Thousands of people recently attended the Ireland’s Future event in the 3 Arena to discuss how we might achieve a united Ireland. The speakers included Leo Varadkar, who suggested that today said a “new Ireland” could involve the continuation of a devolved Stormont parliament under the jurisdiction of the Irish government. This concept of a confederal Ireland has been under discussion for some time in elite circles. Here we print an excerpt from Kieran Allen’s book, 32 Counties:The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland published by Pluto Press where he looks at the background to this discussion.
The call for a united Ireland has traditionally been associated with a radical tradition that challenged the Southern state. The hope was that unity would end the carnival of reaction and fulfil the original ideal of the 1916 proclamation to ‘cherish all of the children equally’. However, in recent years a small number of conservative and liberal voices have emerged to present their vision of a united Ireland.
The proposal of a confederal Ireland comes from a High Court judge, Richard Humphries. A former member of Young Fine Gael, he defected to join Labour and won a council seat for the party in Dún Laoghaire. In time-honoured tradition, he was then appointed as a High Court judge by a coalition government composed of his two former parties, Fine Gael and Labour. While acting as a government advisor, Humphries attended talks which contributed to the Belfast Agreement – albeit in a somewhat marginal role.
Nevertheless, it sparked an interest and he has written two books on Irish unity. The first was Countdown to Unity: Debating Irish Unification published in 2008 and the more recent Beyond the Border: The Good Friday Agreement and Irish Unity after Brexit in 2018.
Humphries offers a legal perspective on the implications of the Belfast Agreement, not just as they concern the current institutional arrangements within the North but as they might apply to a united Ireland. His starting point is that there is no end date for this agreement as the Stormont institutions are not transitional but are a ‘permanent feature of the constitutional landscape’. This means, -– and he claims this on legal authority -– ‘they would remain in place even in the event of a united Ireland’. He is at pains to argue that ‘very little would change on the ground if a majority for unity emerged, MPs would go to Dublin as TDs rather than Westminster but beyond that day to day governance of Northern Ireland would continue to be at local level.’
Sovereignty would be transferred from London to Dublin but would occur in an almost frictionless way that would not disturb existing arrangements. In this context, Humphries suggests that relations between Britain and Ireland could improve with further legal changes. Thus, Britain might remove its ban on a Catholic becoming its monarch, while the South might consider joining the Commonwealth. Humphries’ overall approach is shaped by gradualism and in Countdown to Unity, he proposes 30 years of joint authority to reduce tensions ‘commencing under the aegis of British sovereignty and gradually moving towards a transition to Irish sovereignty’.
Brendan O’Leary tackles Irish unity as a social scientist and deploys a rhetoric of careful prediction based on evidence and analysis so that his own political preferences appear as a muffled voice behind a screen of objectivity. O’Leary began as a ‘man of the left’, writing for the New Left Review and engaging in discussion on historical materialism and then moved to more conventional grounds, concluding that ‘Marxism is no longer a vibrant ideology amongst Western leftist intelligentsia’. He became an advisor to the British Labour Party during discussions on the Irish peace process and has since promoted consociational forms of government for ethnic conflicts in different parts of the world. O’Leary produced a large three-volume study in 2019 called A Treatise on Northern Ireland with the last volume subtitled ‘Consociation and Confederation’.
O’Leary distinguishes between a confederation which he defined as ‘a union of states that delegate their revocable sovereignty to shared confederal institutions and retain the right of succession’ and a federation. A federation is defined as an arrangement between states where the right to secession is removed and where a federal authority gains more power over its constituents. O’Leary believes that the confederation option is the more likely to emerge through negotiations. The North-–South Ministerial Council which arose from the Belfast agreement, could, he thinks, proves a stepping-stone to this confederal Ireland. As this implies an arrangement between two states, Northern Ireland would need to be granted the status of a state and once that occurred there could be ‘incremental and reversible re-unification’. By reversible, O’Leary means that Northern Ireland would have a right to secession after a particular interval if it had a negative experience of unity. Like Humphries, he thinks this, plus membership of the British Commonwealth, might help to allay unionist fears. While O’Leary acknowledges that there could be a possibility of Irish unity based on the dissolution of Northern Ireland, the main thrust of his writing is to suggest two other institutional formats. These are:
- A decentralised Irish unitary state that preserves Northern Ireland with a devolved legislature, with internal consociational arrangements, as long as these are preferred by a majority of former unionists.
- An Irish confederation with two states, that may allow for the formation of one state, one of which will probably be internally consociational.
In both cases, Stormont would continue with its current communal arrangements. The differences would come down to whether sovereignty is shifted to Dublin in the short term or whether it would emerge through confederation. More generally, these differing proposals are geared to the political elites who will undertake future negotiations. The assumption is that with gradual, minimal change and recognition of ‘Britishness’, all can eventually agree some type of Irish unity. The ‘stepping stones’ of the original Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, that Michael Collins thought would lead to a 32-county Irish Republic have, therefore, gotten become a lot longer and a different form of unity has emerged. There are, however, significant objections to this approach.
The first is that in all essentials it preserves the original British imposed solution of the Irish question. In 1921, in order to curtail an Irish revolution and prevent the unravelling of its then empire, the British administration imposed partition on Ireland although it went against the democratic wishes of its people as expressed in the only all-island ballot in the 1918 election. One consequence was the fossilisation of sectarian identities and the consequential conflict that arose between unionists and nationalists. An Irish unity from above, in the manner that proposed, sustains these structures into future generations.
Connolly’s ‘carnival of reaction’, therefore, continues in a host of ways. Politics in the North will still be organised on sectarian lines with Catholics and Protestants encouraged to vote for the strongest communal representatives. Two dominant parties would continue to publicly fight over what exactly constitutes ‘parity of esteem’ while in private they can do deals over the distribution of patronage. To add to this already fractured dynamic, there will be repeated disputes over the ‘right to secede’ from, what some Unionists will argue, is an expensive cumbersome confederation. In the South, the conservative parties will feel their current arrangements are not disturbed and they will be able to cloak their defence of class privilege with a claim they have achieved Irish unity -– while still promising to move it on further. Denominational forms of education will continue throughout the island whereby Catholics and Protestants are educated separately. The Catholic Church will remain in control of the majority of schools in the South and most of the schools in nationalist areas of the North. State-run schools in the North will retain their ‘British’ ethos and draw their student cohort from the Protestant population. Little will have changed in people’s day-to-day lives.
If the motivation is to cause the least disturbance, we may ask – why would working-class Protestants vote for it? These writers assume that ‘identity’ is the most important feature of their lives and that concerns about jobs, wages and living conditions form only a residual element of their consciousness. However, if identity is that important why would Protestants not stick with the existing union with Britain rather than vague promises of respect in a united Ireland? If, people are so locked into a conflict over identity, would Protestant workers not fear that ‘the boot will be on the other foot’ -– namely that is, that that they will face discrimination and lose out in this united Ireland? In reality, people view the world from a class prism even as they identify as Catholic or Protestant.
From a class point of view, neither Catholic or Protestant workers will gain job security or better wages and they will fear the loss of even a depleted national health service. The waiting lists and the two-tier Southern health system act as disincentive to anyone contemplating a united Ireland under existing arrangements. This was confirmed by a poll carried out by LucidTalk which showed that one quarter of the electorate said that a national health service would make them more likely to vote for the Union.
However, the invitation to a confederal Ireland may not be directed to Protestant workers at all because O’Leary, for example, suggests that ‘liberal unionists’ might be attracted to this type of united Ireland if Brexit goes badly. He suggests that if nationalists construct ‘durable alliances with liberal unionists’ who support the EU, they could win support for unity in a border poll. However, the heartland of ‘liberal unionism’ lies in North Down which Sylvia Hermon once represented as an Independent Unionist MP. It is a constituency with a high number of upper professionals who live on the ‘gold coast’ and where, as the old joke goes, the main difference is between the ‘have and have yachts’. It is possible that their pro-Remain passions are so strong, that they might look to a united Ireland as the only way back into the EU, but it is neither certain nor highly likely. The social base of liberal unionism rests on stronger direct connections with Britain than many Protestant workers have. The upper professional strata often occupy important positions within the UK state and its local iteration in Northern Ireland and their expertise and occupational culture are derived from a familiarity with that state. Their sons and daughters are more likely to attend British universities – and stay on the mainland. While they might despise the crudities of DUP fundamentalism or the rage of working-class Brexit voters, their support for the EU may not be enough to embrace sovereignty from Dublin.
Finally, the pledges to respect ‘Britishness’ is problematic because ‘Britishness’ denotes a particular type of imperial culture that belongs to a bygone age. It is not a reference to the type of multi-cultural identities found in a vibrant city like London, nor does it make much room for the celebration of working-class struggles. Embedding ‘Britishness’ into the institutional framework of a united Ireland could become a cover for drawing the country into a closer relationship with Anglo-American imperialism. Thus, O’Leary suggests that a British Irish Council ‘could become a (renamed) forum in which post UKEXIT co-ordination would develop among partner governments’. However, the majority opinion in the Ireland as a whole wants little to do with modern or past British imperial adventures. This became clear, when in the name of respecting two cultures, a Fine Gael Justice Minister attempted to organise a commemoration for the RIC and, by extension, the Black and Tans. It was met with a huge outrage and his government was forced to cancel the event. Respecting the best traditions of ‘Britishness’ in terms of working-class struggle, irreverence towards religion, and modern multi-culturalism does not equate with quashing the anti-imperialist legacy of Ireland.