In a letter to the Irish Times earlier this month Martin Mansergh, one of the principal architects of the Good Friday Agreement, issued a plea to nationalists and republicans to recognise some positive aspects of Northern Ireland’s past, ranging from the contribution of the North to the victory over Nazi Germany to the inspiration of the peace process for people seeking conflict resolution around the world. He concluded his letter with the following words: “It would be good if we could abandon the old and futile habit of beating the drum for a united Ireland in search of votes, and devoted our time to all the intermediary steps required to improve relationships, before expecting such a big step to be agreed and taken.”
Ironically, the disaster of Brexit may push us towards taking such steps. A poll carried out for RTE and BBC this month showed 62% of people in Northern Ireland believing that the UK pulling out of the EU would make a united Ireland more likely (the usual health warning applies: Northern Ireland opinion polls are all over the place on the unity issue). But there is no doubt that in the middle of the deep political crisis that the UK is currently experiencing in the wake of Theresa May’s withdrawal proposals (and the DUP’s ferocious reaction to them), many Northerners – including some thinking unionists – are having to look again at their position as part of that now unstable union.
As one Irish Times reader from Bangor, Co Down, wrote in response to Mansergh: “My grandfather voted for partition because he knew his grandchildren would be better off within the UK. After 100 years marked by conflict and bitterness, it is my responsibility to consider the matter again in the interests of my grandchildren.”
The alternative is not necessarily outright Irish unity, but some of the “intermediate steps” that Dr Mansergh suggests could pave the way for an improvement of relationships before such a massive move could even be contemplated. In a thoughtful essay on the Irish Humanities website¹, NUI Galway political scientist, Niall Ó Dochartaigh (an unusual Southern academic who has a deep knowledge of the North) has pointed to the constructive role that cross-border cooperation could play in strengthening North-South relations towards some place short of unity.
Ó Dochartaigh stresses that the Good Friday Agreement is future-oriented and “radical in its open-endedness”. This is most evident in its provision for a Border Poll on reunification. But it also mandates the North/South Ministerial Council to “use best endeavours to reach agreement on the adoption of common policies in areas where there is a mutual cross-border and all-island benefit, and which are within the competence of both administrations, North and South.”
Of course the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have been suspended for nearly two years now, and there is little or no prospect in the immediate future of any DUP-Sinn Fein agreement to bring them back. But Ó Dochartaigh believes that if it ever does get up and running again, the Executive would have “huge latitude” to “transform the relationship and connections between the two parts of Ireland within the Agreement without taking that step of reunification.”
He points out that this would maintain the spirit of the original Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which envisaged partition as a temporary expedient to avoid civil war and provided for a Council of Ireland to draw the two jurisdictions together again. “But what does this matter if the main unionist parties still seek to minimise links? The difference is that unionists now form a minority in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as a minority of voters for the first time since Northern Ireland was established in 1921. The non-unionist parties who now form a majority in the Assembly, including both nationalists and centre-ground parties such as Alliance and the Greens, have built an increasingly robust alliance on a range of issues in recent years, most prominently on same-sex marriage and (in a slightly less united way) on abortion reform. They are particularly strongly of one voice in supporting strong and close relations with the EU.” In particular there is a majority for “a kind of special status” for Northern Ireland in relation to the EU, and this is solidly backed by the North’s business, retail and farming organisations. In this Theresa May is more in tune with Northern opinion than the DUP, much to the latter’s annoyance.
Ó Dochartaigh believes that with majorities in both the Assembly and the wider population “supporting a reordering of relationships between Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland in the light of Brexit, that large grey area between the status quo and reunification has become a much more charged and important political space.”
He says that the unionists may take comfort from polls that continue to show only minority support for Irish unity. “But a much more immediate and serious challenge to the unionist political position is evident in the answers to other questions in these polls. The 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey showed robust majority support for staying in the UK, but also found a very strong majority saying they were “in favour of Northern Ireland entering a political and economic alliance with the Republic of Ireland if it would help jobs and the economy.” Only 16% disagreed with this.²
Watching a pro-remain group from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens go into Leinster House to discuss Brexit with Southern politicians earlier this month made me think that this alliance might even provide an alternative government for the North. Of course, the Good Friday Agreement would have to be amended to remove both the requirement for parties to ‘designate’ as unionist or nationalist and the ultra-complex d’Hondt voting mechanism.But some would say these are its most unattractive and unworkable elements anyway.
What about a pro-EU coalition around Theresa May’s proposals – what Leo Varadkar has called the “best of British, best of Irish” – for the North? Cliff Taylor, probably Ireland’s most acute business journalist, called the package negotiated by May “an extraordinary win-win” for Northern Ireland. Under it, Northern companies would be able to export freely into both the UK and the EU. There would be some checks and controls on goods coming from Britain, but it is clear that the EU is prepared to bend to minimise these. It means, for example, that the North could market itself as a unique destination for foreign direct investment, allowing a free flow of goods into both the UK and EU. This could also be of huge benefit to indigenous Northern firms, and avoid much of the disruption of Brexit. The North – unlike Britain – could continue to benefit from other trade deals which the EU has in place with third countries. And we could have lots and lots of mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation.
Could Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens sink their differences and form a temporary voluntary coalition to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the best deal out of the Brexit mess? Could Sinn Fein, as the largest party, put its relentless drive towards Irish unity on hold for a few years, knowing that demography is on its side in the medium term? I suggest its wise former leader Martin McGuinness would have been open to such an idea. Can the other parties trust Sinn Fein enough to go into government with them on this basis? This will be difficult, given the behind-the-scenes cabal – including former senior IRA men – who may still make the final decisions in that party, and its history of bad faith in the past (most notably, ignoring David Trimble’s plea in 1999-2000 for a start to decommissioning as they went into government together, in the full knowledge that he was doomed without one). If it can be done, perhaps (although I admit this is extremely unlikely) pragmatic, anti-Brexit politicians from the Ulster Unionist Party like Steve Aiken and Mike Nesbitt might even persuade their party to join in.
Maybe such a dramatic move to the centre in the North might parallel what the prominent commentator David McWilliams calls in his latest book³ the rise of the ‘Radical Centre’ in the Republic, a development which he argues has been behind the Republic’s extraordinary economic success in recent decades. I will come back to that in a future blog.
ENDNOTE: If you want to hear the most marvellous rendition of ‘Ireland’s Call’ – the anthem of the best rugby team in the world and (I hope) of an eventually united Irish people – watch and listen to this golden-voiced four year old girl singing it on https://t.co/vz7wUTu2vl?ssr=true
³ Renaissance Nation: How the Pope’s Children rewrote the rules for Ireland.