Stephen Stewart is a Faulknerite unionist currently living in exile from Norn Iron and proudly an analogue person in a digital age.
“Ireland is too small to be divided forever. Reunification is inevitable. It won’t be in my lifetime but it will happen”
Sir James Craig to a senior Irish civil servant in 1938.
Since the political hand-grenade that is Brexit was set off nearly five years ago, there’s been a lot of debate in Northern Irish nationalist circles about a renewed push for the reunification of this island we call home, with the subsequent emergence of several prominent civic groups holding gatherings, symposiums, et al. To be frank, almost all of them have been, let’s be honest here, little more than nationalist talking shops, ideological echo chambers with little to no representation or contribution from unionists. That may or may not be unionists’ own fault for not engaging in such forums – although, in truth, does anyone really expect them to, and what reason would they have to do so? – or it may be a case of unionists simply not being asked to attend or contribute. I have no knowledge about their composition and perhaps someone here can clarify it either way.
I’ll set my cards on the table here; I am a unionist by virtue of the fact that I believe much of what Irish Protestants feared in a Home Rule or independent Ireland subsequently came to pass and that their fears were ultimately vindicated… especially once Eamon DeValera entered Government Buildings in 1932 and subsequently put north-south relations back by decades with his reckless fanaticism. That being said, and somewhat paradoxically I know, I am also of the firm belief that the best and most ideal course for Ireland as a whole a century ago would have been effective independence as a Dominion state, with a written Constitution negotiated and agreed between nationalist and unionist representatives, containing certain political and constitutional safeguards for minorities, not to mention for religious and civil liberties. A state separate from undue church influence whilst still holding to the majority values of its citizenry. A state founded on equal representation for all as voted upon by said citizenry, with no special status for any one group, and concurrently, no one group discriminated against or held as lesser citizens. A state that recognized the unavoidable historical and cultural connection with Great Britain whilst being able to forge its own path, culture, and destiny in matters foreign and domestic.
I would gladly have joined such a state if alive in 1922, and played as constructive a role as I could therein. Furthermore, and at least in theory, Irish Protestants would and could have flourished in such a state; free from Westminster betrayals, interference, and ignorance of all things Oirish; with the northern heavy industries, agriculture, and economy not cut off from its immediate neighbours (and Dublin financial institutions) and able to thrive; not to mention comprising, as Irish Protestants were at the time, around 26% of the population, equating to 44 seats in a hypothetical 180-seat lower chamber of parliament (using the Government of Ireland Act 1920 boundaries as a reference point). In such a scenario, and in a legislature elected on PR, we would not have been a “powerless minority” as unionist propaganda asserted during the Home Rule crisis… quite the opposite, in fact.
However, such an alternative course of history was (lamentably) never an option in 1921-22, certainly not for northern unionists in the high age of imperialism and empire, rightly or wrongly. To put their lives, livelihoods, and liberty in the hands of a culchie and Catholic majority (as many would have seen it) would have been an idea too radical, too extreme, an abrogation of their supposed ‘birthright’ of British citizenship, a war against not only the British Crown but the crown rights of Christ Himself (and that is not my words but of actual unionist sentiments expressed at the time). But, an ideally correct albeit completely unrealistic idea is still a correct one, even if its chances of being implemented are slim to non-existent. And that is my opinion regarding the history of our island a century ago… so I guess you could say I’m something of a ‘Free Stater’, I’ve been called as much by my (ardently unionist) family in the past, and it’s a term I’ll happily accept, nae problem!
It’s the Free State that we, ultimately, should look back to in order to look forward for, should a border poll ever be called and the pro-Union side finds itself on the losing side. I don’t believe either scenario is going to happen anytime soon, certainly not in this decade, but it’s still an interesting topic ripe for debate and discussion, and unionists shouldn’t be afraid to engage in it, I’m certainly not!
In my opinion, the original Free State Constitution was a marvellous document, ahead of its time in many ways, one which any reasonable-minded Protestant could have accepted (and did), and which should have remained as the foundational law of the state to this day. It may have been drafted and re-drafted until it gained British approval, but it also gained approval of the Irish electorate and a (slim) majority of their elected representatives. It was a document that would have not only stood the test of time, but would have benefitted Ireland as a whole in comparison to Dev’s heavily Catholic and frankly irredentist 1937 Constitution that put north-south relations back by decades and stunted Irish social growth by giving an authoritarian Church such a free hand in civil matters, not to mention the emasculation of the Senate (“if there is to be a second chamber, let it be under our thumb” as Sean Lemass said.).
It’s that Constitution that should, in my opinion, form the basis for any potential new Constitution of a reunified Irish state… with, of course, updated new articles for a very different time and political landscape than the one initially agreed to in 1922. Yes, we can – and undoubtedly will – debate, discuss, and negotiate symbolic gestures in the new state like flag, anthem, national seal, etc (keep the flag, change the anthem, slightly amend the seal), but the really important things are already in the Free State Constitution and ideally could be reincorporated if not used as a starting point;
- Clearly the new state will not return to Dominion status, but rejoining the Commonwealth would be a big first step in showing unionists that Ireland is ready and willing to respect and accommodate their culture.
- We obviously won’t see the return of a Governor General in a reunified Irish state, but I do think having the President not directly elected would be better; why a largely ceremonial position should be put to voters like it’s an executive position they’re electing baffles me, quite frankly. Perhaps it would be preferable to an unnecessarily costly and partisan election if the President was elected by at least a three-quarters majority in a joint sitting of both chambers of the legislature.
- Leo Varadkar himself has acknowledged that in the event of a reunified Ireland, certain official terms would likely need changing. To this effect, maybe the head of government should be renamed as Premier (and Vice-Premier as deputy), the name of legislature renamed as the Irish National Assembly, and the lower chamber as the Chamber of Deputies.
- The Free State Constitution envisioned a more collective form of cabinet government than the more centralized office of Taoiseach that was invented for the ’37 Constitution. I would go back to the former, wherein the head of government is more of a chairman than a chief executive, unable to call an election or unilaterally dismiss ministers without seeking approval from the chamber. I would also require that should at least three cabinet ministers formally oppose a policy or ministerial decision at the cabinet, then a unanimous vote must be had for said measure to proceed. This would afford unionists some protection against being steamrolled over if they formed part of any future national coalition government.
- Likewise, the Free State Senate was a more robust body than its successor, and again, I would use that as a starting point for any future Senate. The Free State Senate was directly elected across a single nationwide constituency, with powers to delay (non-money) legislation by up to nine months, and with a third of Senators elected across three respective electoral cycles every four years (later reduced to three). I would keep the directly elected (on PR) across a single nationwide constituency part (make every single ballot cast count!), as I would having staggered elections for a third of its members. One thing I would change would be to give the new Senate constitutionally-guaranteed independence and the ability to not only approve and amend bills, but also to indefinitely defer or even outright veto them if so voted upon by members. You want an effective second chamber; give it real teeth as a counterbalance to the lower chamber.
- The Free State Constitution, incorporating the Anglo-Irish Treaty, recognized the Northern Ireland Parliament and its sovereignty over transferred matters had it decided to join the new Irish state. That again should be put to Northern Ireland voters in the event of a pro-unity result after a border poll. Would it remain a consociational legislature or return to a majoritarian one? Would ‘the North’ have federal status? Again, let the voters decide… I would prefer a unitary state with a maximum numbers of unionists in the legislature being able to exert maximum influence in the affairs of the nation… a lot more than we ever could at Westminster!
- The Free State Constitution would also have set a higher bar on being amended; requiring a majority of all eligible voters or alternatively at least a two-thirds majority of votes cast to pass the amendment on the ballot, the latter of which I would reinstate for any future constitutional referendums for a reunified Ireland as I strongly believe the current Constitution is far, far too easily amended and subject to passing fads of modernity. In addition, the Free State Constitution also stated that a bill passed by both chambers of the Irish legislature could have its enactment suspended if either a majority of the Dail or 40% of the Senate so voted within seven days. There would then be a further period of ninety days, within which either 5% of all registered voters, or a 60% majority in the Senate, could demand a referendum on the bill. The subsequent referendum would then be decided by a majority of votes cast. I think that is a terrific and highly prescient article that should absolutely be resurrected in a reunified Irish Constitution… no wonder the politicians got rid of it at the time, it gave the people a real shot at holding them accountable, and we couldn’t have the plebs telling their masters what to do, right!?
I could also add some social and economic suggestions but I think I’ve more than worn out my limit here, so apologies for the length of this thing! Not that I think, as I’ve said before, that either a border poll, a pro-unity win thereafter, or indeed negotiations for a new Irish Constitution will happen anytime soon, but Protestants/unionists should be mindful that history can turn on a dime when you least expect it and that you should always prepare for the unexpected… contingency equals caution equals common sense.
I have no problem discussing or even thinking about such a contingency, even if some unionists are. It doesn’t weaken the Union neither to talk nor to consider our place in the world should the tide turn against our current constitutional situation (and if any unionist doesn’t think it will just ask the pied-noirs of French Algeria, the Afrikaners of South Africa, or the white former Rhodesians in Zimbabwe).
In such a scenario, a measure of trust and good faith on all sides could ensure a Constitution acceptable to all in Ireland, and one which allows us to finally have the nation that we ALL can live peaceably and prosperously in.
And thankfully we won’t have Dev (or Paisley) around to muck things up this time, either…!
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.