A surprising initiative
It’s a remarkable fact about the working group on Unification Referendums that it took an initiative led by London academics to start the process of setting rules for a possible outcome that has been the Irish obsession of centuries. The initiative was in part a reproach as to how politics particularly but not only in Northern Ireland is serving the public, partly an acknowledgement of the complexity of the issues where intensity of feeling can prevent people seeing the wood for the trees. The working group now invite responses to their questions based on impeccable principles of procedure and good conduct. In discussion afterwards there was talk of “the continuing debate” and “thrashing things out” in the future. But any hope that debate by itself will somehow spontaneously reach rational conclusions is a fond one, given the habits of history and the turbulent nature of politics facing all of us over at least the next decade.
The broad brush strokes of the interim report are likely to be answered by a furious pointilism of mixed determinism, vision, evasion and outright denial centring on mutually contradictory objections and outcomes. If the responses are entirely in the same vein as the report, it means it’s being ignored by people who most immediately matter. Many responses will reflect the undoubted Clausewitzian nature of the issue.
In the North, although there may be an expanding middle ground to be won over by one side or the other, when it comes down to it most protagonists are more interested in victory than the rules of engagement.
From now on it will be increasingly difficult to separate the conduct of referendums from the substance of what they might deliver. Moreover, real content is needed before politicians can decide what is presented to the people as a model of unity in advance, or some elements of it before and some after the referendum votes.
Consider now the present positions in the three centres involved. In today’s Irish Republic, respect and reconciliation with unionists are currently superseding traditional irredentism and assumptions of inevitability. But how can the pursuit of reconciliation alone avoid handing the unionists a veto on unification? It doesn’t help that this is so far a gesture lacking a response. The present taoiseach’s hold on the Fianna Fail leadership is precarious. His challengers keep open the possibility of coalition with Sinn Fein, thus promoting a more active approach to unification.
In Northern Ireland, unionists are caught between cleaving to traditional notions of British sovereignty under strain and the nakedly obvious practical need to acknowledge and forge closer economic, social and cultural ties with the south. They fear that southern “reconciliation” could become the formula for unity at a click, if No Deal was to create a hard border, or at the very moment that a Catholic voting majority is reached in the North. No Irish government can deny those possibilities. As a community, unionists are some way from accepting the proposition obvious to many observers, that the best means of “saving the Union” is to operate fully in the spirit and the letter of the GFA.
In London will any campaign to “save the Union” include Northern Ireland or remain studiedly neutral, the better to concentrate on the Union with Scotland and absorbing the outcomes of Brexit and Covid?
The way ahead – with a fork in the road
Do not despair. Pathways exist to smooth the way ahead. While they finally diverge at the prospect of unification, they are to be found in operating the institutions and the aspirations of the GFA to the full and to common benefit. Even though faced with pressing needs within their own borders, the acid test of Dublin’s commitment to a shared island would be about turning the “all island economy” into more than a slogan apart from agribusiness, promoting foreign direct investment in the north perhaps at some expense to the south, paying for a significant programme of infrastructure north of the border and cross border development such as joint government support for a University for Derry. These would demonstrate to all including unionists that Dublin is serious about an all island strategy compatible with both unification and the constitutional status quo.
It would be fanciful to believe that unionists could be easily won over; but it would further reduce their objections to unification to matters of constitutional preference and perhaps – admittedly in a big leap – to accepting unification if that were the will of the majority. Frankly what other approach is available to them? Westminster has no suspensory veto. A wrecking strategy in the Assembly or mass disruption would only increase majority support for unification that could not in the end be denied. Alternatively while many Catholics will always continue to subscribe to the attractions of unification, they might conclude the game is not worth the candle if unionists comply with anything like their idea of equality. (The theme of “equality” is one of the most complex and contested). In some circumstances one can easily imagine Dublin urging patience on a restive pro-unification majority. And while it stretches reality at the moment, it is just possible to imagine that after a rocky beginning Northern Ireland might one day achieve “the best of both worlds” in harmony with the Republic and Great Britain in the post Brexit world.
Monitoring the agenda
How does the working group avoid getting bogged down in complex scenarios and mere speculation?
- By persisting with their established agenda on procedure and by identifying themes to bring some coherence to the ongoing debate. Party positions can to some extent be set against promises in manifestoes and in negotiations which led to the largely failed Stormont House Agreement, Fresh Start and the still partly pending New Decade, New Approach.
- Auditing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive delivery and the state of public opinion about proposed internal reforms.
- Constantly reviewing the state of the British- Irish relationship with its European dimensions.
- Commissioning a panel of international polling organisations to review the quality and range of political polling in both parts of Ireland and GB on political futures in both parts of the island ; and reappraising the criteria used in the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys.
- Focusing closely on both the qualitative and quantitative range of opinion throughout Ireland towards the choices of unification and the status quo.
- Partly in the light of the above but also on merit, to require transparency over calling a border poll including the role of the Assembly.
- Reviewing developing opinion north and south on the shape and character of a united Ireland and consequent links with the UK.
- Developing policies on parallel lines, both for a shared island without constitutional conditions and as preparations for unity. Under what political conditions north and south do they diverge?
- Focusing particularly on NI’s special status with the EU and its impact on the unification debate and the development of the border region.
- Examining the development of the financial case for unification set against continuing UK subvention and Northern Ireland’s access to the UK and EU single markets.
- Reporting on the consolidation of human rights affecting citizenship, justice and culture under the status quo and possible unification.
- What do events and public reaction marking the centenary of Northern Ireland, the continuing Decade of Commemoration in the Republic and the developments in the state of British Union tell us about the state of identity politics and approaches to the Troubles legacy throughout these islands?
These are themes that matter. Their exploration cuts across the unification theme while allowing us to assess its prominence in the ongoing analyses.
An independent commission on good governance
The interim report suggests an expert review panel to assist the Secretary of State in deciding the conditions for a border poll. I submit that this idea be adapted to embrace the wider themes of the referendums themselves. The working group might themselves expand their expertise to monitor and make periodic reports on the themes, or make recommendations for an entirely new exercise. This would take the form of a standing review commission to include economists, historians and representative civil society as well as political scientists, continuously to review developments over the coming years and to foster structured debate.
Three characteristics of the working group are beyond price and must be preserved: independence recognised and valued by governments, parties and the public; their objectivity; and their three centred membership in London, Dublin and Belfast capable of reaching agreement among themselves. Its output would fact check claims made in support of policy and press for answers to questions that were being evaded. Among the range of skills required would be the ability to communicate easily with all sections of the public.
To return to the matter of debate. Sophisticated inter-communal dialogue is well practiced in Northern Ireland. There are if anything rather too many official commissions and committees whose work has run into the sand. But the experience is there, ready for independent deployment. The Republic has of course a notable tradition of citizens’ assemblies. Deliberative debate should begin not only within the separate jurisdictions but on an all-Ireland basis. It is perfectly feasible. And there are British-Irish governmental, parliamentary and other forums ready to be recruited to the task.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London