Daltún Ó Ceallaigh,

Trade Unionists for Irish Unity.

This article is the first of two.

(Published in Morning Star, London, 2/2/02)


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 last 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 and recent leaks of the 2001 census confirm this (Catholic population at 46%). 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 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, the Joint Committee of the two Human Rights Commissions on the island, and (still to be established) all-Ireland Civic Forum and Joint Parliamentary Forum. 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 Senate, 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.

Constitutional lawyer Brigid 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 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 (as already alluded to), migrationary trends (in and out of the six counties), disillusionment of many unionists with the British (only 26% of the latter 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 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. 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.


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