Unionists – listen to the Professor of Consociation and Confederation

Brendan O’Leary is an extraordinary man.  Born in Cork and brought up in Nigeria and unionist County Antrim, he was a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and for the past 18 years has been Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a political adviser to both the British and Irish governments, to Tony Blair’s British Labour Party in the years up to the Good Friday Agreement, to the United Nations (notably on the Darfur peace process in Sudan) and to the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq. He spends a  part of every year in Northern Ireland where he is ‘World Leading Researcher Visiting Professor of Political Science’ (he wouldn’t want that title to go to his head!) at Queen’s University Belfast.

All this means that he is a one-man brains trust when it comes to the deep political and historical divisions of the North. This is impressively apparent from his magisterial A Treatise on Northern Ireland, of which the third volume, ‘Consociation and Confederation’ was published last year. The fact that he has spent the great bulk of his distinguished professional life outside Ireland is probably the reason he is not better known here.

O’Leary knows his own worth. He is one of the world’s foremost proponents of ‘consociation’: the academic term for the kind of power-sharing system that has just about managed to run Northern Ireland (and, more importantly, keep it largely peaceful) for the past 22 years. He argues that the work of expert political advisers in negotiations – whether in support of governments or rebel parties – is important because “it’s easier to have good bridges and good hospitals if you have decent government”.

In the preface to the last volume of A Treatise on Northern Ireland he looks forward to the day when “an Ireland that has prepared its constitution and its institutions with proper, prudent and consultative foresight may be able to reunify with its lost counties with minimal threat to any human life. Though other malign vistas cannot be excluded – including those that start with premises based on Albion’s record of treaty-breaking – the one just briefly sketched seems far likelier than at any previous time in this author’s life.” In a recent interview he said that if it comes to a Border Poll-type vote: “I hope to contribute to clarifying the terms of any possible Irish unification.”

With such words O’Leary, despite his stated commitment to objectivity, sets out his stall as an unashamed nationalist. However, it would be a pity if intelligent unionists were to use this to dismiss what he writes about possible ways forward for Ireland. Because he puts forward some very interesting ideas, in particular about confederation, which should be of interest to thoughtful unionists who realise that the unequal and unstable status quo of the past 100 years cannot be a basis for a peaceful and cooperative future on the island.

O’Leary defines confederation as follows: “Confederal relations exist when political units voluntarily delegate powers and functions [my italics] to bodies that can exercise power across their jurisdictions.” This is somewhat different from federalism: “Federal relationships exist when there are least two separate tiers of government over the same territory and neither tier can unilaterally alter the constitutional capacities of the other.”

The North South Ministerial Council set up under the Belfast Agreement is a good example of a confederal relationship, says O’Leary. It works on an equal North-South basis in areas where there is a “mutual cross-border and all-island benefit.” The NSMC cannot function without the Northern Ireland Assembly (which had a unionist majority when it was set up) and vice versa, and the Irish constitution was changed by referendum to ensure that the NSMC and its delegated implementation bodies “would be able to exercise island-wide jurisdiction in those functional activities where unionists were willing to cooperate.” The NSMC functions like the EU Council of Ministers, with Ministers having considerable discretion to reach decisions but remaining ultimately accountable to their respective legislatures.¹

O’Leary writes: “If the implementation of the (Belfast) Agreement succeeded, currently a moot point, economic and sociological developments apparent in the 2000s would have underpinned the NSMC as the potential vanguard of a new constitutional confederal tendency. The Republic’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy meant that Northern Ireland’s ministers and citizens, of whatever background, saw increasing benefits from North-South cooperation. And, had the EU continued to integrate, there would have been pressure for both parts of Ireland to enhance their cooperation, given their shared peripheral geographical position, and similar interests in functional activities such as agriculture and tourism.”As we know, Brexit put paid to that benign scenario that for the present.

He goes on: “A second, currently weaker, possible confederal relationship was established by the Agreement, affecting all the islands of Britain and Ireland. In the new British-Irish Council (BIC), the two governments of the sovereign states and all the devolved governments of the UK, and the neighbouring insular dependent territories of the UK, can meet and agree to delegate functions, and may agree common policies. This proposal met unionists’ concerns for reciprocity in linkages, and provided a mechanism through which they might in future be linked to the UK, even if Northern Ireland became part of the Republic.” It is a great pity that the potential of the British-Irish Council to provide a framework for close constitutional and other relations among these islands has remained almost totally neglected and unexplored.

O’Leary continues: “The development of the BIC into a possible confederal relationship institution has been stunted by an Irish reluctance to engage in a forum where it is outnumbered by seven other UK-based governments – Westminster,  Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man – and by a British reluctance to delegate any authority to bodies not controlled by Westminster.” He concludes: “But perhaps the real significance of the BIC lies in the future: in its potential role in a model of double protection [i.e for the unionists – AP] if Ireland ever reunifies.”²

Elsewhere in the book he outlines the federal and confederal possibilities enabled by the Good Friday Agreement. “A confederation is a union of states that delegate their revocable sovereignty to shared confederal institutions, and that retain the right of secession. The North South Ministerial Council, though it has not been the site of major initiatives and activities, could still prove a stepping stone towards a confederal Ireland. The British-Irish Council…could still become the vehicle to  provide unionists with institutional links to the entire Isles in the event of Irish reunification.”

O’Leary advocates two Border Polls: a first vote in the North, and if this results in a majority for reunification, a second vote in the South, with an interval for preliminary negotiations (he doesn’t go into what violent response there might be from elements of loyalism during the interregnum!). He then asks: “Does the Dublin government negotiate the details of reunification with the Northern executive before or after the people of the existing Republic vote to endorse reunification?”

He goes on: “If the key negotiations occur before the Southern referendum, then that may increase the likelihood of an Irish confederation – namely, the formation of a new political system in which two sovereign states are joined together in a common state, jointly establishing a confederal government with delegated authority over both of them for specific functions. This process would necessarily involve the recognition of Northern Ireland as a state  proper. The confederation would represent Ireland in the EU and internationally; it would have  all-island institutions, which would certainly include a common court, but could also include an army with constituent territorial units, and, probably, a confederal police, devoted to serious crime, although its powers could be delegated to a joint body. All such institutions would have to be negotiated, and some presumably could build on the NSMC.”

O’Leary says such a confederation could be both incremental and reversible, through granting Northern Ireland the status of a state. “The confederal treaty could include the right of secession after a specified interval – enabling a majority in Northern Ireland to leave the confederation if the experience proved negative – and it might also be a mechanism to provide British dimensions for unionists and loyalists – for example, membership of the Commonwealth.”

He notes that confederations bringing together two states have a poor track record of survival. He foresees that “the confederal waystation” may therefore be brief, “facilitating the negotiation of deeper reunification” or “a fairly rapid reversal” to an independent Northern Ireland. This is where I would part company with him: believing that the only (outside) chance of persuading a significant element of unionism to follow this path is to reassure them that confederation, with continuing strong British links, would be the final destination.

“Voices within the Dublin and Belfast governments may well prefer con/federal paths,” he goes on. “Northern Ireland and the Republic’s core forms, territories, institutions and buildings will have existed for a century or more; and institutional formats of all kinds have their own inertia. Unionists are deeply attached to Northern Ireland…and there are those with a Northern Irish identity who are neither unionists nor Protestants.”

O’Leary gives the example of confederal, two-community Belgium as a relative success story. “It is tough for formerly dominant groups to grant parity to a group that was once inferior. Belgium is a rare case in which two constituent peoples have traded places in relative size, wealth and status and yet have managed to stay together, so far. They have developed parity, while the proportions of Flemish and Walloons have changed.”³

I know most of this is completely unpalatable to the great majority of unionists. But is there not even a little food for thought for them here? If I were a thoughtful unionist, I would be quietly developing a negotiating position in the realisation that a Border Poll is only a matter of time away: a negotiating position that would emphasise the importance of maintaining a strong British dimension in the 50/50 British-Irish society that is Northern Ireland today – perhaps through the recognition of a separate state in the North; perhaps through the establishment of a new Irish confederation; perhaps through a much beefed-up British-Irish Council – or perhaps through all three.

The real challenge may be persuading the British government to re-engage in a post-Brexit world where it will have multiple other problems. As Seamus Mallon said in his 2019 memoir, A Shared Home Place:”one can only hope that the British can be persuaded to commit to another complex, long drawn-out diplomatic process in Ireland in the interest of the stability of these islands.” Prime ministers as different as Edward Health, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have engaged imaginatively with Ireland over the past 50 years. Is it too much to hope that another leader might emerge in London in the next 30 to put the final benign piece in the fiendishly complex jigsaw that is the 800-year-old British-Irish relationship?

PS  I probably owe Professor O’Leary an apology for selectively quoting from his multi-faceted book to highlight the passages on confederalism. However, I am unapologetic about using his insights to try to persuade at least some unionists to reconsider their position.

  1. A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Volume 3, Consociation and Confederation, p. 207
  2. Ibid. ps. 209-210
  3. Ibid. ps. 312-315 and 329


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