Three decades ago two eminent political scientists, John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, gave as their opinion that power-sharing or consociation offered the best available framework for a settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict. Their work, optimistically titled The Future of Northern Ireland (1990), was written in the dark days of the 1980s. An IRA ceasefire, still less something like the Good Friday Agreement, was barely conceivable back then. Yet both came to pass in the 1990s. For once it was historically-minded social scientists rather than economists who performed well in the forecasting stakes.
To many of us the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998 seemed to usher in a new era of peaceful politics in which power-sharing would prevail and the ultimate constitutional status of Northern Ireland would be left as an open, and perhaps not particularly pressing, problem. The opening section of the agreement called for a fresh start in which “we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all”. The prescience of the authors seemed all but confirmed. Looking to the longer term, they suggested “if consociation succeeds, it becomes dispensable; that is consociational democracy can facilitate a transition to ‘normal’ democratic competition, in which sectarian or ethnic divisions are diminished or transcended”.
Has that promise stood the test of time? There is no doubt Northern Ireland is in an infinitely better place than it was during the shut-down, shot-up days of the Troubles. These gains should not be lightly passed over. But there is the paradox that despite the implementation of power-sharing (for periods) and a relative absence of political violence, the unionist and nationalist blocs seem as far apart as ever. Sinn Féin dominates the nationalist landscape; the DUP dominates unionist representation at Stormont and Westminster. Not only is there little sign of the withering of ethnic identities, at least as reflected in voting patterns, but some argue that people are more polarised than ever before. The fact that the Stormont administration fell apart and was self-suspended for three years between 2017 and 2020 is hardly reassuring.
But had we a right to expect otherwise in view of the deep history of conflict? After all, it seems unrealistic to expect that a republican movement that fought for three decades for a “united” Ireland, thousands of whose members passed through the prison system, would then turn round and abandon its foundational principle. The first issue of the Provisional Sinn Féin newspaper, An Phoblacht, in February 1970, proclaimed that the party was standing on the “Rock of the Republic” and would not be deflected by parliamentary politics or other distractions from its ultimate goal of a united Ireland. The road ahead was through armed struggle. The methods might change but there seems no reason to presume a change of heart in the meantime, given that it is still an article of faith within the republican movement that the decades-long struggle was not only heroic but necessary.
Similarly the DUP has trumpeted, again and again, its loyalty to the Crown, its British sense of identity and its hostility to life in an Irish Republic. On occasion it has dallied with Protestant paramilitaries, most notably during the loyalist workers’ strikes of 1974 and 1977. Its members have been assassinated and others have suffered terrible injuries as a result of IRA violence, so there is no reason to expect a retreat from its reason for being. In short, power-sharing has done little so far to solve the political riddle whereby two ethno-religious blocs holding diametrically opposed national aspirations can evolve in the direction of “normal” politics.
What of the future? It may be worth hazarding a guess or two in the pioneering spirit of McGarry and O’Leary. Two scenarios spring to mind. We might conceive of variants of each but it is more manageable to focus on the polar opposites. The first of these points towards a united Ireland, possibly with a devolved administration in Belfast as part of an overall settlement. The second is the more hybrid devolved government within the UK, as currently in place though perhaps with changes.
The reasons to predict the first outcome might run as follows. The most passionate, ruthless and well-resourced political force on the island of Ireland is Sinn Féin. But it is unlike other parties in some fundamental respects. Elected representatives do not determine policy, or even make minor decisions without approval from within the party. Its public representatives are steered by a tight group of veterans from the days of the “armed struggle”; these are mainly located in Belfast, and they served their political apprenticeship in the Maze Prison. They may or may not be members of the army council of the IRA in another guise. Notions of compromise rarely enter the vocabulary of these brothers-in-arms, nor do they hold sentimental assumptions that unionists will one day see the light and be persuaded otherwise. They know the “other” only too well. Unionist opposition to a united Ireland has to be crushed, though in less crude ways than in the past. At a meeting in Enniskillen in 2014 Gerry Adams spoke of the “Trojan horse” of equality which might be used to “break these bastards”. (He later clarified his remarks to insist that he was not referring to all unionists, just the bigoted ones.)
It seems the “Belfast backroom boys”, graduates of the Maze academy, steer the republican juggernaut, with many of its public representatives passively seated on board, towards the green terminus that appears to be just over the horizon. Centralised control and army-style discipline keep the enterprise firmly on track. Politics is accepted as war by other means and controversies round Orange marches, the Irish language, Brexit and other divisive issues are welcomed as opportunities for substituting one form of conflict for another. The republican reflex is struggle; conflict is in the bloodstream. The pay-off is the discomfiture of unionists, the sapping of their morale, and the scent of anticipated victory.
All of this requires resources. In this Sinn Féin is blessed. It is the richest political party in Ireland, which is unusual for a party with working class origins. It administers an annual budget of £5 million, though some suspect this may not be all the funds at its disposal. It has an extensive property portfolio, a national network of offices and some two hundred paid workers. This resource position is not matched by any other party. While it might be as well not to dwell too closely on where some of the finance originated, the point is that the party holds a strong competitive advantage in relation to other parties in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Electoral successes, North and South, are combining to hasten the coming of Poblacht na hÉireann – the kind proclaimed in arms on Easter Monday 1916, not the milk-and-water Free State version.
Incidentally, the aspiration to unite Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, as promoted by the United Irishmen in the 1790s, has in practice long been abandoned, at least this side of Irish unity. The truth is republicans have been unsuccessful in winning either Protestant or Dissenter to the cause of Irish unity. So why persist with an obsolete policy sanctioned by ideology but failing in practice, it might well be argued? The realpolitik dictates a fight to the finish, relying first and last on the Catholic population. The gateway is through a border poll. One of the provisions in the Belfast Agreement is that if the secretary of state deems it likely at some point that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would wish “to cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”, then he is obliged to hold such a poll and give expression to these wishes. If a fifty per cent plus one vote for Irish unity is achieved, then that is the end of the Union. Consociation may have been useful during the transition period following the Good Friday Agreement but it goes out the window in the crunch time.
Demographic dynamics, or in crude terms Catholics outbreeding Protestants, is regularly highlighted and points towards a pre-ordained ending. Some republicans might go a little further and see merit in compounding the pressure on Protestants by making the social and cultural environment of Northern Ireland as uncomfortable as possible for unionists, with a view to promoting Protestant out-migration (a cold-house option unionists were happy to visit on Catholics in the days of Stormont). Though not necessary conditions, some external events such as Scottish independence and a new partition of the UK might accelerate the inevitable. Similarly, if the economy of the Republic raced ahead of Britain and Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit world so much the better. With so many planets coming into alignment, the dawning of the day of Irish unity by one means or another seems a highly plausible end game. Its inevitability is virtually an article of faith among Irish republicans.
Strangely, and unexpectedly, this reading of historical and contemporary times finds a fair degree of support from one of the great historians of modern Ireland, ATQ Stewart ‑ and he a unionist to boot. Stewart saw continuity in what he described as the war between two religious cultures, a struggle that extended back four hundred years. He had little faith in a consociational future, imbued as he was with a pessimistic view of human nature. Quoting Kant to the effect that “of the crooked timber of humanity” no straight thing can ever be made, he found confirmation for his thesis in “the irreconcilables of Irish history”, all of which came to dwell in the North. This is from Stewart’s The Shape of Irish History, to my mind an undiscovered classic of Irish historiography. It appeared, not before (as one might imagine) but a few years after the Good Friday Agreement. Its pronouncement on peace initiatives has the directness and shock value of graffiti splashed on a red-brick wall in post-industrial Belfast. We must realise that “ … all efforts to promote ‘reconciliation’ are singularly futile”. The tram lines were laid down in the past and periodically reinforced by violence. While he did not spell out the political future, Stewart’s line of thought runs in parallel with that of Sinn Féin ideologues. Communal and national differences are non-negotiable. Short of infinite stasis, which is an impossibility in a changing world, the implication has to be that a final resolution of the conflict will necessarily involve the victory of one side over the other. While I have no authority or indeed evidence to add a further claim, it may be that Stewart’s mood is a subconscious reflection of political pessimism regarding the Union’s future. If so, it is a pessimism widely shared among Ulster unionists. It is a state of mind noticed by Irish republicans and is open to exploitation. It also of course has the potential to become self-fulfilling.
An alternative scenario might posit a very different future in which benign forces, more in line with the consociational model, played out. A striking feature of recent elections in Northern Ireland has been the strengthening of the middle ground or what the political scientist John Whyte once described as the “hard centre” of politics. The largest centre party is the Alliance Party, Northern Ireland. Its electoral fortunes have fluctuated down the years since its formation in 1970 but there has been a renaissance in recent years. In last year’s European election Alliance increased its share of the vote by 160 per cent as compared with its previous outing in 2014. In the more recent UK general election of December 2019 it more than doubled its voting share as compared with the previous general election in 2017. Some commentators have seen this as a turning point, indicating the belated growth and solidification of the middle ground and a movement away from the Orange and Green extremes.
From an initially non-sectarian unionist stance Alliance thinking has evolved towards a neutral position on the merits or otherwise of the Union, focusing on better community relations and more immediate social, economic and educational issues. It refuses to designate itself as either nationalist or unionist, it is critical of enforced power-sharing on the grounds that this entrenches sectarian division, and it draws support from both communities. In Belfast it holds the balance of power between nationalist and unionist parties and is disproportionately influential on a number of other councils. It is a living embodiment of consociational principles. As long as it remains a significant electoral and moderating force it is difficult to see how a majority for Irish unity might emerge. A majority of its members favour the Union.
Two further straws in the wind may be plucked from recent survey reports. According to the NI Life and Times survey for 2018, a full 50 per cent of respondents described themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist. This finding was more pronounced among women and among younger age groups. Within the subgroup of Catholics almost half (48 per cent) did not label themselves as unionist or nationalist. Secondly, a 2019 survey conducted by Liverpool University reported that mixed marriages and relationships, often regarded as one of the surest pathways to a confluence of identities, were growing, with almost a quarter of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds living with a partner or married to someone from another religion or no religion.
There are two further complications possibly standing in the way of a united Ireland and by implication suggesting that devolved government within the UK may have a long-term future. One is that a minority of Northern nationalists, while not willing to part with their vote to unionist parties, nonetheless prefer the economic and social framework of the UK. The status quo works and isn’t at all bad. These are the findings from most opinion polls in the North on Irish unity. The Liverpool study just mentioned used face-to-face interviews with 2,000 people and found that only 29 per cent of those interviewed would support Irish unity while 52 per cent would back remaining in the United Kingdom. These findings tend to run counter to the crude demographic argument. The position of pro-Union Catholic voters, it might be added, is eased by Westminster subsidies, a large state sector, vigorous anti-discrimination laws and other measures that protect individuals and minorities.
The great imponderable is the judgement of citizens of the existing Republic of Ireland. In the event of a border poll they will also have their say. The time-encrusted rhetoric suggests there can be only one answer but the political practice since the outbreak of the Troubles has been to quarantine the Northern problem. Statements by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and by Micheál Martin, leader of the republican party, Fianna Fáil, during the course of 2019 indicated that a bare majority in the North in favour of Irish unity would not be an acceptable basis for unity. Majoritarian rule in the North did not work that well in the past and would be unlikely to work much better in the future simply because the boot was on the other foot. So a degree of cross-community consensus would be required. Most surveys of public opinion in the Republic tend to be of the naive kind, inquiring whether people would favour unity but without mentioning the cost implications. As more than one Irish wit has put it, we are “a very favourable people”, be it in relation to the restoration of the Irish language or any number of visionary projects that only require a positive tick, but heaven forbid people should have to take the trouble to use An Ghaeilge beyond the tokenistic cúpla focal (few words). Taking on the burden of the £10 billion annual subsidy from Westminster to prop up living standards in the North, whether in whole or in part, might also be something of a consideration for Irish taxpayers. Additional security costs for the Irish Army and police, and possibly some unpleasant working conditions, might also weigh in the balance.
Not unlike the weather most days in Ireland, the future seems far from settled. The distant skyline might be green, it might be orangeish-green, or greenish-orange, or some new colour compound prepared by Dublin and London. It will certainly not be orange. The pessimism of ATQ Stewart notwithstanding, the future might lie with those best adapted to living with constitutional uncertainty.
Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of history, Queen’s University Belfast. The essay above is an extract from the author’s chapter in a book of essays edited by NC Fleming and James H Murphy, Ireland and Partition: Contexts and Consequences (Clemson University Press, forthcoming 2021).