Amended and augmented version [22/12/01] of an Address to the Connolly Association on 12th September 2001

by Daltún Ó Ceallaigh

Trade Unionists for Irish Unity

(Also intended for a meeting on side of TUC in Brighton on 11/9/01, but cancelled owing to situation in America.)


In assessing the current state of the Peace Process, it is important, first of all, to realise where the Good Friday Agreement came from. From a nationalist standpoint, the stirrings which led on to it are probably to be found in the wake of the hunger strikes whose 20th anniversary occurred this year. That saw the beginning of the electoral rise of Sinn Féin and of a shift in emphasis for the Republican Movement to politics rather than armed activity. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly clear to all concerned that as regards British forces and the IRA, neither side could achieve checkmate and that the situation was instead one of stalemate - and for Britain a financially costly one at that. There were also developments farther afield. The end of the Cold War placed Ireland in a new strategic light whereby establishment elements in Britain seemed less reluctant to disengage completely from the island. And when the Clinton administration came to power in Washington (no thanks to John Major), an opportunity to mobilise Irish America arose as never before. In addition, the existence of a Fianna Fáil government in Dublin for much of the time also facilitated the trend in question. The 1991 census further proved important when it suggested that the six counties were on the way to having a nationalist majority in the electorate. While nationalists have always regarded Northern Ireland as the first and biggest gerrymander, if it actually came to be that partition could be abolished by a northern majority vote, that could hardly be objectionable as a practical means towards a principled end.   

Republican thinking in particular probably never fully believed that Britain could actually be militarily defeated. Rather, the hope initially seemed to be that military action would create such an unsettled state of affairs that Britain would nonetheless withdraw. When this did not happen, the thinking then moved on to seeking a declaration of intent to disengage followed by negotiations towards that conclusion. However, it eventually appeared that, whatever about colonies elsewhere, the British establishment also could not swallow the termination of the present United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in that way. If that establishment indeed wished to go, another manner would have to be found which was more incremental and less obvious.

For nationalists, the Good Friday Agreement is transitional. It obviously does not fulfil the aim of a united Ireland, but it is measured in the extent to which it advances and opens up that objective, as well as putting in place structures and policies that immediately redress several nationalist grievances. On the national question per se, the following should be noted: the North-South Ministerial Council, the 32-county Implementation Bodies, an all-Ireland Civic Forum, a Joint Parliamentary Forum, and the Joint Committee of the two Human Rights Commissions. The British Irish Intergovernmental Conference (effectively the continuance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 at the Dublin-London level) is also important in giving the Dublin administration a continuing say in the running of the six counties.

It should further be noted that there are steps which are within the scope of the Irish Government that have been demanded and are being actively considered, and would enhance the national profile as well. These include participation on relevant matters by northern MPs in the Dáil, the appointment of Northern party representatives to the Seanad, votes for Irish citizens in the North in appropriate constitutional referenda, and votes for them also in Presidential elections. (The latter would remove the ridiculous state of affairs whereby the current President of Ireland could not vote for herself!)

The extent of change achieved in 1998 may also be appreciated by considering its effect on the Act of Union of 1800. To start with, the North-South Ministerial Council involved an implied and partial repeal of the Act in thus limiting, if not abolishing, British sovereignty over the north. Another such implied and partial repeal that has been largely overlooked is contained in Section 1(2) of the ’98 Act, which provides that if a majority vote in a poll on a united Ireland goes in its favour, then the Union of the six counties with Britain will be brought to an end and the stated alternative legislated for. It was made clear in 1922 that the Union was not in fact “for ever after” (as the Act of Union had stipulated) in respect of the whole of Ireland. Now it has been confirmed that neither is it necessarily so as regards ‘Northern Ireland’. This went well beyond Section 1 of the ’73 Northern Ireland Constitution Act which merely promised that the North would not cease to be part of the UK without majority support, but did not lay down that, given such support, the residual Union would in fact end and a united Ireland would actually be brought about.

Indeed, as constitutional expert Brigid Hadfield underlines, the ’98 Act requires that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “shall” hold a border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”  (It was “may” in ’73 without any specified alternative to the Union.) Moreover, she points out that: “The 1998 Act requires no resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in this regard. … The system for change thus involves Westminster and the electorate of Northern Ireland, but not the Northern Ireland Assembly.” And “ … the provision on the status of Northern Ireland in the 1998 Act may, conceivably, operate without a system of devolution being in place.” In asserting against journalist Geraldine Kennedy that Sections 1 and 2 (of the ’98 Act, as they were to be) on these matters simply repeated the ’73 Act, David Trimble was therefore being both legally inaccurate and politically dishonest.

Hadfield comments about the ’98 statute that insofar as section 1 “provides for a procedure under which the Union may ultimately be severed”, it “is a provision which, at the least, would delight those of a Scottish nationalist persuasion if an equivalent had been included in the Scotland Act 1998.” (Indeed, I know of no other extant constitution in the world which contains such a provision.) She also highlights a crucial point which, again, is not generally appreciated. “Section 1 of the 1998 Act indeed also states that ‘Northern Ireland in its entirety’ remains part of the United Kingdom. Section 1 of the 1973 Act by contrast reads: ‘Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom … and in no event will Northern Ireland or any part of it, cease to be so without a border poll.’ That wording which at least allowed for the possibility of a partial reunification of Ireland is not repeated in the 1998 Act.” Or, to put it another (and perhaps more significant) way, the ’98 Act does not allow for repartition in the event of the likely, imminent nationalist majority in the six counties, as some unionists would now wish as a fall-back position - only a united Ireland.

Irish, British and international legal and political opinion essentially concludes that, on balance the Belfast Agreement and its follow-through have in fact diminished the Union of Great Britain with ‘Northern Ireland’. The important question is how far a situation is thus opened up for further diminution to the point of dissolution? The response of what Professor Paul Bew of Queen’s University Belfast would call ‘intelligent unionism’ is that what has been conceded in the Implementation Bodies, North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, and so on,  is quite limited and can be contained at that. The quid pro quo for them was seen as more beneficial, viz the wider acceptance that the Union may not be dissolved and a united Ireland established without a majority vote for that in the six counties. Insofar as David Trimble has proclaimed (on television) that the chances of this are ‘zilch’, the introduction of a legal possibility for actual dissolution and Irish unity is thus presented as politically academic.

But can unionists afford to be so sanguine?  In respect of a majority vote for a united Ireland, taking account of nationalist fertility, migrationary trends (in and out of the six counties), disillusionment of many unionists with the British (only 26% of whom are in favour of the Union), and the poor record of unionist voter participation, is it really thought that, in an actual poll, a vote of 50% plus one in the foreseeable future to end the Union is so infeasible? If that were so, why, in the parliamentary debate on the Northern Ireland Act 1998, did unionists try to make the hurdle substantially more than a simple majority? And the fact is that the requirement is 50% plus one, not 51%, as some commentators seem to think.

The other thing here is the sickening hypocrisy of the pseudo-liberals and not too crypto-unionists in the South who called for the acceptance of simple northern majority consent while it was for the Union and now require unionist majority consent (of different sizes) as soon as the first yardstick may go against the UK. Looked at another way, a nationalist minority of 47% in the north is alright, but a unionist minority of what is now probably less than 20% in a united Ireland is intolerable. Having devoted their energies until recently to advocating to nationalists that they should accept northern majority consent, instead of now adhering to the same criterion in changing circumstances in respect of unionists, they continue to concentrate on nationalists and demand that they now acquiesce in northern unionist consent. For a distortion of the Belfast Agreement itself, note Trimble’s advisor Steven King in implying that it embodies “the right of the majority community in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.” It explicitly does not.

 About the rise in the nationalist vote over the past sixteen years as measured in local councils, former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald has specifically commented on “the much lower proportion of Catholics going to higher education in Britain, from which about three-quarters of the graduates do not return.” This, he estimates, accounted for just under half of the nationalist increase. About one-third of the jump in the nationalist share of council seats over the past four years, he calculates as due to demographic changes. He then crucially remarks that “The great bulk of the increase in the nationalist vote was accounted for by a higher turnout of Catholic voters … ”  This clearly highlights the factor of vital political activism rather than mere demographic complacency in advancing the nationalist position.

Just what may be within reach was also drawn attention to by political commentator, Tom McGurk of The Sunday Business Post. Analysing the 2001 Westminster results, he pointed to the total of the various unionist parties’ votes at 52.9% which, he assessed (based on ’98 Assembly data), contained around 3% ‘borrowed’ Alliance Party votes (such as in North Down), possibly leaving a unionist core vote of under 50%. Apart from that, there was a vote of 3.6% for Alliance per se and 0.9% for ‘others’. Of course, in a straight plebiscite on Irish unity now and with the same turnout, the way Alliance votes (‘borrowed’ or otherwise) and the ‘others’ would go could still shade it in favour of the Union. But the prospect has got markedly close to the boundary line. Even aside from Alliance being only a qualified pro-Union party (i.e. accepting northern majority wishes rather than positively favouring the Union), if, as McGurk states, the rise in the nationalist vote of the past six years “were to be sustained proportionally in the coming years - approximately 1 per cent per annum - the unionist voting majority of some 6 per cent would be overhauled in as many years.” In other words, one would not then have to rely on a split in the Alliance and ‘other’ vote to tip the balance against the Union.

In this context, one must be ready for an attempt to smear the nationalist position as one of simply seeking “victory in an ethnic breeding war”. This, King tells us apocalyptically, is not redolent of “the legitimate aspiration of the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, but the destructive blood-and-soil sentiments that have wreaked havoc in the Balkans.” Unionists are now living in fear of an “ethnic coup”. In fact, nationalists have always made clear that their approach is essentially political and inclusive, in the original spirit of Wolfe Tone. At the same time, as we have seen, there are social factors independently at work which can influence electoral outcomes and it is only intelligent to speculate how they, along with political action, might impact on a situation. Not, therefore, that it is to be left at that and efforts at reconciliation and persuasion abandoned. Ironically, the unionists who make accusations of ethnic “triumphalism” are exposing their own inability to think in any other terms. Unfortunately, the political slander and bombast in question also appeals to some ultra-leftists and confused liberals, the logic of whose stance seems to be that a democratic majority is unacceptable if it derives, wholly or largely, from simple demography rather than pure ideological enlightenment.

Another consequence of changes in voting patterns is the shift within nationalism from the SDLP to Sinn Féin, the latter of which is now the majority nationalist party, garnering 51% of nationalist votes. If Sinn Féin maintains, and indeed improves on this position, it will be entitled to the Deputy First Ministership in the north after the next Assembly election.

As for British attitudes, there is of course the Blair speech of 1997 proclaiming that he valued the Union and did not see it coming to an end in the lifetime of the youngest person in his audience. However, that was in the build-up to restoring an IRA ceasefire by arranging to bring Sinn Féin into the multi-party talks. It might thus be viewed, to employ a phrase of Brian Faulkner’s, as “necessary nonsense”, while glancing cautiously over his shoulder at unionists. It has also been pointed out that: “This in part reflected the need to still traditional unionist fears of the pro-unity sentiments of sections of the Labour party.” The real picture was painted more frankly in 2001 by John Reid when asked did “he, too, value the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and the reply was: “No … What I value higher in the context of Northern Ireland, as Secretary of State, is the right of the people in Northern Ireland to choose their own future.” “I am not there”, he said, “as an advocate or otherwise of the Union.”

This echoed earlier Secretaries of State. In 1974, the Labour Party’s Merlyn Rees stated: “We have not the faintest desire to stay in Ireland and the quicker we are out the better.”  Nineteen years later, this attitude was still manifest in the person of Conservative Patrick Mayhew when he unburdened himself to a German newspaper, apparently not appreciating that he might end up being reported in English off the continental mainland. “Many people believe that we would not want to release Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. To be entirely honest, we would, with pleasure!” He also went on to say: “The province costs us £3 billion per year. Three billion pounds for one-and-a-half million people! None of our strategic or economic interests are at stake there.” The reporter later confirmed that Mayhew had further admitted about the north-south arrangement being mooted that it “will in some way diminish the sovereignty of the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland.” It is obvious that the British establishment has long since psychologically and emotionally disengaged from the north. While they have set themselves the criterion of northern majority consent in order to go, it often seems that they are the ones most hoping for it.

In a sense, in the wake of the Belfast Agreement, their withdrawal has already subtly begun. The oath for Northern Assembly Members and Ministers contains no mention of the Queen or the United Kingdom, unlike in Scotland and Wales. When the Orders were issued establishing northern governmental Departments, their previous description as being “of Northern Ireland” was quietly dropped. This was not generally noted, although it has otherwise dawned on unionists that, as they put it, the dimmer switch is being turned down as regards the Union.

The Disqualifications Act 2000 removes the ban on members of the Assembly or Westminster being a member of the Oireachtas. It also allows, essentially, a member of the Assembly to be a Minister of the Irish Government or in the chair or vice-chair of an Irish parliamentary committee. Although, restrictions on such persons were maintained regarding them holding similar offices in the Assembly. The (technically correct) spin put on this for unionists was that members of the Oireachtas could thus become members of the Assembly or Westminster. 

Ironically, if the prospect looms of a nationalist majority for departure from the UK, ‘intelligent unionists’ might then be the political actors to suggest instead a deepening and extension of the North-South Ministerial Council and Implementation Bodies as a way of fending off a complete break. That would be one way of their being forced to contemplate what was to be originally considered just theoretical.

Another irony could be the British-Irish Council, covering both the Irish Isles and the British Isles. It was intended as a counter to the North-South Ministerial Council and the unionists wanted the latter subsumed under this ‘east-west’ body. They did secure the British-Irish Council with a confined remit, but not the subsumption. In fact, the BIC could ultimately be useful from a nationalist point of view in the context of reunification. This is because its continued existence could help reconcile unionists to the consequences of a majority northern vote for an all-Ireland polity, through maintaining some formal, institutional link with the UK. In other words, something originally intended by unionists to tie Ireland closer to Britain could end up facilitating the complete termination of British sovereignty in Ireland.

Moreover, while the British Government has not now openly declared in favour of Irish unity and become an overt persuader for it, there is no real guarantee for unionists that it will not move in that direction in the future, whatever about Blair’s apparent retreat from previous Labour Party policy. Lobbying and campaigning to that end is still an option for nationalists in Ireland and those providing solidarity in Britain, which can draw upon a strong vein of sympathy in Britain, particularly in the labour and trade union movement. Unionist obstructionism in meaningfully operating the Good Friday Agreement could increase such support and not just among labourites, but more generally in British society through creating a sense of exasperation. That could also lead to an enhancement of cross-jurisdictional co-operation in Ireland at the level of the British and Irish Governments in the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council.

In the other direction, there is always a nationalist fear that Britain will renege on the Agreement or significant parts of it if the going gets rough. But while that is possible according to the theory of British parliamentary sovereignty, it is hard to believe that Britain would risk the execration of being found guilty in international law for doing so. Furthermore, it is hard either to see the politics emerging in Britain which would allow for such a development. The suspension of the Assembly and Executive in early 2000 was illicit in international law, but, however unjustified, it was short term and in the context of trying to save the Agreement, and the institutions were back in place before any legal case could be taken. While it is true, as I have already observed, that the present British Government has so far refused to become an explicit persuader for Irish unity, what is more noticeable is that it has ceased to be in any way a persuader for the Union.

In regard to progress towards Irish unity, Brendan O’Leary of the London School of Economics has some interesting speculations about unitarism and federation in particular. He points out that “Unification is no longer linked to unitarism and is entirely compatible with either full confederation or federation.” At the same time, he offers a reflection here which later found an echo in some of the ruminations of Conor Cruise O’Brien and much to the embarrassment of that writer’s erstwhile hero Bob McCartney of the UKUP. O’Leary refers to the possibility of a nationalist majority in the six counties and hypothesises: “ … some unionists faced with this prospect might prefer a unitary Ireland as the lesser evil, calculating that their chances of being key players in government formation in a bigger arena might protect them better than being a minority in Northern Ireland.” He also wonders, conversely, if northern nationalists might not then opt for federalism as giving them more clout in a united Ireland, a thought which has occurred to me as well. That might, in turn, be sold to unionists if “the complex arrangements for power-sharing in regional government should be continued even if a majority in Northern Ireland voted to leave the UK and join the republic.” 

But one might also simply ask why the objective should be Irish unity? Why should a state of affairs be created of a unionist minority in an Irish State instead of a continuing nationalist minority in a British State? The conclusion arises from the five-factor approach. I outlined this as follows in 1996: (1) there are over four million nationalists in Ireland, around 700,000 of whom live in the six counties; (2) there are less than 900,000 unionists there; (3) the six counties are an unjust and failed entity; (4) the population in the north is interspersed and ought not to be forcibly relocated; and (5) the British people do not want the Union with the north. Given all these considerations, something like an all-Ireland confederation is the only medium-term, democratic, workable and, therefore, sensible middle-way between a united British kingdom and a unitary Irish republic. In other words, these factors also rule out repartition and independence. Whatever about ongoing academic debate on the latter subjects, the die has been cast in the real political world. Quasi-confederal processes are already at work in Ireland; there seems to be no other Government in the world that consults and interacts as much as the British with the Irish in connection with the administration of part of its territory. Moreover, the only legal choice now, as we have seen, in basic constitutional change according to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is between the situation as is and a united Ireland in some form.

However, that places a moral and political onus on nationalists to be generous in accommodating genuine unionist fears and sensitivities. But all the signs are that they will not be found wanting in that regard. Nobody is talking of cultural homogenisation and the twenty-six counties could hardly be portrayed seriously nowadays as a priest-ridden State whatever about the credibility of such distortions in the past. Moreover, the indications are that all necessary laws and structures will be put into effect to meet the needs of any reasonable unionist and far beyond what was ever done for nationalists in the north before the six-county statelet went into a tail-spin in the late 1960s.

At the same time, there have been elements of a sectarian Catholic nationalism - as distinct from republican nationalism - which have helped foster on occasion a unionist feeling of distance from a community of Ireland to which one wants them to belong. Nationalists must continually guarantee to unionists that they will not tolerate sectarianism of any sort, whether it be orange or green. And they must, as Gerry Adams has said, “recognise that, in looking to Britain, some unionists think, not so much of empire, but the traditions of the Reformation and the democratic struggle in England against absolutist monarchy, both of which should be accorded the deepest respect.”

Nonetheless, unionism is a reactionary formation in that it is a colonialist residue that has become historically redundant, as evident not least in its being spurned by Britain. In some ways, it is a sad spectacle of the jilted lover who has not quite got the message. Or perhaps some unionists have - that the affair is over and that a new arrangement is required as a matter of both dignity and self-interest. It is most likely that this will be manifest among sections of the middle-class who may also realise that Dublin, both geographically and in power terms, is less distant than Belfast from Brussels, and that Irish unity could dramatically improve access to the EU. Although, one hopes that the unionist working class will not just prove political cannon-fodder for the northern equivalents of Eugene Terre-Blanche.

Leading on from this, there will have to be fresh thinking about the civic-cultural spectrum of Irishness and nationality. Civic Irishness, for example, should signify being a citizen with a sense of community with other citizens who are Irish (or other persons who are accorded the same rights as Irish citizens) and seeking to protect or advance an Irish polity, and can be taken to constitute nationality at that level. However, such a person might not subscribe to a well-defined cultural project whether that be, for example, in the tradition of the Anglo-Irish literary revival or the Gaelic League. Civic nationality, in itself, is rather limited but at least entails a sentiment of solidarity. Cultural nationality is much deeper and thus embodies a stronger emotional bond. Of course, as in all human affairs, the delineation is not hard and fast. Civic nationality is not just based on formal legal citizenship and the equivalent; it could be said to have a ‘cultural’ dimension of a sort, if only in perceived common temperament, general attitudes etc, which give rise to the feeling of being part of a distinct group. For nationalists, at least, unionists, again quoting Adams, “are, in the culture of everyday life, no less Irish than the rest of us. However, if they, or some of them, to one degree or another, do not choose to look at it that way, that is their entitlement.” They should not be compelled into behaving in a manner that they do not want to.

If a united Ireland is to be established, the hope is that, beyond institutional and statutory arrangements, unionists will at least develop a mind-set of civic Irish nationality, while retaining whatever cultural affinities with Britain they desire. That is rather than just view themselves as an outvoted ethnic minority. In the meanwhile, the task of the Gaelic and other Irish cultural movements will to be to continue to claim their just deserts within the new State and to seek to win over as many people as possible to their vision, including unionists, while also learning from them. In time, a more integrated Irish cultural nationality may emerge to form the basis of a truly national republic.

One of the most forceful developments that could occur in advancing further towards (if still being short of) actual reunification would be the inclusion of an all-Ireland nationalist party in both the Executive in Belfast and the Government in Dublin. In fact there is only one such party with only one such possibility and that is Sinn Féin. Indeed, it is already manifesting a distinctively all-Ireland institutional presence through being the sole party to have members on local councils throughout the thirty-two counties and in both Stormont and Leinster House. It is also unique in nominating members of the Implementation Bodies from the two sides of the border. If it went into government in Dublin, it would, in addition, be able to help represent the ‘North’ and ‘South’ dimensions in the Ministerial Council. At the same time, all this would be an opportunity to advance policies from both directions which demonstrate that Irish reunification is not envisaged as a process of the twenty-six counties taking over the six, but rather the construction of an entirely new comity on the island.



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