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Irish Reunification: possible forms it could take


The parties’ election manifestos are elusive about the structure of the united Ireland to which they aspire.

By Anna Mulligan.

The biggest geo-political concern for this country is the possibility that in this decade, or even in the lifetime of the next government, a majority of people in Northern Ireland could be in favour of reuniting with the Republic. 

With the tide of Brexit-caused uncertainty receding, this general election campaign finally offers us a chance to think beyond the next budget – to discuss critically what reunification might mean. 

Since the Brexit referendum, commentators in the Republic have been falling into the trap of engaging with the question of reunification enough to raise hackles, but not enough to inform anyone of anything. 

From Fine Gael to Sinn Fein, many of the parties state that their eventual goal is a united Ireland, but none have a clear position on what a united Ireland would look like. If the Brexit referendum holds a lesson for us, it is not to call a vote on a massive, sweeping change without first developing an understanding of the specific issues involved.

The very term “united Ireland” is part of the problem. The question isn’t whether we should have a “united Ireland”, but whether we should reunite Ireland, and how, and what kind of country that new state would be. 

The Good Friday Agreement is open-ended: it says that a border poll showing a majority in the Republic and the North for reunification would be a binding obligation on both governments to introduce legislation “to give effect to that wish”. The ambiguity in this statement – the nature of the wish, and how effect could be given to it – is ours to make sense of.

In the Republic of Ireland, we have a bicameral parliament and a principally ceremonial President. We amend our constitution frequently by referendums. In Northern Ireland, there is a unicameral devolved legislature responsible for “transferred matters” (issues not reserved to Westminster) and for selecting the Northern Ireland Executive. This selection process is structured so that the Executive will include members from both unionist and nationalist communities, and the Good Friday Agreement requires that some controversial motions in the Assembly be passed by “cross-community vote”. 

A reunification process would involve reconciling these structures. In doing so, three issues are most urgent – devolution, power-sharing, and the constitution. Any kind of reunited Ireland would involve trade-offs between these three concerns. 

Keeping these in mind, there are broadly three ways that Ireland could go about the process of reunification: absorption, devolution, and integration. All of these options are on a continuum:  any arrangement can be more or less federal, involve more or less power-sharing mechanisms, and require more or less constitutional change. As a result, differences of degree need as much consideration as those of kind.

The German Option: Absorption
I’m not going to hold up any one option as preferable, but I do want to dispense with one that merits no consideration: the German model, in which the Republic of Ireland “absorbs” Northern Ireland and changes almost nothing about itself, from its flag to its constitution to its legislature. This model abandons power-sharing, devolution, and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, while it leaves Bunreacht na hÉireann almost untouched. 

This model is the embodiment of unionist fears about reunification. There would be no protections for their interests as a minority, no safeguards to preserve the Good Friday Agreement’s delicate balance. The idea that a century of partition could be unravelled without compromise is unrealistic and inflammatory. 

At times, it seems that this is what the great multitude of people who have been pushing for discussion on the issue mean when they say “united Ireland” – but if it ever does happen, they risk a shock. Now that the threat of a hard border in the near term has lifted, there’s no excuse for raising a delicate issue just to play pretend. Parties and voters in this election need to understand that reunification is not a policy towards Northern Ireland, but a policy of transformation for the Republic of Ireland and the North both.

The Federal Option: Devolution
One alternative is a federal or confederal option. This would effectively continue devolution with the Dáil replacing Westminster, allowing the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to survive in a version of Stormont. This model would seek to acknowledge that distinct political cultures have emerged on this island over the course of partition. 

The more radical option would be a “three parliament” solution, which was considered by the New Ireland Forum in 1984. This envisions separate parliaments and executives, North and South, along with an overarching government with relatively weak central authority. The “three parliaments” solution preserves power-sharing and devolution but would require serious constitutional change, and that a new Ireland bear the costs and complications of sustaining three separate bureaucracies. 

It was for this reason that the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement rejected the “three-parliaments” option in its 2017 report. It proposed another federal option: the “two parliaments” solution. Stormont, it argued, has always existed as a devolved parliament with limited authority. Just as we have seen devolution all over Britain without any apparent need or demand for a devolved authority in England, so – the report argues – would there be little demand for a 26-county parliament in a united Ireland. This model would leave power-sharing intact at a regional level by retaining Stormont as is, while the Oireachtas would operate as Westminster does now. 

Sinn Féin’s manifesto appears to nod to this model, advocating for Northern MPs to be accorded membership in the Dáil – although there is no mention of whether this would foreshadow a similar structure after a vote for reunification. Fine Gael’s manifesto also discusses a commitment to the Good Friday institutions and to devolution that could be compatible with a federal or confederal model, but again, the situation envisioned after a border poll is not made explicit. 

The two-parliaments model would require constitutional reform: Bunreacht na hÉireann would need to be amended to establish the Assembly’s authority over a new set of relevant “transferred matters”, as well as to address the cultural concerns and citizenship preferences of the Northern unionist community. It’s possible that the Good Friday Agreement could act as a guide in this. 

This model also raises the issue of transfer payments, since areas devolved to regional parliaments are often the most expensive parts of a budget like education and health. The scale of the financial transfers from the South to the North involved in reunification (and how they might be offset by funding from the UK, the EU, or both) are speculative, but widely presumed to be massive. Under a devolved system without central oversight on their spending, these transfer payments could seriously affect public support for reunification in the 26 counties.

No matter what, the federal option would significantly alter the politics of the Oireachtas (reunifying the party of Sinn Féin at the very least). The presence of Northern TDs would change the constellation of possible coalitions, and recent history has shown the complications of Northern parties holding the balance of power in fragile governments.

Many, North and South, could view continued devolution as a validation or rationalisation of a partition that they reject. Federal options could certainly entrench rather than break down North-South differences, but they do facilitate compromises on devolution, power-sharing, and constitutional change.

The Power-Sharing Option: Mutual Integration

The “German model” abandons power-sharing and devolution in favour of preserving the constitution. The federal model sustains devolution and limited power-sharing but creates one country with two systems. What’s left? A model I’ll call “mutual integration”, where the Good Friday Agreement institutions disappear on paper, but transform the structure they’re absorbed into. 

Under this model, devolution would end, but power-sharing would be embraced in the Oireachtas, and the constitution would be reformed to be more inclusive and to enshrine protections for the state’s new political minority. The devil with this model is in the details. Power-sharing is complicated; poorly handled, it can seem undemocratic or preferential. 

There are several ways of skinning the power-sharing cat. One, contemplated by the New Ireland Forum, is an increased role for the Seanad in defending minority interests. David Kenny, a constitutional law professor, has written on how this could be done, including giving the Seanad more power to amend or delay Dáil bills and special voting requirements on relevant issues. 

Other possibilities include quotas for the representation of members from the Northern unionist and nationalist communities in the cabinet, civil service, police force, or the judiciary. Kenny mentions the Supreme Court of Canada, which formally allocates Quebec three seats, and mentions that for a long time there was a custom that the Irish Supreme Court would have at least one Protestant member.

There are many ways of reducing the possibility and perception that Northern interests would be steamrolled; the key question is how formal to make these measures. Formalised power-sharing measures are liable to entrench and institutionalise differences; on the other hand, power-sharing measures that operate by norms and convention rely on inter-community trust that they’ll be upheld even when inconvenient. 

Changing the constitution would not solve the problem, because any power-sharing measures inserted into our constitution could be taken right back out with a simple majority in a referendum. Would special measures be needed to entrench power-sharing constitutional reforms? Would there be enough trust in the unionist community otherwise? Although the “mutual integration” model involves a lot of uncertainty, it offers a more comprehensive reunification of North and South.

Both models – devolution and integration – exist in any number of degrees and combinations. 

Apart of course from Sinn Féin, all the main parties (except Solidarity and Rise which see the issue as premature)  suggest that a united Ireland by consensus is an aspiration but that calling a border poll soon would be unnecessarily divisive.  The Fine Gael manifesto for example has a chapter on ‘Northern Ireland and the Future of Our Shared Island’ but very little about its constitutional status. 

Perhaps to avoid this divisiveness, they have avoided discussion of what the united Ireland they aspire to might look like. 

During this election, the electorate should be challenging candidates on what kind of country we would want a reunited Ireland to be: a relationship of two publics under one overarching union? A single country with power-sharing and protection for minority identities baked into its institutional mechanisms and culture? A federation offering its constituent parts some autonomy to allow for a diversity of political responses to our history? A state compromising between its majoritarian and collaborative traditions? A government travelling in a time machine back a century and more in order to avoid compromise? Or a country interested in different meanings of the word “united”?

It would be a pity if the incoming government was elected having taken decisive stances on a border poll without taking any on what sort of Ireland they envisage at the end of the, consensual, process.