Architecting a United Ireland: A Federal Solution?

Guest post by Dr Anthony Costello, lecturer in EU Politics and Comparative Government at the Department of Government, University College Cork.

Following the United Kingdom’s (UK) 2016 Brexit Referendum, regional disparities in referendum results inspired fresh questions regarding the future make-up of the United Kingdom. The referendum outcome in Scotland expressed 62% Remain support and swiftly encouraged the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon to consider holding a second Scottish Referendum on Independence. However, the notion of a second referendum was short lived in face of the dramatic fall in support for the SNP in UK’s 2017 General Election. The loss of one-third of seats in Westminster may have urged Sturgeon to divert her attention away from the idea and focus on her attention toward asserting Scotland’s national interest in anticipation of the inevitability of Brexit and Scotland’s continued place in the United Kingdom. Judging from the failure of the first Referendum on Scottish Independence, Scottish nationalists are not quite ready to envisage a future for Scotland outside the UK. Brexit has not altered this preference.

Across the Irish sea, Scotland’s Northern Irish counterparts are also faced with questions surrounding their future membership of the UK. Northern Ireland’s 55.7% support for the Brexit Remain campaign appears (for some) to have brought into question the attitudes of the majority of Northern Irelands voters (Nationalists and Unionists alike) toward the idea of a United Ireland. There is no hard evidence to suggest that the Brexit Referendum results in Northern Ireland correlate with voter desire for a United Ireland, given that Brexit is commencing. It is unlikely that the Unionist proportion of the population in particular, who voted to Remain in the EU, would support the idea of a United Ireland. After all, they are still Unionist by nature and express a distinctively pro-British identity. Nevertheless, for many outside Northern Ireland, the burning question is gaining momentum––especially in the Irish Republic.

Given that the notion of a United Ireland is growing in interest, it calls into question, what exactly would a United Ireland look like? Despite the growing interest and even hopes for such a development, few have given considerable thought to the actual physical architecture of such a development. Considering the historical, political and cultural complexities that backdrop the Northern Ireland State and which underline North-South relations––it is not conceivable that a United Ireland can feasibly equate with a unitary-state. This holds for several reasons.

From a Northern Irish viewpoint, centralisation of power in the Oireachtas would effectively diminish the legitimacy of devolution experienced (on and off) in Northern Ireland for circa. 96 years. Devolution (with the addition of the power-sharing arrangement) is central to the flourishing of peace in the region as a means to equalise power between the two historically conflicting communities. Devolution provides a base for responsible political activity and order. Centralisation of power would have significant constitutional consequences for the status of the Good Friday Agreement and would likely undermine the progress made since 1998. This would mean the elimination of the power-sharing arrangement for which peace and compromise in the North is dependent on. Centralisation would ultimately challenge the relative influence of Unionism, whilst elevating the power and influence of Nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin––due to their own unification process with their Southern faction. A reduction of power and influence in a new State is challenging enough for a community––but collective insecurity, and feelings of displacement, marginalisation and otherness, amidst a reluctant transition into a Unified Ireland could likely sow the seeds for breakdown in social and economic stability in Ulster. Alternatively, one could argue that the move could actually strengthen the Unionist voice by influencing the merging of the UUP and DUP closer together as a means to enhance the Unionist voice in a predominantly Catholic-populated new State. This in itself could bring its own problems for the administration of power in a United Ireland, if designed around a unitary-state model.

The addition of a Unionist voice in the Oireachtas would challenge policy-making and governance in Dublin to some degree. The Oireachtas would inherit a degree of right-wing ideology apparently long faded from the politics of the South. The addition of Unionism to the fold could potentially make coalition building a more tedious task to execute. Centralisation could also mean that socially progressive legislation currently enacted (i.e. same-sex marriage), or potentially enacted (i.e. abortion rights) by a mainstream Irish executive could have profound consequences for the social policy expectations/convictions of hard-line Unionists who currently hold much support and power in the Northern region. The addition of Northern Irish voters to national referendums on social issues––many who share social values influenced by deeply religious morals––could constrain policy progress in Ireland. Additionally, if Sinn Féin power and influence were to strengthen in a unitary United Ireland, this too could greatly challenge the power and influence of mainstream parties, whether from the opposition benches, or perhaps even from the Irish Executive. If Sinn Féin received support from the SDLP due to their similar ideological values rooted in Irish Nationalism, this would provide a strong potential for the party in the Oireachtas to form a strong national Executive, if public support was in their favour.

Many of these points are merely hypothetical and perhaps even too suggestive without social scientific indicators. However, they are nevertheless they sound possibilities. If such possibilities are likely in the near future, one is required to overcome the consequences. This requires critical thinking about the architecture of statehood for a United Ireland.

A Federal Republic of Ireland seems to be an enticing option that would diminish some of the consequences associated with unitary United island and instill confidence within the Northern region. A Federal Republic derived from a new national constitution could create a strong and stable Republic, politically providing for the unique geo-political and socio-political differences on the island. Northern Ireland’s status would be elevated from devolution to state-hood––thus providing constitutional guarantees and confidence for those in Ulster to manage their own affairs (social and otherwise) without interference from Dublin. This would be enhanced through the creation of state/regional constitutions for both North and South. Such a design would allow Northern Irish political parties and the Northern Irish people to direct public policy in a manner that suits the values, needs and requirements within the region. It would also allow for the sustainability of the unique power-sharing arrangement alongside other particularities associated with the Good Friday Agreement to ensure a stable polity, society and economy in the North. For the South, it would help avoid many drastic and uncomfortable changes to party-politics and some of the likely consequences for government formation. Effectively, the structural and operational status-quo can be kept in both the South and the North without significant adjustment costs and uncertain alterations to the systems.

Naturally, a federal system of governance beyond the Oireachtas and Stormont would need to be created for the administration of high politics such as macro-economic policy and Foreign Affairs etc., including Federal law. Such a forum would incorporate members of the Northern and Southern Parliaments and reflect the national majority interests through a PR system of voting. In turn, this would allow for nation-wide discourse and decision making on vital national questions and high politics decision making, without interfering with the autonomy of the two ‘states’ to navigate their own regional political, economic, social and cultural systems derived from to their own unique branches of common history.

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One thought on “Architecting a United Ireland: A Federal Solution?

  1. Great read! As many Irish have romanticised with the notion of a united Ireland for a long time, it now seems inevitable that over the course of the next 5-10 years, there is a need to re-examine the current political systems both north and south of the border.
    If the possibility of a Federal Republic is to be considered, it would likely cause a mobilisation of extreme factions within unionist groups. The re emergence of violence in Northern Ireland is something which must be taken into consideration when flirting with the idea of a Federal Republic. Given the current political situation in the north, it is now vital to ensure that stable governence is restored to the northern executive so that the pressing issue of Brexit can be effectively dealt with. The DUP is somewhat ultra-conservative in some of its views on marriage equality and abortion and it would present difficulties when trying to implement a constitution which potentially could apply both north and south of the border.
    However, it all seems like the stuff of fantasy at the moment. I am not sure we will ever even reach the point of holding a border pole. Time and the will of both sides will tell.

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