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Irish Politics - Northern Ireland - UK Politics

Once Northern Ireland leaves UK, political unionism becomes extinct

I firmly believe that the project of Irish independence has- eventually - been a great success. I disagree with those who argue that the armed struggle for our independence between 1916 and 1922 was unjustified because Home Rule as sought by the Redmondites would have brought about independence in a non-violent political evolution. On the contrary, I believe that the UK establishment would never have permitted an independent Ireland if the very limited devolution envisaged for Ireland in the Home Rule Act 1914 had taken place.

True, the stated ambition of many of our founder-revolutionaries to establish a Gaelic Ireland has not been realised. Sometimes I think that their rhetoric about a Gaelic Ireland was really code for an Ireland freed from cultural dominance by England rather than some atavistic restoration of the Gaelic order and civilisation in a modern state. And most certainly there was complete unreality to ambitions to incorporate the unionist north-east of Ireland into a re-created Gaelic nationalist state.

But I think we must be honest now about what Irish unity would be for unionists. Firstly, the Good Friday Agreement does not provide for future referendums which might reverse majority decisions in both parts of the island for a united Ireland. Once Northern Ireland opts to leave the UK, political unionism becomes more or less extinct. Activism to restore the union would be meaningless.

In that context, I simply do not follow the logic in proposing a guaranteed number of unionist seats in the government of a unitary Irish state. Who would those unionists be? People who oppose the existence of the new state? People who previously voted for the unionists parties or the Alliance party? People who had given up on their preference for the union?

If we are really talking about Northern protestants, so be it. But how are they to be defined? Would a northern protestant republican qualify on that basis? If you are talking about a unitary form of Irish unity, it seems to me that some form of constitutional reservation of cabinet posts for what would really by then be former unionists (however defined) is tokenism bordering on the nonsensical.

Nor do I believe that recreating internal vetoes for an all-Ireland unitary state along the lines of those provided in the Good Friday Agreement for the two present political communities in Northern Ireland would be helpful or practicable. We don’t have to create another failed Lebanon or Cyprus on this island to bring about unity or guarantee peace.

I have argued that a phased approach to Irish unity is much more likely to succeed than German-style big bang reunification. A confederal model in which the two jurisdictions on this island agreed to share membership of the EU and limited all-island functions would be much more reassuring for some present-day unionist and many cross-community voters than a sudden incorporation into a unitary state of what might be a slender minority of frightened, disaffected and potentially violent dissident voters in Northern Ireland.

In such a confederal model the demographically balanced northern political communities could develop the politics of partnership and conciliation without the present system of forced coalition and political vetoes. Coalition governments in the north could take office on the basis of mandates and policy agreement rather than denominational status.

A confederal approach has been accepted as possible by a spectrum of southern politicians from Fine Gael to Sinn Féin. Without being overly prescriptive, there are models for such approach which might be studied and proposed for debate.

Confederalism is not partitionist in present circumstances. It is more likely to bring true conciliation and partnership in the North and on this island; it is arguably much more republican than polarising a divided, brittle and potentially violent society in pursuit of more radical models that threaten people unnecessarily. It could offer shared prosperity and relaxation of identity-based social and political community relations.

Now that Catholics probably out-number Protestants in four of the six counties (perhaps in Belfast city as well), they are no longer in danger of institutional injustice and discrimination. They have little to fear from badly needed short-term reforms in the political architecture of Northern Ireland. They have everything to gain in terms of peace, prosperity, confidence and progress by bringing unionism into a willing partnership system of government.

The DUP has marched, banners flying, into a political cul-de-sac. Tory backbenchers have much more pressing concerns than saving the Irish end of of the union. Even Truss understands that EU relations have to be repaired. There is evident goodwill where it matters – in Brussels, Dublin and Washington – for a fair and reasonable implementation of the Northern Protocol.

Now is the time for us to swap rhetoric for pragmatism – to pursue the practical rather than the theoretical.

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