Will the future be British and/or Irish federalism?

The big story about the British general election – alongside the surprise overall majority for the Tories – was the extraordinary spectacle of all but three seats in Scotland being won by the Scottish National Party. If anybody thought after last September’s referendum result that the independence issue had been put to bed for a decade or more, they were proved dramatically wrong.

According to Ben Wray of the excellent online Scottish news site, commonspace.scot, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s strategy is now a gradualist one: to build up power until the party’s hegemony is unquestionable, and then cruise to a referendum win. He believes the Scottish first minister would prefer to leave the independence question until the 2021 Holyrood parliamentary election, but has not ruled out putting a referendum into the SNP’s 2016 election manifesto, as most of the 110,000 members of her fast-growing party would expect her to do.

So unionists of all stripes have reason to lose their sleep again, not least the Ulster unionists. Labour backbenchers at Westminster are lining up to echo what Jonathan Freedland wrote on the front page of the Guardian after the result: “The question now is not so much whether Scotland will break away from the UK, but rather what would happen to make a country that has voted en masse for a nationalist party not leave the union…It will require the greatest possible ingenuity and generosity on the part of those who still believe in the union – perhaps an entirely new, federal design entrenched in a written constitution – to persuade Scotland to stay.”

Ingenuity and generosity are not characteristics one associates with Ulster unionism. The DUP were hoping for a return to the old Jim Molyneaux-John Major days of a unionist party propping up a minority British government in return for goodies from the cabinet table for Northern Ireland. That hope is truly dashed.

Could I suggest a really daring way in which the DUP and Ulster Unionists might regain a bit of the initiative?  Instead of uniting around the hoary old sectarian issues of election pacts and Orange parades, why don’t they put their heads together and start the process of coming up with some ideas for a new, federal Britain which a radically autonomous Scotland might be prepared to remain a part of.  Ulster Unionists starting a debate about the future of the United Kingdom – now there’s a novel idea!

There could be something in it for Nationalists as well. In a genuinely federal UK Northern Ireland would have as much autonomy as Scotland and Wales, to the extent that – apart from things like the monarchy, currency union, defence and foreign affairs – it could attain most of the powers of a largely independent state. It would be free to negotiate – perhaps under a future Sinn Fein first minister – an even closer relationship with the Republic of Ireland. A new written British federal constitution could even include a clause reflecting the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The potential for pleasing both sides in the North without actually breaking the constitutional link with London (or ending the £10 billion British subsidy) could be surprising! [Firstly, of course, both sides have to resolve the current impasse over welfare reform – i.e. cuts – which could bring down the Stormont institutions within weeks].

Anyway the people of the Republic will also have a say in whether that constitutional link should ultimately be broken – something often overlooked by Northern Nationalists. Constitutional change through a Border Poll must be approved by the Southern as well as the Northern electorate. And my judgement is that the people of the South currently have zero interest in a reactionary, troublesome and hugely expensive North becoming part of their still fragile but economically recovering and now outstandingly liberal society. In particular, the smart, newly politically conscious young people who turned out in their tens of thousands to make Ireland the world’s first state to bring in same sex marriage by popular vote are totally switched off by the North’s ancient quarrels (and don’t let Sinn Fein tell you otherwise).

Someone should advise Gerry Adams and his colleagues that a united Irish state is nearly as old-fashioned and tired a concept as a United Kingdom within a British empire. In this age of climate challenges, multinational capital, cross-border cooperation, the European Union and even (alarmingly) Islamic State smashing through the old empire-imposed national frontiers of the Middle East, federalism is a much more exciting and relevant idea: a federal Europe, a federal Britain, even a federal Ireland. Could, for example, the Good Friday Agreement be stretched into a kind of overlapping federal-type arrangement in which an autonomous Northern Ireland could have close relationships with both London and Dublin (with, for example, representation in the Westminster parliament and the Oireachtas)?

The liberal unionist commentator Dennis Kennedy wrote in the Irish Times last November that perhaps it was time to revisit one of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s final interventions in Northern affairs in 1998. Warning of an imminent deal between the British government and Sinn Fein/IRA, O’Brien suggested that Unionists should instead reach agreement with Dublin to unite under a federal arrangement that would guarantee all existing rights to residents of the North. The Unionist community, he maintained, would be better able to defend its interests as an important political block in a federal Ireland than it would as “despised hangers-on” and a tiny minority in the UK.

His words, scornfully dismissed at the time, may again become relevant if Britain votes in a referendum to leave the European Union – which will be the over-riding issue for British politics during the next two years  – and Scotland votes to stay in. That would be an utter disaster for Northern Ireland, which would then exist precariously on the edge of a United Kingdom even more dominated by the 90% of the population living in England, which would, in turn, become more English nationalist and in thrall to London and the south-east.

A lot of this will depend on Southern willingness to accommodate the North in some way, either in a united Ireland or – much more likely – some arrangement short of unity. As a wise friend who knows both Irish jurisdictions well said to me recently:

“One of the crucial things that needs to happen if there is ever going to be a united Ireland is that the South has to develop an interest in and understanding of (I won’t say an affection for) unionism. I don’t see the remotest evidence that this is likely to engage the interest of other than a very few people there. And that’s the one essential sine qua non of any consideration of a united Ireland.”

PS  There is an interesting conference taking place at Trinity College Dublin on Saturday 20 June which readers might want to put in their diaries. It is called ‘The North Began? Ulster and the Irish Revolution 1900-25’ and will examine the particular role of Northerners during that tumultuous period.


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