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Discussing unity… November 11, 2019

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Two excellent points, to my mind, in the Irish Times letters pages this last week on the reunification debate, and in response to Stephen Collins dismissive approach to that debate the previous week.

One from Professor Colin Harvey of QUB notes:

Brexit, if it happens, means that Irish reunification is likely to be framed as part of the European integration journey. It will be, as the European Council confirmed in April 2017, a way for this region (Northern Ireland) to return automatically.
Planning and preparing for possible constitutional change in Ireland will therefore include questions for the EU.
Why? Because there will be a pluralist European context that will inform the constitutional conversation on this island. It is time to start thinking about what this means.

That is absolutely crucial to this process. EU membership by the ROI and any future UI is central to the expression of a more pluralistic engagement with the issues central to this island. I often think about Catalonia in these discussions. Instinctively I support ever greater autonomy for that area leading to some form of independence eventually. But I also think for fairly obvious reasons due to demography, but beyond that, that some sort of links with Spain are also necessary. Something was missed when in the post-Franco era this happened in regard to the then new Constitution:

It must also be the first Constitution in history to deliberately use a word incorrectly. Anxious to satisfy the home rulers, yet reluctant to follow them in describing the Basque country, Catalonia, Galicia and the rest as “nations,” the drafters hit on the idea of calling them nacionalidades. Yet nacionalided, like its equivalent nationality, has always meant the condition not the entity.

But EU membership potentially allows for greater flexibility as sovereignty is shared at ‘national’ level with ramifications all the way to ‘local’ level and intermediate steps and indeed that has been the case as with the GFA/BA. Similarly in relation to a UI the relationships between the parts of the island would allow for some interesting and imaginative arrangements within an EU context. For example Scotland currently has quite an active outreach internationally as Scotland. Not difficult to see that as part of an NI in the future within a UI but distinct within it (whatever form that might take).

By the way, one continual complaint aired is that unity is economically unfeasible and too expensive from the off. As the ESRI has cautioned such analyses are far too simplistic. But on another point they ring oddly hollow given the ability of this state on the island to have, at this point three major periods of growth (and I’m in no sense ignoring the flawed nature of that growth) in the space of a quarter century.

There’s two points made in another letter on the same subject which are also pertinent:

First, the fragile political settlement in Northern Ireland is already unstable.
Second, there are two “national” identities at play here. Demography, the growing prosperity in the Republic, and the need for a government by consent in the North have all put the present inherently unstable status quo under great strain, especially within the unionist community.
Inevitably, there will be change. It is not “guff”, therefore, to suppose that one of the changes might be to an agreement on a united Ireland by consent.

That first is undeniable. Where is the current stability, where indeed is the GFA/BA in a situation where the institutions are effectively shut-down for years? But more importantly, and this is key, there’s no point in pretending there is only one (valid) national identity extant in the north, that being Unionism. I find this particularly strange in discussion because it flies in the face of the GFA/BA, and indeed reality. There are two national identities on this island, and one is focussed in the North, but the second encompasses the entirety of the island. The very structures of the GFA/BA are such that they seek a democratic resolution to that – one which, the logic is in the agreement, will end in a United Ireland. I say that because the end point is a UI in the agreement, not a continuation of the Union – that is that if a referendum is held in the North, and South, for unity on the island that is it. No further referendum is envisaged to reverse that. Ironically that gifts Nationalism/Republicanism on one level, albeit the status quo is one where Unionism’s political preference is reified. But we come back to the central problem. If the six counties were homogeneously unionist with next to no Nationalists/Republicans the problem would in a sense not be a problem. There might be those who looked at a map and pined for unity, but sheer democratic weight alone would suggest the status quo ante should continue in perpetuity. But there are two identities in the North and reifying Unionism over Nationalism/Republicanism does a disservice to both.

The question Nationalists and Republicans face is one that moves beyond the narrow majoritarianism of past visions of a United Ireland, or the grim majoritarianism of Unionism’s political ownership of Northern Ireland from 1920 to the proroguement of Stormont (and their psychological attachment to same long long after, even in some parts to the present day). It is one where there is an acceptance that within a UI some sort of structures will have to give expression the reality of those two identities in the North within a loose but very real all-island socio-political framework, while acknowledging and making space for the profound cultural and political linkages for Unionism with Britain while doing likewise for Nationalists and Republicans in the North in relation to the entire island.

I’m more convinced now than ever that the GFA/BA was the somewhat imperfect but necessary vehicle to prepare the ground for this in its willingness to see overlapping sovereignty, multiple forms of political and other linkages on the island and east west. The pity is that this has been ignored by unionism because in the next number of decades it offers them a path towards retention of much of what they hold valuable while facing up to the reality that this is a small island with ever increasing convergence across many different areas.


1. Joe - November 11, 2019

“The very structures of the GFA/BA are such that they seek a democratic resolution to that – one which, the logic is in the agreement, will end in a United Ireland. I say that because the end its that if a referendum is held in the North, and South, for unity on the island that is it. No further referendum is envisaged to reverse that.”

I’ve read you making this assertion before, WBS – that the only possible end point of the GFA/BA process is a UI. And I never understood it tbh. Because, to my mind, there are two potential ends – a UI or the continuation of NI as part of the UK. As in, if and when there’s a border poll, if the vote is against scrapping the border then the status quo prevails.
But I think I get you now. You’re pointing out that if the ‘UI side’ lose in a Border Poll, then by the logic of the GFA/BA another poll could be held in x years time and on and on until the vote is for a UI. And then, as you say, no further referendum is envisaged to reverse that.

I’d say any unionists reading that would be a little pissed off. But that’s their problem, they signed up to the agreement, most of them.

But anyway, maybe in an effort to unpiss them off even slightly. Hasn’t there been a fair bit of support stated on the CLR for the idea of a reverse GFA/BA if and when a UI is voted for? So would anyone have an objection if the reverse GFA/BA included provision for a Border Poll to reinstate NI as part of the UK, if the vote went that way?

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WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2019

I see where you’re coming from, but yes, there are two options, but only one is a definitive outcome. I think the reason is a sense of contingency about unionism even on the part of the British that doesn’t exist on the part of the Irish – at least not in the same way. And as you say, it was all signed up for.

I’d take your provision and rework it, that polls could retain the reverse GFA/BA as is ie as not quite a traditional full blown UI as long as they were voted for in successive referendums. My feeling is if a reverse GFA/BA commanded sufficient support in a referendum that would as it were pass the legitimacy test as a gateway to move the situation to the next stage ie a precursor to full unity.


WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2019

In fact the more I think about it the more I think a further referendum would be a sensible move some time after entry of the North to a reverse GFA/BA because it would need some degree of legitimation to either retain that as a the status quo or to move it onwards. And if people did opt for GFA/BA as an effective end-state, well, if that was in the context of ever developing all island links, even with east west links or rather north east/east links, well, so be it.


2. Paul Culloty - November 11, 2019

Ironically, in the Spanish example, using “nacionalidades” rather than ” naciónes” inflamed, rather than dampened nationalism, because Basque nationality encompasses Navarre as well as the Basque autonomous region, and the Catalan nationality is even more expansive, covering the Valencia region and the Balearics, as well as Catalonia!


WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2019

I think I read about that over the Summer. And how it’s not universally accepted even by those who consider themselves Catalan (and lets not talk about the French Catalan areas). But it really is a fascinating area, both sides of the Pyrenees with a patchwork of languages and identities that reach far back.

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