Jarlath Kearney – two states, one system. A novel idea worth considering?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like new ideas which go beyond the binary unionist-nationalist straitjacket which has dominated (and constrained) debate about the future of this island for most of the past hundred years. Thus over the past few years I have published the heterodox ideas of people like political scientist Padraig O’Malley, reconciliation activist Duncan Morrow, social researcher Paul Nolan, socialist writer Daniel Finn, Derry Protestant community worker Brian Dougherty, and Newry business and community leader Conor Patterson.

I dislike the crude majoritarian thinking of groups like Ireland’s Future, with their insistence that the people of the disputed and divided northern province of this country have to choose between one – and only one – of two diametrically opposed future constitutional options: continued membership of the United Kingdom or Irish territorial unity. I have insisted – although my insistence usually falls on deaf ears – that we also have to consider more flexible options like federalism, confederalism and joint authority (and even Seamus Mallon’s idea of ‘parallel consent,’ although I have come to believe that this is neither democratic nor practicable).

There’s a predictable sameness about the usual reaction from nationalist quarters to such propositions: they denounce them as another version of the unionist ‘veto’ and demand that any discussion of them be closed down. The only veto this results in is a veto on constructive thinking! The claim is also made that such ideas are in breach of the ‘holy grail’ of the Good Friday Agreement, even though Ireland’s Future can also be cavalier with the GFA (as I pointed out in my last blog), and anyway that mould-breaking accord has a specific section allowing for a review by the two governments in the event of difficulties arising.

So I was interested to come across a publication called ‘Two states, One system’ by Jarlath Kearney, a Belfast-based strategy adviser and former policy adviser to Sinn Fein’s NI Deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness. Kearney is from strong Northern nationalist/republican stock: his father was prominent as a campaigner for the McBride fair employment principles in the 1980s and his brother is chair of Sinn Fein. His paper is based on a series of articles first published in the Irish News, and he spoke further about his ideas at an Institute of International and European Affairs event in Dublin (sponsored by the Hume Foundation) in February.

Kearney ended any association with party politics a decade ago, spending the interim period working in senior public service roles in the North, and has independently developed some interesting and open-minded ideas about a possible future for Northern Ireland. He opens by setting out his stall, and it is a broadly nationalist one: “We must prioritise the aisling (vision) of reconciliation under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and of uniting Ireland’s people by consent under the solemn mantle and ‘firm will’ of Article 3 of the Constitution of Ireland.”

However, he says that the ground rules for these discussions should be “patience, prudence and partnership, built around a ‘two states, one system’ philosophy.” He emphasises the broad consensus among policy makers and civic leaders across Ireland and the UK that the two states will continue on the island of Ireland for the foreseeable future. In his paper he says this structure will exist “at least into the 2030s – notwithstanding any Border poll. There is no viable short-to-medium term alternative.” During February’s IIEA event, he emphasised that Ireland is entering a long period of evolution that requires a need to think differently, including being aware of unionist fears.

He writes that Ireland and the UK are “inextricably linked in a deeply complex, always oscillating, and ultimately infinite cross-cultural journey. The longstanding status quo is steadily destabilising. Evolution is, by definition, inevitable. But stable foundations are a prerequisite for the sustainability of future arrangements”. The alternative to a patient, prudent partnership between the British and Irish governments to plan the next stage of this evolution would be to “plunge Ireland into further societal chaos.” This political thinker is no simplistic ‘Brits Out’ republican.

If there is a Border poll vote for unity, Kearney suggests an ingenious constitutional compromise. This would involve “Northern Ireland continuing as a state but, post referendum, moving under the constitutional sovereignty of Ireland and its presidency (including full European Union membership) whilst concurrently maintaining its full membership with the Commonwealth (which retains the UK monarch as its head).” Would this even be workable? It is certainly worth further discussion.

However he warns that before any Border poll there will be “relentless hard yards of unspectacular work” which will have to go into “steadily developing systems of rights, respect, rapprochement and reconciliation; a policy culture of economic opportunity, social equality, public inclusion and participation, delivered by creative public sector expertise. It cannot be achieved by artificial deadlines for Border polls with peremptory demands for predetermined destinations.” On the other hand, nor can reconciliation be achieved by “anyone believing that the current constitutional framework will exist for ever, fossilised through some kind of political cryonics” [meaning ‘deep freezing the bodies of those who have just died, in the hope that scientific advances may allow them to be revived in the future.’]

Kearney also warns against nationalist triumphalism, suggesting that nationalists continually presenting Irish unity as the automatic answer to Brexit risks becoming a mirror image of extremist English nationalism. It would promote “an underlying swagger and arrogance replete with the sulphuric stench of Irish nationalistic purity. The risk of that ‘swagger’ is more worrying, prevalent and potent than many have yet acknowledged or even understood in Irish society. Much greater self-awareness is needed.”

He asks that parties seeking unity “now publish their specific proposed changes for the [Irish] Constitution. The difficulty with abstract concepts, such as a headline Brexit demand or a Border poll on Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status, is that they sometimes impair effective outcomes.” He asks proponents of unity to be clear and precise in their proposals. “How else can informed consent precede the exercise of the principle of majority voting consent, unless citizens have clarity about the concepts being put to them? What do proponents practically mean, in the deepest and most detailed terms, by blank promissory notes of a ‘new Ireland’? A ‘united Ireland’? A ‘shared Ireland’? The ‘end of partition’? Six years after Brexit [this was originally written in 2022], detail is a reasonable ask.”

He stresses that reconciliation is not only something that Northern Protestants and Catholics have to strenuously engage with, but, even more importantly, the now largely estranged Irish and British governments must re-energise. He looks back to the courageous efforts by the late Queen Elizabeth and Martin McGuinness genuinely to reach out to opponents they could be forgiven for seeing as enemies. “The pathway ahead must be the careful re-establishment of relationships of partnership between both sovereign governments, especially at official and technical level.”

He proposes a “new Treaty-based rapprochement” between Ireland and the UK. Such a new agreement is “many years off, with bilateral politics first requiring a much more settled EU-UK relationship leading to the return of a stable partner in London later in this decade.” By this he obviously means a Keir Starmer-led Labour government. He believes such an inter-governmental partnership (as existed in the 1990s and early 2000s) is an essential prerequisite if we are going to develop the “unfulfilled reconciliation strand” of the Good Friday Agreement, which still has “substantial potential to deliver societal improvements – and genuine unity of people – across Ireland based on a firm foundation of equal rights and mutual respect.”

At the IIEA event, Kearney outlined that the Ireland-UK partnership needs to come “from the top” in both Dublin and London, and this inter-governmental leadership can then provide the authority for civil servants to do things within that framework. In recommending this path, he emphasised the importance of fully respecting the differing sovereignties, while prioritising North-South cooperation based on pragmatism.

He also says that people coming out of decades of armed conflict require “actual bread and butter on the table today, not just the promised scent of constitutional roses for tomorrow.” He writes: “If proponents of change cannot deliver real social reform at a local level in cities and towns [in NI] by using targeted budgets to address longstanding patterns of structural deprivation and exclusion affecting the sectors of greatest inequality within the areas of greatest objective need, how then do they intend to effect macro-societal transformation with mature public institutions of a neighbouring state at national level?”

Kearney sees the Irish government’s non-threatening Shared Island initiative – and the Shared Island dialogues it includes – as possible “foundation stones” for patiently rebuilding the cross-border process which will be required to bring together politicians, civil society, business and the wider public to discuss Northern Ireland’s future role on the island of Ireland. He says this initiative “deserves much greater credit for its long-sighted, iterative understanding about the need to steadily build bases of genuine dialogue with empirical evidence and creative policy innovation across Ireland.” Far better Micheál Martin’s Shared Island as a forum for this kind of important and open-ended deliberation than Sinn Fein and Ireland’s Future’s proposed all-Ireland Citizens Assembly with its single predetermined outcome.

He cites fair employment in the North – “a steady work in progress” – as an example of “policy patience (with persistence)” which over a 50 year period brought about positive reform in an area in which discrimination was “historically an accelerant for armed conflict.” “Northern Ireland’s workplaces are today increasingly shared and diverse, especially across the public sector. This has directly encouraged much greater societal integration and grassroots reconciliation than was seen in previous generations.”

In the final pages of his 36 page paper, Kearney elaborates further on the interesting idea which gives the paper its title: ”Two states, one system.” He cites all-island sporting organisations like the GAA and the IRFU as examples of all-island bodies which successfully oversee ‘two states/one system’ administrations, thus “creatively transcending any notion of a divisive cultural border.” He could have added post-1998 all-island bodies like Waterways Ireland, the Loughs Agency and Tourism Ireland, or the post-2008 all-island wholesale electricity network. He cites health as another area of great potential for all-island cooperation, but also one with massive resource demands and coordination problems – although I would suggest there is currently less all-island cooperation in this sector than he argues.

Kearney urges that, operating within the Good Friday Agreement, the approach should be one of “maximum joint administration (not joint authority) and joint systems (not joint sovereignty) between both sovereign governments, necessarily involving – where appropriate – the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and other institutional north-south and east-west elements of the 1998 Agreement.” He concludes: “The next decade should be one in which the fallout from Brexit is faced collectively by encouraging the systematic enhancement of all-island policy cooperation across Ireland in practical and technical terms.” The focus should be “on ensuring that the basic delivery of public policy reforms can become exemplars of good practice by government in Northern Ireland and thereby positive indicators of what might be achieved in any new future arrangements.” At the IIEA event Kearney said what was needed to manage constitutional evolution, including to run Northern Ireland over the next generation, was a “joint management framework” between the two governments.

That was largely the message I was preaching during my 14 years running the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh (1999-2013). It begs some questions: notably whether an incoming British Labour government would be up to playing its part in such a major programme of all-Ireland cooperation. And whether at least some more pragmatic unionist politicians might buy into it. Jarlath Kearney would do us all a great service by researching a follow-up paper on these issues – this first one is an impressively thought-provoking beginning.


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