundreds of thousands of angry, alienated unionists as part of our ‘new Ireland’ – simply won’t work.
The realists will look at Northern Ireland and wonder at its unreconciled societal divisions, stubbornly resistant to change; its often unworkable political institutions; its ever-present risk of a recurrence of sectarian violence; its economic under-development and its financial dependence on subsidies from London. And they will wonder if a now peaceful, prosperous and successful independent state of Ireland (albeit with significant housing and health system problems) needs to graft this unhealthy northern limb onto a largely healthy southern body politic. Wouldn’t keeping it at arm’s length, while satisfying the age-old nationalist aspiration for some kind of unity through a confederal solution (with the British government largely, although not completely, out of the picture) be enough to be going on with?
1 ‘Confederation better model for Irish unity’, Irish Times, 14 December 2022
2 ‘Little interaction between people living North and South, new polls show’, 28-29 January 2023
3 A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume 3 Consociation and Confederation, p. 212
4 Ibid, p. 313
5 The Journal of Cross Border Studies, No.8, Spring 2013, pp.27-28
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.