Christmas 2018 sees an anxious Ireland starting seriously to prepare for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. It finds the United Kingdom in a state of constitutional agitation and division not seen since the Suez crisis in 1956; the unpredictability of British politics is unprecedented in modern times. It occurs to me that it may even lead to a situation where after the next general election a Border Poll in Ireland could get onto the agenda of an incoming government in London. For example, if Scotland, with its strong majority for staying in the EU, obtains a second independence referendum and votes to go it alone, the pressure for a unity referendum (led by Sinn Fein) on a left-wing Labour government may prove irresistible.
The Irish government and political establishment are, of course, not thinking that far ahead: the extremely smart people at the top of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs are entirely taken up with the witches’ brew that is Brexit. That generation of brilliant diplomats and senior civil servants who won their spurs in the negotiations that led to the internationally admired 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and 1998 Good Friday Agreement are long gone. The level of knowledge and debate about the North in Leinster House is woeful.
I believe that if we don’t want to leave the running to the ideologues and fantasists of Sinn Fein, the establishment parties in Dublin – notably Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – will soon have to start doing some serious thinking about the medium-term future of this island. Regular readers of this column know I am the last person to urge any rapid movement towards unity because my knowledge of the unionist community makes me fear the dire consequences of such a strategy. The best thing the governments in London and Dublin could do in the short term is to heap the pressure on the DUP and Sinn Fein to get back to power-sharing at Stormont as soon as possible and put the unity issue back on the long finger.
But the stars are shifting. The relationship between Britain and Ireland, and between north and south, has changed for the worse over the past two and a half years. If a miracle happens and Theresa May gets her withdrawal package through Westminster, it may leave Northern Ireland politically part of the UK, but economically under the growing influence of the EU and therefore with closer links to the Republic. Demographic changes within a few years will almost certainly see a Catholic (although not for the immediate future a nationalist) majority in the North. I believe the DUP will find that their temporary Tory friends in Westminster are deeply unreliable. We in Dublin may need to find a mechanism – perhaps a new kind of forum – to start discussing the major economic, political and constitutional issues coming across the sea from London and down the road from Belfast in the medium term.
Here’s one exotic idea. Perhaps we might to look to the Far East for a possible example to follow. Could Northern Ireland’s new special relationship with the EU and the Republic lead over the longer term to an Irish version of China’s ‘one country, two systems’ 1997 takeover of that last jewel in the British colonial crown, Hong Kong? Some of us believe that a loose form of confederation, with the North remaining a culturally half-British autonomous province, but with Dublin taking over powers such as foreign and security policy from London, might be an eventual way forward.
There are scores of good reasons why Northern Ireland and Hong Kong’s utter dissimilarity would make this comparison not worth considering. But given that I am always open to ideas that are more innovative and intelligent than the blunt and potentially calamitous instrument of a 50% + 1 vote for unity, let’s give it an airing.
The bulk of the land on which Hong Kong is built was held on a 19th century lease from China to imperial Britain which was due to expire in 1997. When negotiations over its future status began in 1982 London made it clear to Beijing that it wanted capitalism and political freedom to continue after the handover. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping responded with an extraordinarily flexible and imaginative offer: in return for an unambiguous transfer of sovereignty to China, he said, there would be one country but two systems, China’s and Hong Kong’s.
Just two years later, to the world’s great surprise, the two governments signed a Joint Declaration. Hong Kong’s free enterprise way of life would survive for 50 years after the Chinese takeover. China promised to retain not only Hong Kong’s capitalist system and its autonomy to run its own affairs, but also its Western-style rule of law, and the freedoms associated with it – of speech, assembly, religious practice and belief. There would even be elections to a legislature, although their democratic nature would be very limited, even more limited than under the colonial rule of the British.
Then in 1989 came the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square by the People’s Liberation Army. The future of Hong Kong was still deeply uncertain, with dire predictions of everything from mass emigration and economic collapse to blood on the streets. Before the last British governor, former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Patten, flew out in 1992, he was told by one newspaper editor that the odds were evenly balanced as to whether he would leave the colony for the last time on the royal yacht or by Air Force helicopter from the roof of Government House.¹
According to Patten, one of the reasons for the eventually successful transition was that Britain gave “a sort of tacit blessing” to China’s post-1997 arrangements, even when they had a distinctly questionable relationship with the promises given in the 1984 Joint Declaration.To his credit, Patten managed to introduce an element of genuine democracy into Legislative Council elections for the first time in 1995, and a third of those democratically elected members carried on into the Chinese era.
In terms of realpolitik the handover seems to have worked rather well. Which other region of a unitary state – let alone a totalitarian unitary state – has its own constitution, central bank, tax system and civil service structure? In China you cannot move about legally without a permit, let alone travel abroad; in Hong Kong you can go to the airport and fly wherever you like. In China, the currency is not convertible; in Hong Kong the currency’s link to the US dollar means that monetary policy is made by the Federal Reserve in Washington. In China corruption is a way of life to boost low official salaries; Hong Kong civil servants are among the highest paid on earth. In China freedom of expression and the press is severely limited; in Hong Kong you can say and write what you want. In China official music choices are ‘The East is Red’ and the ‘Internationale’; in Hong Kong you are as likely to hear ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.²
Divided and undynamic little Northern Ireland, of course, is not Hong Kong. The latter is the great international entrepôt centre for the huge Chinese market. Its businesses are among the top wealth creators in Asia, with interests stretching across the globe. Its money and property traders are legendary. There is unbelievable wealth, but also income disparity that is among the greatest on earth.
So the comparisons with Northern Ireland may be limited. But is there not something to be learned from what 40 years ago looked like the impossible prospect of a peaceful Chinese communist takeover of the colony? In the event it all happened unbelievably smoothly and harmoniously before the eyes of an awe-struck world. So what can we glean from it?
25 years ago I ran an independent ‘citizens inquiry’ into ways forward for Northern Ireland which was headed by an international commission under the chairmanship of an eminent Norwegian human rights lawyer, Torkel Opsahl. We asked 3,000 people all over the North for new ideas to get it out of its horrible, violent deadlock. It was rubbished by local politicians, but wiser heads said it made a small but significant contribution to the dawning of the Northern Irish peace process. A few years later Chris Patten came to Belfast fresh from his triumph in Hong Kong to head another ‘mission impossible’, a commission to make recommendations for the replacement of the RUC by a radically reformed police service in Northern Ireland, which turned out to be probably the single biggest and longest-lasting success of the peace process. Why don’t the British and Irish governments (once they’ve got over the small headache of Brexit) invite him to head a new commission or forum to explore future options for running the North (including possible paths to unity), given that the parties there seem utterly incapable of doing it and, as a consequence, the Good Friday Agreement appears to be on dangerously weak legs?
¹ Chris Patten, East and West: the last governor of Hong Kong on power, freedom and the future (1998)
² Material about Hong Kong from Jonathan Fenby, Dealing with the Dragon: a year in the new Hong Kong (2000)