by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jan 14th, 2021 at 06:03:10 PM EST
Ever since the Brexit referendum in the UK, and particularly since the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland Protocol, and the UK EU Trade and Security agreement, there has been a plethora of writing and comment on the prospects for an independent Scotland and a united Ireland. This is based partly on the fact that both Scotland and N. Ireland voted to remain in the EU, and partly due to an antipathy to the insurgence of English nationalism, which is largely what drove the Brexit project and threatens to drive the component entities of the "United Kingdom" ever further apart.
Proponents of the Union, in opposition to Scottish and Irish nationalists, have tended to point to what they regard as the large subsidies which Westminster gifts to Scotland and N. Ireland, and scoff that these entities could never survive on their own. Little matter that nationalism generally, and particularly the English nationalism which drove Brexit, is rarely predicated on the short term financial benefits of independence. Nationalists want to "take back control" of their patch of mother earth regardless of what the economists and business leaders of the day might say. It's about culture and identity, its about ruling their own patch, its about taking back control from multinational entities which they neither understand nor feel intimately connected to.
The seminal example in this respect is probably the "Free State" or Republic of Ireland which came into being in 1922 and ushered in a period of civil war, a trade war with Britain, crushing dominance by the Roman Catholic church, and abject poverty for the vast majority until it became part of the EU in 1973. Yet no one has ever suggested returning to its colonial status under Britain, the wet dreams of some Brexiteers notwithstanding. Nationalism simply isn't about short term economic advantage, although it may rest on the belief that in the longer term most people will be better off as well as freer under independent self-rule.
And so it is with some impatience that the proponents of nationalism, be it English, Scottish or Irish, brush off the accusations of economic illiteracy and political stupidity, dispute the amount of actual subsidy from Westminster or benefits from EU membership, and argue that it will not be necessary once their goal of independence has been achieved. If an independent Ireland within the EU can do ok financially, albeit after a long period of adjustment, why not Scotland with a very similar geographic position, size and population, and N. Ireland, as part of the Republic?
The difficulty is in getting from here to there, with (at best) large minorities opposed to any change in the status quo, and possibly many years of adjustment required to re-orientate their economies from English dominance. Already the dominant English based supermarket chains in N. Ireland are shouting foul at the minor inconveniences of the Northern Ireland Protocol in disrupting their British based supply chains, and many British suppliers are claiming to have stopped taking orders from N. Ireland, or are charging extra for doing so. It has not occurred to many commentators that similar goods can be sourced through Ireland and the EU if it really comes down to it. Most people and businesses are simply change averse.
The time frame for most personal decision making, media cycles, and electoral cycles are simply much too short to provide for the sort of strategic decision making required to change the Sovereign governance of a nation. The complexities of the ramifications are simply too great. The great majority simply want to get on with their daily lives, doing their job, advancing their career bit by bit, socialising with their family, friends, and neighbours and buying the products and brands they have become used to. Changing the state of the nation is for poets, visionaries, charlatans and dreamers: it is simply not part of the reality that most people inhabit - unless driven to extremes by economic hardship or political oppression.
So what is it that is driving Scottish and Irish nationalism if not an aversion to English nationalism and dominance, and a sense that an alternative and better future beckons? Newton Emmerson, perhaps the most perceptive northern Irish unionist writer uses his regular column in the Irish Times to decry the wilder excesses of both Sinn Fein Irish Nationalism and (DUP) "British" nationalism, and argues that the vast majority in N. Ireland want little enough to do with either, and instead want to make the status quo of N. Ireland, more or less as is, work better in the interests of the majority of its population.
He is wise enough to know that if Unionists want to retain their cherished status quo of union with Britain, then N Ireland has to work for the majority of nationalists as well, and astute enough to know that the evidence for majority support for a united Ireland now is at best ambiguous, rapid demographic change notwithstanding. I have responded to his article in the comments below as follows:
Just as the DUP's support for Brexit was intended as a bit of recreational nationalist bashing which they never expected would come to pass, calls for a border poll are a bit of recreational unionist bashing which its nationalist proponents hope will never come to pass in the near term, as it is almost certain to fail. It's the "hold me back or I'll kill him" pub talk of the hard man who knows he's on a losing wicket.
Nationalists need ideological cover for their compromising over the practicalities of Stormont just as unionists must continue to hype their "Britishness", whatever they may think in private. It's a way of keeping the wilder men in their tribe in line. The fact that it may antagonise the opposing side is merely a fringe benefit, or collateral damage, depending on your point of view. Tribal cohesion is the prime imperative.
The reality is that so long as the Westminster spigot pouring £10 Billion p.a. into the North is kept turned on, the vast majority of unionists, some nationalists, and many non-aligned and non-politically engaged will continue to vote for the status quo in N. Ireland, on the principle that "the devil you know" is better than some unknown and uncertain future. The dirty secret is that many in the south would vote likewise.
An independent Scotland, or a post Brexit crash in the UK economy and public finances might change that dynamic, but that implies that the key to the future of N. Ireland lies in what happens within the UK, and not in the latest arcane posturings among nationalists. Anybody who proposes a referendum on Irish unity in the absence of a detailed "Transfer of Sovereignty" Treaty between Ireland and the UK cannot be serious about making it happen.
People don't vote for abstract ideals and will need to understand exactly how a proposed united Ireland will effect them, their families, their security, prosperity, culture and values. Referenda in Ireland aren't about agreeing something in principle - as the Brexit referendum was - with the details to be worked out later. They are about inserting a very precise and legally binding wording into our constitution,- something which can only be done after a Treaty agreeing the transfer of sovereignty between the UK and Ireland has been agreed setting out the timelines, transition arrangements, financial terms and governance of the new combined entity.
That work can only begin if and when the UK decides it wants to part company with N. Ireland, and we are a very long way from that yet. Ultimately the results of referenda, north and south , depend on the terms that are on offer, and on people deciding they are likely to be better off under the new arrangements than under the then status quo or future prospects as part of the UK. It's not about coercion, forced conversion. or "force majeure". It's about a free choice by free people for what they consider a better future.
That's not on offer just yet, and its up to all of us to make it possible.
Elsewhere Brendan O'Leary, Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania argues that a referendum on Irish unity is coming, "whether we like it or not," and so we might as well prepare for it. Demographic change will lead, inevitably to an increasing nationalist majority, and the now ambiguous position of N. Ireland as part of the UK internal market and EU Single Market is precarious, at best. He repeats all the classic nationalists arguments for a united Ireland, omitting only the rather sparse evidence that a majority in N. Ireland actually wants it. But it is his contention that the Republic of Ireland will have no option but go along with whatever N. Ireland decided (on terms the UK will dictate) that particularly concerns me. It feels almost as if a campaign is development to dump N. Ireland and all its costs and problems onto the Republic merely to relieve the UK of the costs of maintaining the Union.
I have responded in the comments below his article as follows:
If the UK government calls a referendum in N. I. without agreeing its precise terms with the Irish government beforehand, I suggest the Irish Government should refuse to hold one unless the following applies:
- The £10 Billion subvention remains in place (paid via the Irish government) for a lengthy transition period - c. 20 years
- The GFA remains in place, protecting all minorities in the north.
- The Stormont assembly remains in place at least for the transition period with its members having the right to sit and vote in Dail Eireann if they so wish.
- The Irish Senate is reformed to ensure minimal representation for all minorities
- Agreement is reached with the EU on the level of transitional regional aid to be made available, particularly for border counties.
- Agreement is reached on an Ireland UK peace deal providing for the integration of all army and police services on the Island and settlement terms for any who might wish to resettle from the North to the UK (or what is left of it).
- No further constitutional change (after the transitional period) unless agreed by Majorities both North and South.
Elsewhere, the liberal unionist academic, Peter Shirley, who is also a founding member of the Arins (Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South Project) argues that "Interdependence is the antidote to the politics of immiserating dissonance that have crippled Northern Ireland for so long."
I have responded in the comments as follows:
It seems that its open season for every corrupt has been UK politician (Denis MShane), or obscure US or British academic (Brendan O'Leary, Peter Shirlow) to lecture us on whatever inevitable future they think awaits us "whether we like it or not". We may not have chosen Brexit or Covid-19, but we still have agency on this island, and it is for the south, as well as for the north to decide what that future should be.
The EU was founded on the idea that the greater the interdependency between nation states, the less chance of wars and other conflicts breaking out between them. It is this common membership which had, for almost 50 years created "an equality of esteem" between Ireland and the UK, had softened the barriers north and south, and enabled the Good Friday Agreement to be negotiated and signed. After all, if "an ever deeper union" was being created between member states, the importance of borders and cultural differences would gradually diminish.
That was working fine until Brexit came along. Historic conflicts diminished and the Queen was welcomed to our shores. Our relationship with the UK became that of an equal sovereign partner rather than that of a colony. But now that rift threatens to open up again as the UK and EU drift ever further apart post Brexit. True, the Single Market and Customs Union within Ireland , North and south has been maintained, but everything else (CAP, EU regional and structural funds, public health policies etc. threaten to diverge ever further, even where common interests would be better served by a joint approach.
Britain may very well decide to dump N. Ireland when post Brexit austerity kicks in, and Scotland goes its own way, but for us to unthinkingly agree a united Ireland just because England needs to save £10 Billion p.a. would be a greater folly than even Brexit itself.
Will Britain offer re-settlement terms to unionists who feel they can only be true to their British identity within Britain itself? Will Britain pay the pensions of ex-British service personnel and civil servants who chose to remain in Ireland? Who will fund a transition period when effectively two systems will have to be maintained for two communities, with all the incremental costs and inefficiencies associated with that? Who will ensure that former British army and police force personnel will transfer their loyalty to Ireland and provide jobs in Britain for those who choose not to?
In the absence of a detailed transition and "transfer of sovereignty" plan, a referendum in N. Ireland will have little more validity than an opinion poll. It does not bind Ireland to take on burdens and citizens which don't, or who don't wish to belong to us. A referendum on Irish unity should not be held in the south unless there are clear answers to all these questions. When faced with a choice between the status quo and an unknown and uncertain future, most people will opt for the devil they know. A truly united Ireland requires a transformation of both societies, north and south, and that can only come about with the fully informed consent of all sides based on a detailed roadmap of how the unification processes will proceed.
Yes, increased economic inter-dependency will be part of that, but one does not necessarily lead to another. People's cultural affinities & political preferences can matter just as much.
In response to further discussion I summarised my position as follows:
- A northern vote for a united Ireland is most unlikely so long as the Westminster spigot is still pouring out money.
- The Irish government should advise the UK government not to hold a referendum in the north, absent a detailed Treaty as described.
- If the UK government, desperate to off load the north holds one anyway, absent a Treaty, it is most unlikely to pass as no one will believe the south can take on the debts and still offer a better standard of living.
- If it does pass, the Irish government will commence negotiations on a Treaty with the UK government but shouldn't feel under any obligation to accept terms it cannot afford.
- A referendum in the south is not some glorified opinion poll or agreement in Principle to a united Ireland. It is the mechanism by which we insert very specific and legally binding terms into our constitution. In practice that means inserting the provisions of the Transfer of Sovereignty Treaty into our constitution.
- Any such Treaty is likely to be 500 pages long and make the Brexit negotiations look like a walk in the park.
- In my view, referenda North and south will only pass if and when such a detailed Treaty has been negotiated - subject to ratification by referenda in both parts of Ireland. Only then will everyone know exactly what a United Ireland means in practice, how it will be governed, how it will be funded, and what everyone can expect in terms of their quality of life and standard of living afterwards.
- When faced with a choice between a known (even miserable) status quo and an unknown and uncertain future, most people - other than ideologues - will vote for the status quo, on the principle of the devil you know.
In response to the above, someone suggested I be appointed chief negotiator! No thanks, it will be a negotiation that would try the patience of even a Michel Barnier... But of one thing I am certain: Irish Unification could be a bigger problem for Ireland than even Brexit and Covid-19 combined, and would be proportionately, a much bigger problem for Ireland than German re-unification. I am all for it, in principle, but only on terms that will ultimately be to the benefit of the vast majority living on the island.
England offloading an unwanted and expensive colony does not meet that criterion and no concerted campaign by academics to promote the idea can make it so.