For a variety of reasons I have recently been wondering about the prospects of a united Ireland, not the least being that 2006 is both the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising and the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes. It’s easy to be pessimistic about Irish unity, however, as there has been little tangible progress in the last couple years, and unionists (particularly the DUP) continue to avoid engaging with republicans on the issue of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (which was originally reached in 1998). Still, this is not to say that the Agreement itself is completely in mothballs, since the various bodies formed under its remit continue to exist, albeit with British direct rule ministers replacing those meant to be drawn from the various parties of the North.
It is to be hoped that the current impasse can be broken. The IRA has fully disarmed, and this has been verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Therefore the “terrorism” excuse that unionists have hidden behind for so long, in order to avoid talking with Sinn Féin, is no longer tenable. But if the DUP continues drag its feet and an Executive cannot be set up, so be it. Other aspects of the Agreement will go on. So it seems to me like it would actually be in the DUP’s best interest to engage. The alternative is being left out in the cold while the two governments press ahead with a “greener” form of direct rule based on the Agreement anyway. Of course, I am not exactly au fait with DUP thinking.
From a republican point of view, the Agreement can be frustrating. It seems to give unionism a veto over Irish unity. It is not what the IRA waged a 30-year resistance struggle for. Not what Bobby Sands and the others starved to death for. But the reality of the armed struggle must be recognized – it had reached a stalemate and was not going to achieve an immediate united Ireland. Some would say it had become a detriment to that cause. I personally see no point in going back to the armed struggle. Despite the unpalatable elements of the Agreement, it does include provisions for a united Ireland if a majority in the North votes for it in a referendum. Thus the paradox: how to get a “majority” vote?
I put the word “majority” in quotes because the Northern state itself is an artificial entity created by a British border commission with political expediency in mind. The idea was to choose just the right amount of territory with a safe unionist majority. The province of Ulster actually has nine counties, yet only six were thought safe enough to become the unionist state of “Northern Ireland.” However, in the past 85 years since the border commission, the unionist majority in the North has been cut to the point where nationalists are just about drawing even. West of the Bann is majority nationalist. While many would criticize the notion of sectarian headcounts and the “outbreed ’em” theory, the Northern state itself was predicated on sectarianism, so possibly it could be a case of chickens coming home to roost? Mindful of Northern Ireland’s genesis, it is quite possible that political expediencies could shift, or are shifting. Being something like 15% of the population of the island of Ireland, it seems unjust that what is in actuality a unionist minority is allowed to perpetuate partition, which affects all of Ireland.
One thing that has been made obvious in the last decade-and-a-half of the peace process is that the British government no longer considers the North to be an integral part of the UK. From Peter Brooke’s statement in 1990 that partition was simply “an acknowledgment of reality, not an assertion of national self-interest” and that “the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland,” to its reaffirmation by John Major in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, to the Good Friday Agreement itself, Britain seems to have stated that it would not be opposed to a united Ireland. Though the Agreement says “the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland...is to maintain the Union” (yet note the use of the word “present”), it does also specifically state that the British and Irish governments “...recognise 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 to 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...” Clearly the British government does not view the North of Ireland in the same light as the rest of the current UK. (The Agreement was, of course, also accepted by the people in referendums both North and South, by large majorities.)
Personally, I find it hard to say whether a border poll would have any success in the near future. I think that there would have to be a lot of engagement between all sides in the North before any such agreement could be reached, and that a level of trust would have to be built up through the working of the political institutions of the Agreement. But who knows – if a referendum were really to be held it would inevitably focus minds once the tangible possibilities were brought forward. Of course it could also concentrate unionist minds against the proposition, and frankly it is unlikely that they are suddenly going to vote against the Union any time soon. Nor should we expect them to.
I also think that the main reason the DUP has been trying to obstruct the process is because deep down they fear reconciliation, and they know that change is in the offing, in some form or another. They would rather maintain sectarian division as a means of preserving the status quo. It’s ultimately got to be a useless tactic. Certainly there are some in the party that recognize this. In an interesting move, the DUP recently (19 Aug.) lauded Sinn Féin’s approval of a DUP motion calling on all paramilitary groups to stand down. Not only did this allow SF an opportunity to reiterate its peace strategy, but it prompted DUP MP Gregory Campbell to say, “We are pleased that the representatives of all the parties, particularly Sinn Féin, accepted the impact that such a move would have on community relations and that it should occur immediately.” A possible opening to negotiations with SF? In reality, the DUP has already sat in the Stormont parliament of which SF was also a part, and works with them on committees and in local councils.
But perhaps an Executive, or a referendum on Irish unity, isn’t really even that necessary in the short term. The North-South bodies which exist as part of the Agreement can be built upon. They could even be considered the embryonic structure for a united Ireland. They are already there. Certainly Sinn Féin’s strategy for achieving that goal is to build upon the all-Ireland structures of the Agreement. As I am not a SF member (or a member of any other party or political group for that matter) I won’t parrot their policies here, but they are well worth taking into consideration. I can’t say that I disagree with them in the current circumstances. The Agreement was always simply a transitional period, and the political situation is fluid. The Agreement stipulates that there will be “at least” six cross-border bodies, but does not rule out more. It could well be that given the tide of history and demographics, and the (hopefully) neutral position of the British government, along with the all-Ireland frameworks already in place, that we could see a united Ireland become the de facto situation even as the North maintains links to the UK.
Instead of a “winner takes all” situation, why not expand our thinking a little bit and allow both sides to have what they want? Call it a united Ireland, call it the UK, call it joint sovereignty (which certainly is already in effect to a degree) – in a postmodern world cannot all of these states co-exist? A North where to live in the Irish Republic (in the North) does not mean that the person next to you is not living in the UK, and vice-versa. Perhaps I am being naïve. But if that is naïve it is no more so than “Brits Out” or “Not an Inch,” and in any case the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic states that it “cherish[es] all of the children of the nation equally and [is] oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”