Recognising Ulster-British Identity in a United Ireland: a Federation of Ulster-British Communities (FUBC).

The Belfast Good Friday Agreement recognises that:

“… it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.

So, a united Ireland can happen if 50%+1 of NI voters in a referendum vote in favour of it (providing southern voters also voted for unity). If this were to happen, there is no current provision in the Irish constitution to recognise unionist Ulster-British identity. Unionists and non-nationalists will, naturally, be fearful that their identities will be disrespected and obliterated in a unitary state. What can we in the South do to address these fears?

A referendum is unlikely in the next five to ten years given both the decline in the number of nationalist MLAs in the 2022 NI Assembly election and the prerogative of the NI Secretary of State to decide when a referendum should be held, defined in the vaguest of terms. We in the South have time to do some radical rethinking about how we might institute political structures that can reassure unionists that their identity would be respected in a unitary state situation.

The three Ulster counties that are in the Irish Republic offer an opportunity to showcase how Ulster-British identity can be given institutional and political recognition by the southern state before any unity referendum. Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan have significant concentrations of protestant communities, whose origins are similar to Northern Ireland protestant communities (for example, Drum and Oram in Monaghan, or Rossnowlagh-Laghey, Dunfanaghy and the Laggan lowland settlements of Donegal, such as Newtowncunningham).

The constitution could be amended to create a Federation of Ulster-British Communities (FUBC). The FUBC could consist of, say, seven members at the outset. These seven members would be members of Seanad Éireann and would have a statutory role in advising the Minister of Justice on how well the Ulster protestant community feels their identity is being cherished and protected. In addition, these Senators would also be members of the UK House of Lords and a Westminster Committee for safeguarding British identity in Ireland (or some such title) which would advise the Home Secretary.

How would these seven FUBC members be elected? From Ulster protestant communities. How would such communities be demarcated? The example of France is helpful. France has administrative divisions called communes. There are approximately 35,000 such communes. With a population of about 68 million in France, this gives an average of 1,900 persons per commune. The largest commune is Paris (c.2 million), and the smallest is Rochefourchat (population: one). If we take the average French commune size of 1,900 we would have 87 communes for Donegal, 43 for Cavan, and 34 for Monaghan.

Human geographers and council planners should be able to come up with a map of communes for each county that reflects cohesive identity and settlement patterns. For example, in the area to the south and east of the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down – an area sometimes called the Kingdom of Mourne – one could envisage communes for Kilkeel, Annalong, Attical, Killowen, Ballymartin, Cranfield, Greencastle, Longstone and Dunnaval. Larger towns and cities in NI could have multiple communes to reflect the segregation of communities within those conurbations.

The electorate of each such commune – perhaps every 20 years – can vote for a patron: either the President of Ireland or the UK Monarch. Communes that vote for the Monarch as Patron would be automatic members of the FUBC, and their electorate can then vote for the Seanad/House of Lords members using PR-STV. I would envisage this vote happening at the same time as other Seanad members are elected, i.e. after a general election.

The ’20 years’ proposal is to both to take on board changing identities, and to be a sufficiently long time-interval that it is not a constant source of tension. If, after 20 years, a commune voted to change its Patron from President to Monarch, it would become part of the FUBC. And a commune that switches its vote to the President as Patron would leave the FUBC. This means the FUBC geographic extent is flexible enough to reflect changing political identities.

If a united Ireland were to be voted for, the number of FUBC senators/House of Lords members could be increased by amendment to reflect the huge increase in population of independent Ireland who would have an Ulster-British identity. So if 12% of the population of newly-united Ireland were in FUBC communes, then 12% of Senators would be voted for by FUBC voters.

Only ‘Monarch-Patron’ communes would be affiliated to the FUBC. This ensures that a majority of FUBC senators are Ulster-British. (The problem for unionism in a post-unity situation is that any Ulster-wide or NI-wide vote would leave them as a minority. In a majoritarian political system (referendum result or electing a government in Dáil Éireann), the minority do not have power.)

One problem with this proposal is that communes that have a sizeable Ulster-British minority – but who voted for President as Patron – would not be represented in the FUBC. One solution for representing such minority Ulster-British communities would be for the elected members of the FUBC to nominate, say, three to five other members to represent the interests of such minority Ulster-British communities. Such communities could be demarcated by, say, the percentage voting for Monarch-as-Patron being between 33% and 49.9%.

I am not arguing for repartition of Ireland just as unity would have been achieved. But unity will be stronger and more permanent if our island’s diversity is celebrated. Individual rights and freedoms would be protected island-wide by the Irish constitution.

Commune powers could be devolved appropriately – with an appropriate budget – so that the FUBC had real financial teeth. One could imagine regular royal visits to FUBC communes, ease of British passport application, access to mainland universities, perhaps even an FUBC team in the Commonwealth or FUBC observer status at Commonwealth meetings (should newly-unified Ireland not rejoin). Ideally, travelling from an FUBC to a non-FUBC commune would be like travelling between the different-language cantons of Switzerland or from the Südtirol/Alto Adige to Trentino in northern Italy: you would be aware you had passed into a space with a different cultural provenance but citizens on both sides of such commune borders would have full civil rights.

There is much talk of demographic change in the air. But it should be realised that there are about 100,000 more Protestants in Northern Ireland now than in the 1926 census. Even if many unionists were to leave for GB in the eventuality of unity (and nobody down South wants this apart from a minuscule minority), the Ulster-British identity will be as much an integral component of this island’s mosaic of identities for the foreseeable future as the nationalist identity will be. Therefore, acknowledging and cherishing identities at variance with unitary nationalism in our constitution before a unity referendum happens is of crucial importance.

If Northern Ireland votes for unity, that will be an enormous psychological blow to unionists: the state they carved out from the rest of the island and built in their own likeness will have voted itself out of existence and they will be a minority in their own space. Those of us who would like to see a united Ireland must create an actual geographic, political and cultural space for Ulster-British communities in our constitution and on this island to replace Northern Ireland: one that is flexible enough (a) to both give significant voice to such communities, and (b) to not become a new majoritarian space that alienates voters in such communities who identify as unitary-Irish. Having the FUBC space hard-coded in our constitution, and linked to the UK House of Lords, guarantees that there will be a permanent polity for Ulster-British identity on the island of Ireland.

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