Friday 6 March 2009

Thinking the unthinkable

A letter from Ernest Black of Cookstown in yesterday's Irish News repeats a point that is known to most people but too often excluded from conscious consideration: that in 1798 there were "thousands of members of the Presbyterian Church who were members and supporters of the United Irishmen".

Around the time of the United Irishmen there was considerable support from Protestants of all religions for the separation of Ireland from England – many well-know United Irishmen were Anglicans, like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald – and many were Presbyterian. Even those who were not United Irishmen were often in favour of Irish autonomy – Grattan's Parliament, and the bribery needed in order to pass the Act of Union tend towards this conclusion.

Time has passed, and political circumstances have changed. Yet it may be possible that despite the flamboyant demonstrations of loyalty demonstrated by many unionists, a current of autonomy still flows.

The DUP has often, and with good reason, been described as a party of 'Ulster nationalists' (recently here, for example), and the continuing controversy over the insistence by the UUP of retaining the word 'Ulster' in the title of their joint venture with the English Tories shows that they too, are wedded to 'Ulster particularism'.

Unionism and nationalism are often seen as having entirely incompatible goals – union with Britain for one, a united Ireland for the other. This leads to very public differences of opinion and an apparent zero-sum game in Northern Irish politics. But underneath the surface, and perhaps even unseen by the main protagonists, a potential solution may exist – independence for Northern Ireland.

An independent Northern Ireland has always been anathema for nationalists, partly because it has only ever been promoted by Protestant sectarian extremists. In 1972 the Ulster Vanguard movement (of which both David Trimble and Reg Empey were once members) published a proposal called 'Ulster – A Nation' calling for much greater autonomy, though still within the UK. Other loyalists have called for independence with 'Dominion' status. In most cases, though, independence was seen as necessary in order to ensure (by arms if necessary) that the British government did not 'sell out' Northern Ireland to a unitary Irish state. Some of the proposals were clearly sectarian in outlook.

Independence as an objective has been dropped by all unionist parties, and is now rarely mentioned except to be dismissed as a 'crank' idea. The persistence, though, of 'Ulster particularist' ideas amongst most unionist groups and parties shows that the underlying concept is not unthinkable.

What is unthinkable to most unionists is a united Ireland. For a variety of reasons most unionists do not wish to find themselves part of a sovereign Irish state, in which they would be numerically dominated by nationalists (or Catholics, as many sectarian unionists would see it).

Although the stated goal of Nationalists is the achievement of such a sovereign Irish state, experience shows that many are prepared to compromise. It is in this grey area of compromise that a solution based upon Northern Irish independence could grow. An independent Northern Ireland would be as much an Irish state as the republic to the south. Although Ireland would then contain two states, both would be self-governing and would ensure that the Irish people, as a whole, would finally be free of external interference. That they chose to do so in two states rather than one would be of small importance.

As devolution advances, and as the 'Ulster particularists' of the DUP, and to a lesser extent the UUP, realise how marginal they are to Britain, and Britain is to them, could the submerged current of eighteenth century Presbyterianism bubble to the surface? If, at the same time, Sinn Féin became even more of a northern-centred party than it currently is, could the interests of the two groups converge?

As the sizes of the two main political blocks – unionism and nationalism – approach parity, it would be clear that neither could entirely dominate the other. In an independent Northern Ireland, freely agreed by the representatives of both unionism and nationalism, neither side would feel 'defeated' or 'victorious'. A solution that takes both sides' interests into account could attract support from most people, as well as the active support of the two 'godmother' states – the UK and the Republic.

Could the difficult relationship between the 'Ulster nationalists' of the DUP, and the increasingly northern Irish republicans of Sinn Féin be transformed over time into a meeting of minds? A realisation that, despite differences, they are more alike each other than they think? Both sides distrust both Britain and the Republic, and this growing identification as a place apart could become the seed of a common purpose. With a small amount of compromise by both sides, an outcome could be arrived at that both might find surprisingly attractive.


Anonymous said...

I think that it's a mistake to talk up Ulster Unionist antagonism to certain aspects of Britishness. It's true that the Ulster Unionists insisted on retaining the word 'Ulster' in the name of their alliance with the Tories but remember the context: a political alliance with one of the main UK parties. As evidence of a seperatist urge, that's pretty thin.
And I still believe that partition would be a tragedy even if the two states in Ireland were locally controlled. Partition alienates Irish people from other Irish people. It leads to a double spend and a doubling of effort in almost every area of life.

Anonymous said...

Two independent states on the same tiny island, each seeking the best for its own citizens, is a recipe for real internal strife on an all island basis.

Indeed, the Unionists would probably be happy to alienate the nationalist Ulster Irish from the rest of Ireland in this scenario. After all, it's the Unionists who will be seen as the minority in a united Ireland, not northern nationalists.

The whole attempt to create this "Northern Irish" identity is an attempt to alienate Ulster Irish from their own countrymen in the 26, to make them believe they really are different to the rest of the Irish. Yes indeed Ulster folk are different, same as Geordies and Cockneys are different. So what?

An Englishman is an Englishman - An Irishman is an Irishman, whatever the regional differences.

Mack said...

It leads to a double spend and a doubling of effort in almost every area of life.

Let's get real.

The state makes up 70% of the Northern Ireland economy. In the north there is no double spend, there is purely artifical spend to create jobs and keep unemployment low.

If you look at the public sector in the south, even in a single unitary state, you'd still need the same number of teachers, gardai, nurses in the 26. You'd still need to build and maintain the same number of roads, railways, schools, hospitals & other transport & telecoms infrastructure. Where you may save money is in opening some protected, semi-state areas up to competition via partial privatisations and breaking up of monopolies (and doing so on an all-island basis would ensure a larger market). The beauty is though you don't need to wait until you get a United Ireland to do this.

If you look at the different options in terms of their desirability and achievability from a nationalist perspective, where does Independence lie?

For me, in terms of desirability I rank it much higher than a continuation of the Union (with it's concomittant dependency economy, trapped by inappropriate fiscal and monetary policies set by Whitehall), but below either a single unitary Irish state or a United Ireland in which Northern Ireland continued to exist. I'm unsure where exactly I stand on repartition, with large grants & options for voluntary population transfer it could work, but would be expensive.

In terms of acheivability however, I think Independence would probably be the most achievable option (ignoring the Union which already exists).
With Northern Ireland existing within a United Ireland being more acheivable than a single Unitary state both of which depend on the emergence of a reasonable nationalist majority in the north, while managing the fears of those opposed to such moves.

In reality all constitutional change would involve significant pain (but if successful would be preferable to the current Soviet-style state dependency, the continuation of which is entirely dependent on the goodwill of outsiders anyway) - Independence is the only option that removes the inherent Moral Hazard that plagues political life in the north (looking to someone else to clean up the mess). Northern politicians would be forced to make hard choices and create a real economy. The south would also have a huge interest in the state succeeeding (despite the previous commenters fear-mongering), as it would absolutely not be in their interest to border a third-world style failed state.

My preference is for some form of United Ireland, but if you want to be absolutely certain of victory in your aim of governing yourself free from Westminster interference, Independence as a mutually negogiated and agreed compromise is by far the most achievable option, imho.

Anonymous said...

What "fear mongering" exactly? Unionists quality of life in an independent NI, and nationalists, will logically force them to eventually compete with the Republic economically.

Do you think Unionists, and they will still be proudly British in whatever state, have some love for the South that we'll all get along great as happy Paddies if their own welfare is on the line, if people in the north can't rely on London for economic security anymore?

No, you'll have 2 states on a small island cutting each other's throats for foreign investment and jobs. And northern nationalists helping the Unionists to achieve it. NI has never been a real economic threat to the Republic while it's in the UK because everything is paid for by London. If it becomes a threat then there will be inevitable hostility.

Partition Scotland in two and make them compete against each other economically for survival and see what happens.

It is a bad, bad idea for Ireland which Unionists will gladly champion when there's a nationalist majority on the way.

Repartition in the next decade is not a desirable route. But if Northern nationalists feel unification isn't coming for decades, then repartition is the only route, or the status quo remains. If NI is taken apart county by county, starting with Fermanagh or Derry being taken on by the Republic, then it will become untenable in everyone's eyes and finally a Dublin government will have to face up to its responsibilities.

The Fianna Failers will shit themselves!

Mack said...

I think your analyses in terms of "2 states on a small island cutting each other's throats for foreign investment and jobs." is slightly simplistic.

For a number of reasons

1. The Republic has been inordinately successful in attracting FDI for decades. As a consequence the labour force and management pool is of a much higher quality than in the north.

It's unlikely, at least initially, the north would be competing for the same jobs.

2. Building a successful economy in the north, creates a local, dynamic market that southern firms can sell into, without having to bear the cost in higher taxes of paying for the transition (or worse just paying the subvention).

3. That competition would still exist. If a united Ireland attracts firms, where does the IDA channel them - to Belfast, Dublin or Limerick? Those decisions would not be without political consequences.

4. The truculent unionists remain under both scenerios. I imagine they may be less amenable to taking a short-term hit, in order to decimate the northern public sector to free up workers for private enterprise in a United Ireland than they may in an independent NI.

5. There are lot's of states, large and small, competing with Ireland (Republic) in Europe. Your argument seems to be that if NI became an effective competiter, and hence a dynamic economy, it would be to the detriment of both states? I think the exact opposite is true.

Anyway, it's not my first choice, but I think a United Ireland will take some time to achieve. There'd also be no reason why an independent NI couldn't form some sort of united Ireland later.

Piecemeal repartition is also probably unworkable.

Anonymous said...

1. "Initially" unlikely we'll be competing for jobs. So what happens when we inevitably are in the long term? Dog eat dog, as is the case with all independent states.

2. Yes, a vibrant northern economy is beneficial for us all during the good times. But in a recession when jobs and money is scarce all over the island then people will be looking after themselves and attitudes change quickly, especially if the north was attracting jobs that would have been coming South. Human nature transcends nationality and Irish people north and south will be rivals, not countrymen pulling in the same direction.

Probably the Unionists would love it.

3. The point is in a united Ireland that the taxpayer in Belfast is paying into an all-Ireland excheqeur, for everyone's benefit. So if jobs go to Belfast instead of Limerick the 32 county economy still benefits.

4. Truculent Unionists will divide Ireland for an eternity if they can. They'll come up with any shit to get one over on Irish nationalism. Why willingly aid them in any plans that involve their principal goal; the sectarian partition of the country.

5. Yes, there are a lot of independent states competing against 26c Ireland. But they're not our own people competing against us on our own island - encouraging much deeper north- south divisions.

Repartition would not be anyone's choice, I agree. But it might be the only way to force an end to partition in the next 25 years. The GFA, as this issue hints at, will create more Northern Irelanders than United Irelanders.

Nationalists in the north are constitutionally impotent as things stand, and many frustrated. Nothing but a slooooooow rise in nationalist numbers can change the status quo. Who can honestly say when that will happen and all the variables fall into place?

But a majority in Fermanagh or Derry democratically pushing for secession fron NI in the next 10 years so it can join the Republic will really put the ball in motion and reinvigorate the national issue.

Who knows what the best path is. But repartition isn't as crazy as it once seemed. And repartition makes the Irish government prepare for the consequences of unification, instead of talking shite about it for generations.

Mack said...

1. It's not dog-eat-dog between states. States benefit enormously from mutual trade (re- economist Ricardo).

2. If the north attracts jobs while the south flounders then I imagine southerners would move north. And vice versa.
Unionists may love it, but so what? No more MI5 spying on the populace, no more dissedents trying to blow things up, or armed loyalists, or British special forces, or Union flags, or GSTQ, or confrontations over any of that stuff.

3. That's just as true with two states, there's just two exchequers. Both of whom will spend whatever money they raise in taxes (and more) in Ireland. Cross-border trade will see that wealth shared to some degree.

4. Sort of true, I guess. What about nationalisms goals? Irish self-determination and self-governance? They would be fulfilled.

5. 70 million Irish worldwide. With nationalists making up close too and in the future over 50% of the population in NI, I'm pretty sure we'd have good relations.

Repartition won't work unless it's a final settlement, all in one go. The British, Irish governments and the unionists wouldn't stand for it. Piecemeal repartition massively weakens any remaining nationalists in the north each time it occurs. Better to draw a fair line and provide resettlement grants and let that be that. It didn't work out so well the first time though.