THE PEACE PROCESS in
Amended and augmented version [
by Daltún Ó Ceallaigh
Trade Unionists for Irish Unity
(Also intended for a meeting on
side of TUC 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
Republican thinking in particular probably never fully believed that
For nationalists, the Good Friday Agreement is transitional. It
obviously does not fulfil the aim of a united
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
The extent of change achieved in 1998 may also be appreciated by
considering its effect on the Act of
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
Hadfield comments about the ’98 statute that insofar as section 1 “provides
for a procedure under which the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.