Wednesday 16 January 2019

Dan O'Brien: Any unified, all-island state will have to be partly British

If unity is ever to have any chance of happening without strife, the Britishness of the minority will have to be reflected in the new state, writes Dan O'Brien

"In blunter terms, the all-island state would have to be partly British. One of the many questions around reunification is how far we in the island’s majority tradition would be willing to make the state we live in partly British."
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The reunification of this island has moved up the agenda. Brexit has made the holding of a border poll more likely in the medium term. More northern nationalists, who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, favour a change in the status quo. At the margins, some internationalist-minded unionists may become less attached to the union with Britain.

The Brexit effect, combined with long-running demographic trends which will soon see an end to protestant/unionist majority, makes an end of partition somewhat more likely. That means more discussion of the matter is warranted. Discussion of unification should include not only the usual suspects - Sinn Fein and those sympathetic to that movement - because when it comes to the minority tradition on this island, their republican credentials, as republicanism is understood outside these islands, are not strong.

Underneath a veneer of fashionable inclusivity is a hard core of illiberal anti-Britishness. As such, Sinn Feiners are far from convincing persuaders for unification. They are, in fact, quite the opposite as they continue to celebrate acts involving the taking of unionist lives in the pursuit of a united Ireland.

If unification is to happen smoothly and inclusively, the onus will be on the majority tradition on this island to reassure the minority. Rather than lecturing unionists on how they need to face 'realities' and engage with a process designed to bring about an outcome that they don't want, as Denis Bradley unwisely did in The Irish Times last week, the island's majority tradition needs to say what we are prepared to do as part of the grand bargain that unity would involve.

Start by stating the obvious: a unified all-island state would comprise two nations. As such, unification would not be merger of the smaller entity into the larger one, as happened in Germany after the failure of communism. It would, instead, involve a much more complicated exercise of designing and building a new multinational state from the ground up.

Central to this exercise would be the understanding that if states with two or more nations are to have legitimacy, their constitutional and political infrastructure must reflect and incorporate all their nationhoods.

In blunter terms, the all-island state would have to be partly British. One of the many questions around reunification is how far we in the island's majority tradition would be willing to make the state we live in partly British.

What does that mean in practice? At a symbolic level, for instance, there would have to be a new flag as the tricolour, with all its historical associations, is not a banner that unionists could reasonably be expected to rally to. Would the majority readily agree to consign the tricolour to history after almost two centuries and would we collectively find it acceptable, say, to incorporate the union jack into a new flag, as Australia and New Zealand do?

Much more substantively, what would a new constitution look like? Again, in the event of a united Ireland, there can be little doubt that Bunreacht na hEireann, in force now for more than 80 years, would have be replaced and an entirely new constitution drafted. Is this what citizens of the Republic want and would they vote it out of existence in favour of a radically different basic law? These are important foundational questions because it is possible that a border poll could end the union with Britain, but a referendum in the Republic on a new constitution to facilitate that could then be lost. Just getting all the ducks in a row would, in itself, be an enormous challenge.

Leaving sequencing issues aside, many profound issues would be on the table at any all-island constitutional convention tasked with drafting the unified state's constitution. A top priority would be strong safeguards for the minority so that the sort of abuses that the North's nationalist community suffered after 1922 could not happen unionists in the future. This would be less contentious than it might have been in the past owing to the wider acceptance of minority rights, but it would not be simple.

If rights can be guaranteed, what about guaranteed political representation to avoid majoritarian steam-rolling? In Lebanon, the president always comes from the minority Maronite Christian community. If unification took place would a similar arrangement be required, or would this island's minority tradition seek, and would the majority accept, the British monarch as head of the all-island state, as is the case in Australia, Canada and New Zealand? If republicans want unionists to give up the union, would they be prepared to sacrifice the republic for unity ?

Day to day governance issues might not be as controversial, but they would be more important for all citizens' lives. Would unionists be guaranteed seats around the cabinet table in Dublin (if, indeed, Dublin was to be the capital)?

The permanent sharing of executive power, as happens when the North's devolved institutions function, has serious flaws in that there can be an absence of effective opposition. In Europe, only Switzerland uses this method of distributing cabinet positions. But Switzerland is highly federalised, which makes central government less important.

That raises the issue of whether a federal model would or should be the basis of any unification agreement, a particularly important issue for the nationalist community in the North. If, for example, unionists sought a highly federalised state with a great deal of autonomy for the north, the nationalist community there might reject it on the basis that it could be construed as a continuation of partition in all but name.

The conundrums don't stop there. If a federal or highly devolved state was created, would it involve only the six counties of Ulster currently not part of the Republic, or would it be widened to all nine? More generally, and for symmetry's sake, would Connacht, Leinster and Munster seek and get devolved government? A move towards federalisation would have a transformative impact on politics. It would almost certainly be more costly and more bureaucratic, as the Belgian case shows. There, a bewilderingly complex, mulit-layered system of government has been devised to keep all the different linguistic communities happy.

Policing would also be a contentious issue. Just as the RUC was abolished and policing massively reformed in Northern Ireland in the context of its political settlement, would unionists want the Garda Siochana done away with and more accountable policing structures be put in place?

Much of the discussion of unification usually focuses on money. Although the Northern Irish economy is not the basket case sometimes portrayed, annually its public spending exceeds tax revenues by about as much as the Republic spends on healthcare each year.

Its massive budget deficit could be addressed over time with a combination of spending cuts, tax increases, south-north transfers and a phased withdrawal of the UK subsidy. But tax increases and spending cuts would be an inauspicious start for the new state. Austerity rarely improves the political climate in any context.

Unification - the most rational solution in the long term, in my view - would involve sacrifices on all sides. For the majority tradition, the biggest sacrifice might not be an extended period of austerity, but an acceptance that the minority's Britishness would have to be incorporated into the new state.

It is far from clear that we are anywhere near such an acceptance. Until such time as we are, don't expect unionists even to consider engaging in a process that would involve cutting their ties with Britain to become a small minority in an all-island state.

Sunday Independent

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