Nav­i­gat­ing North

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - ED POWER - WORDS BY BRENDAN O’LEARY

A dozen pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture of North­ern Ire­land

No one can see the fu­ture, but it is pos­si­ble to make in­formed fore­casts about the likely ef­fects of UKExit on North­ern Ire­land. In that spirit, here are a dozen pre­dic­tions by a lead­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, from a dirty peace and desta­bilised Bri­tain and UK to a rise in na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment

UKExit, which is to say the de­par­ture of the whole of the United King­dom, rather than of just Great Bri­tain, from the Euro­pean Union, is a mode of “Brits out” that few who might have to plan for it had taken se­ri­ously. But it has di­vided the two sov­er­eign gov­ern­ments in the Isles, as well as the North­ern par­ties: the DUP’s en­thu­si­as­tic leavers are ranged against the rest.

Un­fold­ing events con­firm that no one knows the po­lit­i­cal fu­ture, both be­cause it is usu­ally im­pos­si­ble to as­sign cred­i­ble prob­a­bil­i­ties to the coun­ter­fac­tual and be­cause pre­dic­tions may be self-re­fut­ing: fore­warned agents can pre­vent their ma­te­ri­al­i­sa­tion. But we still have to make plans, bas­ing them on rea­son­able pre­dic­tions, just as civil ser­vants in Dublin, Brus­sels, Lon­don, Belfast and the cap­i­tals of the other 26 Euro­pean Union states are cur­rently do­ing.

The short term, and the fu­ture of the United King­dom Pre­dic­tion 1:

There may be trou­ble ahead, but peace will con­tinue – a dirty peace, per­haps, but an ac­cept­able level of peace. That is partly be­cause all ma­jor au­thor­i­ties are de­ter­mined to pro­tect the Belfast Agree­ment “in all its parts” and to avoid re-cre­at­ing “the bor­ders of the past”, to re­call re­cent but im­por­tant cliches.

Pre­dic­tion 2:

The planned exit of the UK from the EU – and “planned” is scarcely the right ad­jec­tive – will dam­age the le­git­i­macy of two unions: that of Great Bri­tain, and that of Great Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land. Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land are be­ing forced from the EU against their ma­jor­ity pref­er­ences in the Brexit ref­er­en­dum of 2016, and the UK supreme court failed to pro­tect their con­sti­tu­tional set­tle­ments, in­clud­ing the con­ven­tion that leg­isla­tive con­sent mo­tions should pre­cede any changes in the pow­ers of the Ed­in­burgh and Belfast leg­is­la­tures.

Pre­dic­tion 3:

There will be an­other ref­er­en­dum on Scot­land’s in­de­pen­dence, and likely be­fore a ref­er­en­dum on Ir­ish re­uni­fi­ca­tion. Dif­fer­ently put, the union of Eng­land, Scot­land and Wales may break up first. Whether Al­bion is per­fid­i­ous or merely crim­i­nally neg­li­gent need not be de­cided be­fore is­su­ing

Pre­dic­tion 4:

the Con­ser­va­tive and DUP de­ci­sions to mod­ify the terms of the two unions will weaken all par­ties’ com­mit­ments to the in­sti­tu­tions ne­go­ti­ated be­tween 1997-98 and 2007.

One may re­vive, how­ever. The Bri­tish-Ir­ish In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Con­fer­ence, which sub­sumes both the An­glo-Ir­ish In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Coun­cil and the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Con­fer­ence es­tab­lished un­der the 1985 An­glo-Ir­ish Agree­ment, should re­cover its im­por­tance.

The con­fer­ence’s pos­si­ble agenda is best un­der­stood as “the to­tal­ity of re­la­tion­ships mi­nus the ex­clu­sively de­volved pow­ers of the Assem­bly”. The con­fer­ence must re­view the in­ter­na­tional treaty and the machin­ery and in­sti­tu­tions “es­tab­lished un­der it”, and all-is­land and cross-Bor­der as­pects of rights, jus­tice, pris­ons and polic­ing are part of its re­mit.

Euro­pean ques­tions

The Down­ing Street Dec­la­ra­tion of 1993 fol­lowed the for­ma­tion of the EU in the Maas­tricht Treaty. The treaty of 1999 be­tween the UK and Ire­land, which en­acted the agree­ment reached in Belfast the pre­vi­ous Good Fri­day, re­ferred to the two gov­ern­ments’ goal to “de­velop still fur­ther the unique re­la­tion­ship be­tween their peo­ples and the close co-op­er­a­tion be­tween their coun­tries as friendly neigh­bours and as part­ners in the Euro­pean Union”.

The North South Min­is­te­rial Coun­cil is man­dated to ad­dress “EU is­sues”, and the North­ern Ire­land Assem­bly must fol­low EU law ac­cord­ing to the North­ern Ire­land Act 1998. The Belfast Agree­ment is pep­pered with ref­er­ences to the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion and to anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion rights un­der EU law. All that is now jeop­ar­dised.

But two mat­ters have been clar­i­fied since Theresa May trig­gered ar­ti­cle 50 of the Treaty on Euro­pean Union. First, North­ern Ire­land will be unique in its cit­i­zen­ship pro­vi­sions. Its peo­ple will con­tinue to be Ir­ish cit­i­zens, Bri­tish cit­i­zens, or both, and through Ir­ish cit­i­zen­ship they will re­tain EU cit­i­zen­ship. Sec­ond, on re­uni­fi­ca­tion North­ern Ire­land would au­to­mat­i­cally be­come part of the Euro­pean Union.

These clar­i­fi­ca­tions mat­ter. Those keen on re­turn­ing to the EU, or who are ad­versely

Ire­land is de-Catholi­cis­ing, and it is mul­ti­cul­tural and pros­per­ous. It is richer than North­ern Ire­land . . And sov­er­eign Ire­land is stay­ing in the world’s largest mar­ket, which all grav­ity-weighted mod­els of in­ter­na­tional trade sug­gest is the wiser bet

af­fected by UKExit, have in­cen­tives to vote for Ir­ish re­uni­fi­ca­tion.

Pre­dic­tion 5: No im­me­di­ate dis­man­tling of the in­sti­tu­tions es­tab­lished in 1998 is likely, but EU-re­lated mat­ters will have to be rene­go­ti­ated to amend the Belfast Agree­ment be­yond the two sov­er­eign gov­ern­ments’ to­tal con­trol: the EU 26 have a stake.

Such ne­go­ti­a­tions may oc­cur with­out a func­tion­ing North­ern ex­ec­u­tive, and that may dam­age all the in­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially un­der continuing Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ments in Lon­don.

No pre­dic­tion will be made about which party, if any, blinks first in ne­go­ti­a­tions to re­store the Belfast Ex­ec­u­tive. The el­e­ments of a pos­si­ble deal are known: a re­turn to A Fresh Start (which aimed to im­ple­ment many parts of the Stor­mont House Agree­ment, in­clud­ing those on flags and pa­rades); spend­ing the un­ex­pected booty the DUP has ob­tained from the UK trea­sury; an Ir­ish-lan­guage Act to be passed at West­min­ster if not in Belfast, or a gen­eral lan­guages Act to be passed in Belfast; chang­ing the ti­tles of the First and Deputy First Min­is­ters to Joint First Min­is­ters, to ac­knowl­edge re­al­ity and soften any fu­ture loss to the DUP; leav­ing Ar­lene Foster’s sta­tus to be de­cided by the out­come of the Re­new­able Heat In­cen­tive In­quiry into “cash for ash”; and agree­ment on how to nav­i­gate the com­plex is­sues at­tached to UKExit.

The ma­jor party lead­ers can­not, how­ever, openly dis­cuss key un­der­ly­ing ten­sions. The bulk of the DUP wants a hard exit, to re­store the UK’s dif­fer­ences from Ire­land; its cadres pri­vately want a hard bor­der, de­spite the hard­ships their vot­ers would in­cur. But the party will pub­licly ac­cept a soft exit, pro­vided North­ern Ire­land is not treated dif­fer­ently from Great Bri­tain.

Sinn Féin wants the re­main vote re­spected, but, if UKExit oc­curs, it wants spe­cial sta­tus for North­ern Ire­land. Its cadres pri­vately want North­ern Ire­land to fail to strengthen the case for re­uni­fi­ca­tion, and may pre­fer to po­larise choices be­tween di­rect rule un­der the Con­ser­va­tives and a re­united Ire­land within the Euro­pean Union.

Pre­dic­tion 6 fol­lows: there will be fur­ther elec­toral po­lar­i­sa­tion in the North; com­pe­ti­tion will in­ten­sify be­tween the DUP and Sinn Féin, weak­en­ing fur­ther the SDLP and the UUP.

Will 2017 be seen as a tip­ping point, in which the North­ern na­tion­al­ist vote stopped flatlin­ing at just about 40 per cent, and re­sumed the up­ward tra­jec­tory it was on be­tween 1969 and 2001? For that to hap­pen three pro­cesses have to con­sol­i­date.

First, ex­ist­ing cul­tural Catholics have to be­come more na­tion­al­ist, turn out more, and vote for the SDLP, Sinn Féin or an­other other all-is­land party.

Sec­ond, the Oth­ers – those who refuse to regis­ter as na­tion­al­ists or union­ists – have to fol­low that trend, to keep their ap­peal among cul­tural Catholics, whose trans­fers go more of­ten to na­tion­al­ist par­ties, boost­ing their seat shares. That is, the Oth­ers would shift to­wards be­ing soft na­tion­al­ists. One can imag­ine that oc­cur­ring in the Alliance and the Green Party, both of which have be­come neu­tral on the union.

Lastly, cul­tural Catholics are prac­ti­cally a de­mo­graphic ma­jor­ity in four coun­ties, the two largest cities, and pri­mary schools, and as that kicks in elec­torally, in the late 2020s, na­tion­al­ist suc­cess may breed on continuing elec­toral suc­cess.

In the pe­riod im­me­di­ately ahead vot­ers who sup­port the Oth­ers, and those who an­swer None to ques­tions re­lated to re­li­gious iden­tity, may be de­ci­sive in a re­uni­fi­ca­tion ref­er­en­dum – in­clud­ing Poles and Lithua­ni­ans who may stay and be­come cit­i­zens un­der the draft with­drawal agree­ment. Will they co­a­lesce more be­hind one bloc than an­other? They were re­main­ers.

Pre­dic­tion 7: UKExit will af­fect align­ments in the North, but not by mak­ing union­ists into na­tion­al­ists. Cul­tural Catholics will be­come keener on Ir­ish re­uni­fi­ca­tion, to re­turn to the EU and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, be­cause they will be­lieve that re­uni­fi­ca­tion will im­prove their life chances.

Cur­rent trends por­tend an alliance among North­ern na­tion­al­ists and most of the Oth­ers – and some lib­eral union­ists – on most ma­jor policy ques­tions, rang­ing from the EU to gay mar­riage, an alliance that jointly rep­re­sents an emer­gent so­cial-lib­eral ma­jor­ity, and re­gards the DUP as the party of a re­ac­tionary mi­nor­ity.

As the union­ist Alex Kane has writ­ten, a ref­er­en­dum on Ir­ish re­uni­fi­ca­tion will ask: “Do you sup­port a united Ire­land (in­side the Euro­pean Union, pro­tec­tive of a mul­ti­plic­ity of iden­ti­ties and sup­ported by the Repub­lic’s po­lit­i­cal/busi­ness es­tab­lish­ment) or do you sup­port the union (out­side the EU, pos­si­bly di­min­ished by the de­par­ture of Scot­land, and with the rise of a new form of English na­tion­al­ism . . . )?”

Amid the ironies, one mer­its em­pha­sis. The DUP op­posed the power-shar­ing de­sign of the Belfast Agree­ment, but in the decade ahead it will be­come the most ar­dent de­fender of its veto pow­ers.

Pre­dic­tion 8 is longer term. As elec­toral change un­folds over the next decade three forms of Ir­ish re­uni­fi­ca­tion will be pro­moted as that prospect ap­pears like­lier: a cen­tralised uni­tary Ir­ish state; a de­cen­tralised Ir­ish uni­tary state that would pre­serve North­ern Ire­land with a de­volved leg­is­la­ture, with its ex­ist­ing in­ter­nal power-shar­ing; and an Ir­ish con­fed­er­a­tion of two states that will al­low the for­ma­tion of a uni­tary state.

All these op­tions would be re­view­able by a sub­se­quent con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion. The rel­e­vant ne­go­ti­a­tions will be be­tween Belfast and Dublin af­ter ap­proval by ref­er­en­dum in both ju­ris­dic­tions, or in­cor­po­ra­tion will fol­low Ire­land’s ex­ist­ing con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sions if there is no North­ern Ire­land Ex­ec­u­tive.

Pre­dic­tion 9 is re­lated. The new nor­mal ar­gu­ment in es­ti­mat­ing the eco­nomic con­se­quences of re­uni­fi­ca­tion will be that Ir­ish unity will be bet­ter in the long term for both North­ern na­tion­al­ists and for Ul­ster union­ists, and of ben­e­fit to Ire­land as a whole.

In 1921 the Ir­ish Free State’s GDP per capita was 45 per cent of what be­came North­ern Ire­land. Un­til 2000 it was said that re­uni­fi­ca­tion just could not hap­pen: “the South” could not af­ford it. In 2012, how­ever, even be­fore Ire­land’s re­cov­ery, GDP per capita was higher in Ire­land than it was in the UK.

The old union­ist case against re­uni­fi­ca­tion had three ma­jor com­po­nents: an in­de­pen­dent Ire­land meant Rome rule; the Repub­lic was mono­cul­tural, and unattrac­tive, com­pared to the multi­na­tional UK; and the Repub­lic was poorer, pur­su­ing an iso­la­tion­ist and ir­ra­tional eco­nomic policy.

What­ever their past truth, these ar­gu­ments no longer pass muster. Ire­land is de-Catholi­cis­ing, and it is mul­ti­cul­tural and pros­per­ous – mul­ti­cul­tural be­cause it is pros­per­ous, and vice versa. It is richer than North­ern Ire­land, ab­so­lutely and per capita, be­fore and af­ter the sub­ven­tion by the UK trea­sury is added to the North’s ledger. And sov­er­eign Ire­land is stay­ing in the world’s largest mar­ket, which all grav­ity-weighted mod­els of in­ter­na­tional trade sug­gest is the wiser bet.

Up­dated union­ist ar­gu­ments sug­gest that uni­fy­ing with North­ern Ire­land would be so ex­pen­sive that the South – and its mean-minded, pocket-con­scious vot­ers – would refuse the re­spon­si­bil­ity; that ex­it­ing the EU will be bet­ter for all the Bri­tish, es­pe­cially the less well-off; and that mem­ber­ship of the euro guar­an­tees that Ire­land will be in a slow-growth zone com­pared with the larger neigh­bour­ing is­land (chock-full of in­vet­er­ate and en­thu­si­as­tic global traders).

The older ar­gu­ments were clearly stronger.

Pre­dic­tion 10: The EU will not col­lapse in the face of its cur­rent crises, and Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, the right, cen­tre and left of Ire­land’s re­con­fig­ured party sys­tem, will re­main strongly com­mit­ted to the EU, although not to strongly Euro-fed­er­al­ist po­si­tions.

Even if Ire­land’s po­lit­i­cal class were in­clined to im­i­tate the English ad­ven­tur­ers, they know that most of us think Ire­land should re­main in the EU, a view shared by no less than 99 per cent of full-time stu­dents.

Pre­dic­tion 11 is that North­ern Ire­land’s po­lit­i­cal class will re­main di­vided on UKExit.

A hard exit that takes North­ern Ire­land out of the sin­gle mar­ket and the cus­toms union and re­stores a hard bor­der will dam­age the North­ern econ­omy (more than its neigh­bour). This vista re­mains pos­si­ble.

Yet coun­ter­vail­ing forces – cur­rently em­bed­ded in the draft pro­to­col of the draft with­drawal agree­ment – may pre­vail.

Pre­dic­tion 12 is sim­ply that Ire­land’s Gov­ern­ment has to con­tinue to seek spe­cial sta­tus for the North. Whether it is ex­pressly called that is im­ma­te­rial. Such spe­cial sta­tus may be con­fined to longer mem­ber­ship for the North within the sin­gle mar­ket and the cus­toms union than for Great Bri­tain; the first re­uni­fi­ca­tion ref­er­en­dum could take place 10 years later.

How long the Con­ser­va­tive-DUP mar­riage sur­vives can­not be known, but Lord Palmer­ston’s maxim may still ap­ply: Great Bri­tain has no per­ma­nent friends, only per­ma­nent in­ter­ests.

There is, how­ever, yet to be a with­drawal agree­ment, and the West­min­ster and Euro­pean par­lia­ments are yet to vote on it. This po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist is suf­fi­ciently wise not to pre­dict any­thing that may be wrong within months.

Brendan O’Leary, an Ir­ish, EU and US cit­i­zen, is Laud­er­pro­fes­so­rof­po­lit­i­calscienceatthe Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast. He was a po­lit­i­cal ad­viser dur­ing the mak­ing of the Belfast Agree­ment and a power-shar­ing ad­viser to the United Na­tions. His next book, the three-vol­ume A

Trea­tise on North­ern Ire­land, will be pub­lished by OUP in Jan­uary 2019. This ar­ti­cle is based on Prof O’Leary’s con­tri­bu­tion to Ire­land 1916-2016: The Prom­ise and Chal­lenge of National Sovereignty, edited by Tom Boy­lan, Ni­cholas Canny and Mary Har­ris (Four Courts Press, 2017)


Top: DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds with party mem­bers out­side the Houses of Par­lia­ment in De­cem­ber af­ter re­ject­ing Theresa May’s lat­est deal over the post-Brexit bor­der. Above: A po­lit­i­cal mu­ral on an apart­ment build­ing in the Shankill area of Belfast. It reads: “Noth­ing about us with­out us is for us.”

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