Is it time to revisit the idea of a federal Ireland?
While the political parties at Stormont continue their shadow boxing and the world waits with bated breath for Senator Hart’s insights into parades and flags, there seems little chance of what may be the biggest issue facing Northern Ireland even making it to the agenda. This is the accident that looks increasingly likely to happen – the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
If it happens, the whole context in which the Belfast Agreement was framed, and in which the limited progress since then has been achieved, will be changed radically, and possibly disastrously. The Agreement makes only one mention of the European Union (in the preamble, where EU membership is cited as one factor in the unique relationship between the UK and Ireland) but it is the framework of EU citizenship that validates the essential core of the Agreement – the idea that the conflicting identities of Irish and British can co-exist as equals within present-day Northern Ireland, pending some future resolution of the fundamental divide.
How would the promise in the Agreement to ‘recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship’ be honoured if the UK, including NI, was outside the EU, while the Republic was inside?
How would freedom of movement across the Border be guaranteed when one of the UK’s main motivations for leaving the EU would be to control migration? Would there be a return to a physical border, with passport cheques and queuing lorries? Would fresh restrictions on travel be placed on movement between the Republic and Britain, or even possibly between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?
How would the nationalist community inside NI respond to such a situation? Would those now seemingly comfortable enough within the UK remain so? How would the more nationalistic respond to the prospect of Irish unity becoming even more distant, and to the re-imposition of a visible controlled border between North and South?
How would Northern Ireland fare within a UK outside the EU? Scotland would almost certainly demand, and get, a referendum to make its own decision on EU membership, and would most probably opt to stay in the EU, not the UK. That would leave Northern Ireland painfully isolated within a UK that would be even more dominated by an England (90% of the population would be in England) that is manifestly becoming increasingly nationalistically British, or in reality, English.
Northern Ireland is not regarded as rampantly pro-European; certainly its politicians are not, but the province did vote ‘yes’ in the 1975 referendum to endorse membership, and academic research suggests that today the balance among the general public is for, not against, EU membership. Northern Ireland is too small and too divided to have the Scottish alternative of independence within the EU, so what options does it have, apart from voting ‘no’ in any poll on leaving the EU, and campaigning in Britain against exit on the grounds of the threat that would pose to the fragile peace here?
The answer is very few, so is it time to revisit Conor Cruise O’Brien’s last and most controversial intervention in Northern affairs? In the late 1990s he suggested that the interests of the Protestant or Unionist community in NI were more threatened by the UK’s determination to do a deal with Sinn/Fein IRA than they would be by a negotiated deal with Dublin to unite Ireland under a federal-type arrangement that guaranteed all existing rights to all residents of the province. This community, he maintained, would under such an agreement be better able to defend its interests than as ‘despised hangers on’ and a tiny minority in the UK. In a federal Ireland they would be a formidable voting bloc in a governmental system where coalitions are the rule rather than the exception.
CCO’B argued that London would be very happy to be rid of Northern Ireland, and would facilitate such a move. Dublin might have more reservations, but could hardly say no to the long cherished goal of Irish unity. At that time he also assumed that such a move would trump Sinn Fein, both North and South. He did not foresee, it would seem, Sinn Fein’s continued electoral success inside the North while playing a leading role in the administration of a devolved region of the UK, nor that party’s reinvention of itself in the Republic as the professed party of protest, of social concern and as the one party untainted by the tarnish staining politics generally (despite the much more sinister skeletons in its own cupboard).
Would any significant section of traditional Unionism even look at such a proposal? The once great obstacle of Rome Rule has almost vanished, but other roadblocks remain, and the answer is almost certainly no. But would might consider it if life within a very much changed UK was less agreeable to them, and particularly if they felt they were being edged closer and closer to a united Ireland, either by pressure from London or demographic change in Northern Ireland? This may be venturing into the land of fantasy, but then who foresaw the Chuckle Brothers, starring the immoderate Moderator and the Chief of Staff, heading the bill at Stormont? Everyone has his price, so what sort of price might Unionism demand?
Obviously a new Constitution would be needed to accommodate the new Ireland, and some sort of devolved structure for what is now Northern Ireland. Some things would have to go – the name of the state could no longer be Eire, nor could Irish be the ‘first national language’, nor the tricolour the national flag. (Though it’s not in the Constitution, a new national anthem would be needed, and we could throw in neutrality and the names of the railway stations as beyond their sell-by date.)
Apart from these and other adjustments, the negotiation of a new Constitution would be a golden opportunity for the South to get rid of much superfluous material in the current one, and to ensure that matters properly belonging to the parliament are not needlessly put to a patently disinterested people in referendums in which most of them do not vote.
The constitution would have to reflect an ethos for the new entity to which all could subscribe. Writing more than forty years ago, Michael Sweetman indicated what this might be: ‘We, (in the Republic) have got to go back to 1912 and relinquish a great deal of what has happened since in order that both parts of the country can make a new start.’ He deplored ‘consistent attempts to impose a narrow concept of Irishness involving the primacy of Gaelic culture, the rejection of British strands in Irish traditions, and a particular view of history which made a virtue of fighting against Britain and a vice of defending British rule’. And he added: ‘It is not from that kind of Republicanism with its glorification of violence in the past and its incitement to violence in the present that the new Ireland will come’.
That was written, by a then leading young Fine Gael thinker, before the Provisional IRA campaign had, over 30 years of pointless conflict, caused the loss of thousands of lives. What a tragedy that a Fine Gael Taoiseach could still say last month that he was always proud to be a 1916 man and that he saw the Rising as the central formative and defining act in the shaping of modern Ireland.
At this point we can probably stop fantasizing. The Rising was the ‘formative and defining act’ of a partitioned Ireland in which one part was in many ways Rome ruled, was socially conservative to put it mildy, and at times dangerously ambivalent towards armed republicanism, and held no attractions whatever for the ‘divided brethren’ in the North. Much has changed in many ways, and in the minds of many of the people, but the State, and its political leaders, cling to their founding fictions.
Wakening up at this point saves us from wrestling with the question of where the £9000 million London annually transfers net into Northern Ireland to keep it running would come from. In 1998 CCO’B blithely assumed that London would be so happy to be shot of NI, and Dublin so pleased to welcome it, and the international community so delighted for us all, that they would together stump up. Fat chance of that now.
All of which leaves NI, as ever, in the quare place.