issue 255 - May 1994
The vexed question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future
will soon be on the negotiating table again.
Here is a New Internationalist guide to the key options –
with a sideways glance at them by Irish cartoonist Martyn Turner.
Northern Ireland would become an ordinary region of the UK, without any special provisions. Britain’s political parties would start organizing there.
Northern Ireland may be part of the UK but it is a place apart: governed in a different way (by a British Secretary of State); policed differently (its police have always carried guns); and with different social legislation (abortion is unavailable, for example).
Integration is the preferred goal of the Ulster Unionists, who recently won a small victory by gaining a Select Committee on Northern Ireland – part of the price for their quiescence over the Downing Street Declaration. Of Britain’s major parties only the Conservatives have organized in Northern Ireland: they gained 5.7 per cent in 1992’s general election but only 1.4 per cent in 1993’s local elections. The main obsession of voters remains the status of Northern Ireland and not whether they should be governed by left-wing, right-wing or centrist parties.
But integration offers nothing to the nationalist community and the IRA campaign would inevitably continue.
Northern Ireland’s border would be altered to cede strongly nationalist areas to the Republic.
This is an idea whose time has long gone, though Margaret Thatcher confessed in her memoirs that she gave the idea serious consideration as an alternative to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Repartition would secure Protestant domination of a new Northern Ireland but that would be a bleak prospect for the Catholics and nationalists who would still remain – not least in the staunchly republican areas of West Belfast.
The ugly face of repartition was displayed recently by a loyalist group who proposed an ‘ethnically pure’ four-county Northern Ireland, hiving off large chunks to the Republic. Their solution for the problem of Catholic West Belfast came straight out of the philosophy manual of the Bosnian Serbs – ‘neutralization’ of hostile areas.
Northern Ireland would join with the Republic to create a new state.
A united Ireland is the overt goal of both Sinn Fein, who support the IRA’s military campaign to achieve it, and the SDLP, who want to achieve it by democratic consent. It is also enshrined in Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, which the courts have interpreted as a ‘constitutional imperative’ to reunite the country. There are signs though that the Irish Government are prepared to see this changed to an ‘aspiration’ to be achieved only through peaceful means.
A united Ireland could not be achieved just by extending the Republic to embrace those counties left outside it at Partition. A new country would have to emerge which guaranteed the rights of the Protestant minority. The existing political parties in the Republic would all have to change to take account not only of a significant Protestant minority but also of an assertive Northern Irish Catholic community used to organizing to get what it wants.
There is not likely to be majority support in Northern Ireland for straight reunion within the next generation. The people of the Republic, too, once passionate about the cause, are now less enthusiastic about the prospect of a new country that would put them in bed with both the unionists and the IRA. Even the IRA seem to be prepared to settle for less. Recent hopes for peace burgeoned largely because there were hints that they might be prepared to accept something like a long interim period in which Britain and Ireland held joint authority.
Northern Ireland would have an elected Assembly but would be governed by an executive coalition representing the constitutional parties of both Protestant and Catholic communities.
The last experiment in power-sharing collapsed after just four months in 1974, brought down by a loyalist strike. Twenty years on the Protestant community is more prepared to accept an experiment in power-sharing – the Ulster Unionists have now proposed devolved government involving committees where power is shared between Catholic and Protestant. Opinion polls suggest Catholics are receptive to the idea of trying again, though nationalists would watch like hawks for signs of the bad old days of Stormont* when unionists abused their untrammelled power. The British Government will be keen to pursue this option in talks excluding Sinn Fein if the IRA does not call a ceasefire.
Britain would cede to Ireland joint authority over Northern Ireland, which would be governed by a commission of representatives from Dublin, London and the Northern communities (and possibly the European Union).
In a way Britain has already conceded the principle of joint authority: under the Anglo-Irish Agreement Irish ministers monitor any political, legal or security issues which concern the nationalist community in the North.
Unionists have pointed out that a joint-authority commission would be undemocratic, allowing the Northern Irish population no electoral control over up to half of its ruling body.
Northern Ireland would continue to be ruled directly from Westminster. British troops would maintain their presence on the streets.
The most unthinkable option of all is that things should remain the same, without hope of British troops leaving or the paramilitary violence ending. The recent Downing Street Declaration was a clear indication that the British Government recognized the status quo as unsustainable – it states that Britain has no long-term or short-term economic or political interest in Ireland other than to fulfil the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland. An important aspect of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement – now an established part of the status quo despite Unionist opposition – was its acceptance that Northern Ireland was no longer just an internal British affair, about which no other government or international body should concern itself.
INDEPENDENCE WITHIN EUROPE
Northern Ireland would become an independent state supported by the European Union (EU) rather than the British or Irish governments.
Not long ago the only people advocating independence were extreme loyalists who saw a Rhodesia-style unilateral declaration of independence as the only route back to the untrammelled power Protestants once enjoyed. Ian Paisley’s DUP have been moving in this direction as their feeling of betrayal by Britain increases.
An independent Northern Ireland shorn of the British subsidy would be unable to survive economically in anything like the style to which it has become accustomed. But the new awareness of Europe makes this a more creative and plausible proposal: the EU would guarantee human rights and subsidize the new arrangement. Britain would continue to contribute substantially for the foreseeable future in order to be rid of the economic and security burden in the long term.
In theory unionists could feel they were independent of Dublin while nationalists would no longer have to suffer rule by London. But in practice unionists tend to be more keen on Brussels than they are on Dublin, while nationalists would fear majority rule by Protestants after independence more than the status quo.