In all my years in Northern Ireland, two of the wisest people I came across were a senior Irish diplomat and a Northern Irish business leader. The diplomat was Noel Dorr, ambassador to the UK in the 1980s, Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs in the early 1990s and one of the architects of both the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Even his sometimes adversarial counterparts in the British Foreign Office had to admit that Dorr was a diplomat of the highest international calibre.
The business leader was the late Sir George Quigley (he died in 2013), who headed several Northern Irish government departments before he went into business as chair of, successively, Bombardier Aerospace and the Ulster Bank. In 1992 Quigley proposed a Belfast-Dublin ‘economic corridor’ as the centrepiece of an ‘island of Ireland’ economy, both of which would serve as a cross-border economic zone modelled on those in Asia and North America, which saw countries with different political systems cooperating closely to address mutual economic and social needs.
Quigley saw himself from the tradition of outward-looking, cosmopolitan ‘New Light’ Presbyterians of the late 18th century, and thought deeply about the future of the island as a whole as well as his native province. He was a peacemaker, who oversaw the decommissioning of loyalist weapons. He was a sage and humane realist, warning that Ireland contained “too many dealers in ultimates, most of them so far spectacularly unsuccessful.” He believed that if there was ever a new constitutional configuration in Ireland, it should be a confederal one, so that “the final agreed Ireland would be a joint, equal venture between North and South, with each having its own governance structure, and with policies related to the powers to be specifically delegated to confederal level determined jointly by representatives from North and South.”
He urged his fellow Ulstermen and women “not to insist on agreeing on ultimate objectives. People with different ideas of what makes the world tick can work together on specific problems.” Quigley, like Dorr, was also an admirable human being: intellectually brilliant, but also courteous, thoughtful and kind.
However it is Noel Dorr’s ideas I want to focus on in this blog. In an Irish Times opinion piece last month – which that august organ deemed not important enough to put into the printed paper – he warned that talk of a Border Poll was premature “now and for the medium-term future.”1
Speaking out of his belief in Wolfe Tone’s’s ideal of uniting “Protestant, Catholic and dissenter” in an independent Irish republic, he reminded readers of two conditions the Irish electorate had added to the Constitution in the May 1998 referendum in order to support the Good Friday Agreement.
“One is that Irish unity is to be achieved ‘in harmony and friendship’. It has to be said that the Assembly parties show little evidence in their day-to-day working relationships of the ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect’ they committed to in the Agreement. Is it likely that will change to harmony and friendship after an early Border Poll?
“We also added a second condition – that unity would depend on ‘the consent of a majority…in both jurisdictions. Taken together these conditions raise a question: will Ireland really be at peace with itself and united ‘in harmony and friendship’ if just over 50% in Northern Ireland vote for unity?”
He then cited the late Seamus Mallon’s argument for ‘parallel consent’ for unity by both unionist and nationalist communities. “For many his proposal goes too far. But the concern behind it was surely right. If not that, then another way must be found to avert the lasting alienation of outvoted and disgruntled unionists in an Ireland united through a simple headcount like that which created Northern Ireland a century ago.”
Dorr asked for some realism about what unity would entail. “If North and South did vote for Irish unity, what would follow? The Agreement is silent on that beyond envisaging that proposals would be ‘agreed with the government of Ireland.’ Clearly there would be a great deal to settle in implementing the decision. It would be dramatic for the UK; and traumatic for convinced unionists in Northern Ireland – just as a decision to rejoin the UK would be for nationalists here.
“But it would be nothing less than existential for this State. We would have to recast our institutions radically and – depending on what form unity takes – accept a substantial change in ethos to accommodate the unionist identity and ethos: as the New Ireland Forum Report in 1984 recognised, that ‘comprises a sense of Britishness, allied to their particular sense of Irishness’. It would probably not be the Ireland of Tone or Pearse. Are we ready for that?”
He said such a radical restructuring of Ireland, the UK and their future relationships would require close cooperation between the two governments and would be best done in stages. “One idea worth considering is that, if it happened, a date would be set – say 15, even 20 years ahead – on which it would take full effect. This could damp down opposition somewhat and make the transition less sharp and more gradual for those unionists who had voted against Irish unity.”
He suggested that during that implementation period “the two governments would exercise joint authority in Northern Ireland, while possibly retaining a devolved administration. There could be an all-Ireland constitutional convention comprising nominated or elected representatives, a George Mitchell-type outside chair and perhaps a requirement for ‘parallel consent’ or a weighted majority – if not in the convention, then in a subsequent all-island referendum on its proposals.
“Negotiations would be prolonged and probably difficult. If the aim were a two-part confederal Ireland, with a consultative role for the British government on unionist community issues analogous to that of the Irish government under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and a continuing right to be British or Irish or both, then unionists – and indeed nationalists – might find it easier to accept.”
In the meantime, he urged the politicians “to focus now on more generous cooperation within Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions so that, as intended, they reduce community tensions gradually and soften the starkness of the contention” between the clashing nationalist and unionist agendas for the future of the island.
I don’t know if one would call the commentator and economist David McWilliams’ voice a wise one. But it is widely recognised as an extremely smart one, with innovative ideas on a broad range of subjects. And unlike the great majority of Southern commentators, he actually knows Northern Ireland well (his wife is from a Northern Protestant background).
He too had an interesting (if visionary) idea about the island’s future in a recent Irish Times column: cantonise it into a confederation like Switzerland.2 He pointed out that Swiss people use three languages: 62% speak Swiss-German; 23% French and 8% Italian. They come from three groups in terms of religion: 35.1% Catholic, 23.1% Protestant and 27.8% with no religious affiliation. He could also have added that the Swiss confederation of today emerged out of a civil war between largely Protestant and largely Catholic cantons in 1847.
“The Swiss have figured out a way to ensure that no ethnic group feels short-changed, dependent or unrepresentative. The key to Swiss success is localism, devolved decision-making and direct democracy, where each locality runs its own affairs, sets its own taxes and basically doesn’t annoy the people over in the next valley….
“The balance of political power in Switzerland is divvied up between the three Cs – the Confederation, the Cantons and the Communes, in descending order of size. The basic rule of Swiss government boils down to the principle of subsidiarity; in short, anything that can be done at a lower political level should not be done at a higher level.
“This rule is set out in the constitution. This prevents Germans making the rules for the French or the French making the rules for the Italians, and at a stroke diminishes the likelihood of inter-ethnic grievance. It’s not that the Swiss don’t recognise the potential for sectarian strife, they just don’t let it happen.
“The confederation handles issues of national importance and scale, such as national defence, foreign policy, customs and monetary policy, and nationwide legislation. Each of the country’s 26 cantons has equal status and sets budgetary matters, taxation, healthcare and the operation of the political system. At the local level, Switzerland’s 2,300 or so communes determine local taxation, planning, schools and hospitals.”
Could such a system work in Ireland? We certainly have enough localism in our politics here in the Republic. McWilliams says the Swiss model “would be far more palatable to the British people in the north-east of the island because in effect they could run their own affairs in a hyper-devolved Irish federation.”
“The Rangers-supporting unionist from Larne will be making decisions for himself and his community, as too will the GAA-obsessed nationalist from Ballina. Nobody will feel ruled by others, particularly those with whom they don’t share a cultural affinity.”
Maybe we need to search out and dust off Sinn Fein’s Eire Nua policy document of the late 1970s, which foresaw government devolved to the four provinces (in my book these would be Leinster, Munster, Connacht-Ulster and the present Northern Ireland). Or could we follow the Swiss example and radically devolve power to 35 local authorities (the 32 counties and the three major cities)?
This is revolutionary thinking, and we are certainly nowhere near ready for it. But it is new thinking. And new thinking is what is conspicuously lacking from any discussion about the future shape of Ireland at the moment, as Sinn Fein drives on to a unitary state through the narrowest of narrow victories in a Border Poll, and Fianna Fail – in the person of its wannabe future leader Jim O’Callaghan – makes occasional republican noises and comes up with the tiny mouse of guaranteed seats for the unionist minority in any future united Irish government.
One thing is certain: we in Ireland badly need more wise, clever, moderate people like Quigley, Dorr and McWilliams to give us some fresh ideas in a tired old debate.
1 ‘Talk of a Border poll is premature’, 16th August
2 ‘Swiss model the key to a successful united Ireland’, 21st August