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Getting There

Andy Pollak

Making Sense of a United Ireland: Should it happen? How might it happen?, by Brendan O’Leary, Sandycove Penguin, 376 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1844-86050

This is an important and superbly argued book, rich in detail, truth-telling but also hard-nosed. It is the first deeply considered exploration of how and why Irish unity should come about through a Border poll as allowed for by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It is not without its flaws, an almost exclusively nationalist reading of the future being the major one. However, it should be required reading for everyone – including unionists – who are interested in and concerned about the fate of this island (including their part of it). Unionist sensibilities are recognised and analysed, although in the end they are deemed less important than the interests of a new nation united, however narrowly, by separate referendums in the two jurisdictions.

O’Leary’s central thesis is a politico-cultural one:

A successful project of Irish reunification must be more inclusive than recent nationalist projects. Irish reunification must overcome the colonial legacies. The historic settlers must be both treated as natives and facilitated in preserving their culture – in all its variety, reformed or otherwise. To commence this task, the future securities for Ulster Protestants and British unionists – in their full internal diversity – will have to be made clear in advance. The diminution of a culture of contempt among Ulster Protestants towards Irish Catholics will make this task easier, but it will not be easy. The Irish nation has been built on the premise that the norm is to be of Irish stock, Catholic, and favourably disposed towards the Irish language. This premise will have to be refurbished. Ulster Unionism has been constructed in opposition to Irish nationalism: it will resist what it will see as its final defeat.

Elsewhere he writes: “Our plan must expansively accommodate the prospective losers. But not too much. The plan must be sufficiently credible that Southerners will not fear for the stability of their hard-won constitutional republic.” He admits that the most likely cause of that fear would be a possible pre- or post-referendum loyalist insurrection.

Whether the “refurbishment” suggested by O’Leary is going to be adequate for the huge job required is an open question. He devotes a whole chapter to this under the title “Integration is not coercive assimilation”. He outlines in detail his “Model 1” for unity, under which Northern Ireland would persist as a devolved government within a united Ireland (the power-sharing Good Friday Agreement institutions continuing except with Dublin instead of London as the overseeing authority), as a way of maintaining “British and Protestant identifications, modes of being, and symbols in a united Ireland”. He does not explain convincingly how this will work if by the time unity comes about nationalists, led by Sinn Féin, are in a majority in the North. In the end, despite this argument – and also because of the poor record of two-part federations internationally and the likelihood that the Southern electorate would reject a weak federal government featuring over-representation from the North ‑ he comes down on the side of an integrated/unitary state (his “Model 2”). He also asks: “If the power-sharing institutions cannot function within the Union, why should they work better within a united Ireland?”

In terms of protections for unionism in such a state, he opts for the weak legal safeguard of the 1994 European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (has anyone heard of that?). He proposes that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth, but only after reunification. He says Northern Protestants should not be obliged to learn Irish. There would be no over-representation of unionists in a post-unity Dáil, unlike the extra Seanad seats for Protestants after the establishment of the Irish Free State. And he concludes, depressingly, that the Good Friday Agreement’s clause about the British and Irish governments’ acceptance of the right of people who identify as British or Irish or both to hold both citizenships – much trumpeted by nationalists and republicans as a future safeguard for unionists – is merely a restatement of the pre-existing status quo.

O’Leary is a strong supporter of the complex d’Hondt method of government formation in the North, and proposes its incorporation into post-unity institutions: at one point he even seems to suggest that deputies in a future united Ireland Dáil might have to designate as Catholic or Protestant, Irish or British. He proposes that in order to allow unionists who continue to be British citizens to stand for election and vote in constitutional referenda in a future united state, the Irish government should legislate to make them Irish citizens (against their will?). However he underplays the role that a triumphant Sinn Féin might wield as the largest party in a coalition that eventually achieves unity: how, for example, would the future unionist minority react to a Sinn Féin-led government’s determination to commemorate (and glorify) the IRA killers of hundreds of Northern police officers and part-time soldiers during the Troubles period?

He says, correctly, that when the British-designed border is gone, there will continue to be “a British question in a united Ireland – even if Great Britain dissolves – and that question requires deep and careful consideration”. Which we in the South are certainly light years away from considering.

This impressively wide-ranging book deals with every aspect of unity and unity referendums: lessons from countries like Cyprus and Germany; the mechanics and processes of referendums; the possible models and processes in Ireland; the government of a united Ireland; the economics of reunification; dealing with loyalist opposition to unity; and accommodating diversity in a united Ireland. He warns, in particular, against an irresponsible, Brexit-style Irish referendum: “irresponsibly debated, saturated with disinformation, without proper planning for either outcome, and with shady funding”.

Southern politicians and civil society need to consider in deliberative depth what changes, if any, they would like to make to the Constitution either in advance (e.g. to encompass the identities, rights and interests of new minorities, including a large British minority) or that would go into effect contingent upon reunification. They need to start at the very beginning of the Constitution.

The strongest section of this book, as one would expect from a brilliant political scientist ‑ a world authority on power-sharing systems and an adviser to the UN and governments on communal and sectarian conflicts ‑ is on the models and processes of referendums leading to unity (he barely contemplates a referendum leading to the continuation of the UK status quo). The weakest is on security and how a new united Irish state might deal with violent loyalist opposition to its advent and establishment.

O’Leary outlines in graphic – and to unionists, painful – detail how demography in Northern Ireland is going in one direction only. In Lord Ashcroft’s November 2021 Northern Ireland opinion poll, 71 per cent of those aged eighteen to twenty-four said they would vote for Irish unity, compared with 25 per cent aged sixty-five or over, reflecting the preponderance of Protestants in the older age group (interestingly, women polled across the age groups were far more “undecided” than men). These figures would certainly be supported by the more recently published 2021 census results. “It is plausible that a referendum in the North might be called around 2030, and it is probable that it can be won by non-unionists” is O’Leary’s conclusion. He believes that by that time the future of Northern Ireland will be in the hands of a non-Protestant majority of electoral age. As a close observer of Northern Ireland in general and Ulster unionism in particular, I have my doubts about both the timescale and the result in that timescale. Why, for example, has the vote for the two main nationalist parties – Sinn Féin and the SDLP – been stuck at around 40 per cent for the past twenty-four years?

But I agree with his contention about the overall direction of travel. O’Leary warns that “to facilitate losers’ consent, the period ahead must be carefully used to make reunification more attractive to the ‘others’ [that is Alliance and other centre ground voters], particularly to cultural Protestants among the others and the self-identifying neither/nors, long before as well as during and after the referendum. It is necessary to think about a soft landing for those unionists shocked by a vote against the Union.”

O’Leary is no apologist for the IRA. “Bitter experience has taught us that reunification through conquest, insurrection, demanding a unilateral British withdrawal or a war of national liberation is impractical, counterproductive and ethically wrong,” he writes. He emphasises that from the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement through the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government was agreeing that there was only one way a change of constitutional status in the North could take place: “through the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.

Here I have to confess to a change of mind. In 2019, as co-author of the late Seamus Mallon’s memoir A Shared Home Place, I agreed with that distinguished SDLP politician that a 50 per cent plus one vote for unity in a Border poll would not be sufficient to bring about a politically and socially harmonious united Ireland. I still agree with him in broad terms. But I have had to come to terms with the compelling argument (by O’Leary among others) that any attempt to require a weighted “super-majority” to achieve unity would create an inherent inequality in unionist and nationalist votes, unfairly favouring the former to the detriment of the latter. It could also lead to the nightmare scenario of a majority vote to abolish partition being thwarted by a “super-majority” requirement, thus keeping Northern Ireland within the UK to placate the then unionist minority. Northern Ireland’s legitimacy, always called into question by its nationalist community, would be utterly and dangerously undermined. A new IRA would quickly arise to attack it.

O’Leary states, without equivocation, that under the Good Friday Agreement, Northerners may choose between just two alternatives: keeping the Union with Britain, or joining a sovereign united Ireland. “That’s it. No ifs, not buts, no third ways.” He is utterly dismissive – too dismissive, I believe ‑ of other options like confederation and joint sovereignty. The GFA is “holy writ”, he seems to say, incapable of review or amendment (despite such review or amendment being specifically built into paragraph 7 of the review section of that agreement).

The author then proceeds to expound the alternatives on offer in a Border poll. He demands clarity from the Republic’s politicians and people about what reunification will mean. “The Irish Government, political parties and Irish civil society, interacting as fully as possible with their Northern – including their unionist – counterparts, must define a united Ireland, properly in advance, in documented detail.” There is little chance of this happening in the near future, and what chance is there of a future Sinn Féin led-government “interacting” with the unionists in advance of a Border poll?

O’Leary says that ensuring that such a united Ireland is well defined “can occur in two ways. Either by the careful elaboration of a specific model, or by credibly specifying a clear constitutional process to follow a result in favour of reunification” (my italics). The model approach is relatively straightforward, with one major flaw. “The relevant model [to clarify what kind of united Ireland will be proposed during the referendums] will be offered by the Government of Ireland, on behalf of the Southern citizenry, after having taken in-depth and sustained soundings of Northern opinion. The model will be published before the North votes, and it will have to be endorsed by the South when it votes subsequently in its matching referendum.” (O’Leary believes the best process is a Northern referendum followed by a Southern referendum.) The flaw, of course, is that the political representatives of unionism will refuse to contribute their opinion, on the basis that turkeys don’t give their opinions about the Christmas dinner.

The process approach is more complex. Under this, only the “question of principle” (Irish unity or continued UK membership) would be decided in the two referendums, North and South (and, if these opt for unity, the result would be irreversible). Hard-nosed pragmatism is the order of the day here. “Most unionists will not engage on their preferred model of a united Ireland until they have lost in the referendum, so we should halt discussions of a possible model until they have definitively lost.” After they have lost, an elected all-Ireland constitutional convention would be convened to propose amendments (either extensive or minimal) to the present Irish Constitution. “This convention is where the model would be decided.” All the really difficult issues would therefore be postponed until the convention, in which the defeated unionists, now representing one-sixth of the island’s population, would be a small minority.

The major difficulty with this latter approach, O’Leary admits, is that before they vote in the referendum Northerners would not know the outcome of the constitutional convention. Another problem would be that if there was no agreement at this convention, or if its proposed constitutional amendments were voted down in a further all-Ireland referendum, “the default would be Bunreacht na hÉireann, with or without a recognised subordinate legislature in the North”. O’Leary, like the clear-eyed political scientist he is, has foreseen and honestly articulated the thorny issues threatening his proposed outcome. And once again the unionists would lose out and a unitary state would be the default option.

At this convention, says O’Leary, two models would be on offer: a unitary state ruled by a central government and legislature which could make or break regional and local governments. And a federal state, in which sovereignty would be shared between a central government in Dublin (with powers over areas like foreign affairs, defence and some taxation) and a devolved government in Belfast with responsibility for most other matters.

Here is another problem. “In the process approach, the transitional arrangements, unavoidably, would have to take place under the existing Constitution of Ireland. But these transitional arrangements would have to be clear before the referendum. You can see where this discussion is headed. There is no pure process: a transitional model will have to be advocated, and the transitional arrangements will likely predict the final model.” Once again, the odds are tilted against the unionists.

Similarly, the cards are stacked in favour of a unitary state and against the federal option. “The integrated model is the default unless and until Dáil Eireann and the Senate vote to recognise the Northern Ireland Assembly as a subordinate legislature. If the convention failed, or if its draft constitution was rejected by the people, then the Oireachtas would decide, by normal legislation, which of the two feasible models went into effect.” This sounds to me like assimilation of the North by default.

One would expect unionists to prefer the federal model, as the least worst option in the event of unity, in that it would recognise “unionists’ local patriotism towards Northern Ireland, and facilitate numerous ways of enabling Northern Ireland to remain, or become, different from the rest of the island, all while being part of a sovereign, united Ireland”. This version of unity would be “constitutionally and institutionally conservative with a small ‘c’”. It certainly would not be the radically transformative vision of a “new Ireland” that Sinn Féin often appears to be championing (although O’Leary stresses that SF is highly unlikely to become the majority party in the Republic, so reunification can only be brought about by a multi-party coalition there). However, if it brings along a significant minority of unionists – a conservative group in so many ways – it might just have a chance of working.

Southerners, on the other hand, “will not wish to risk the stability of the state they have built – they will want to recognise the state they have built in a united Ireland”. For this reason, and others already mentioned, they will probably reject federalism. They may plump for a unitary state, but what the reunified Germans call “walls in the mind” are likely to be a barrier to national reconciliation (a word O’Leary avoids) for a very long time after reunification.

Despite his contention that a successful unity referendum is possible by 2030, O’Leary is fully cognisant of the dangers of moving too fast towards a unitary state. “Without advance planning, engagement and deliberation, a Southern takeover is what will happen ubiquitously if the integrated model is chosen. A Southern takeover would be the likely outcome of a last-minute, improvised and ill-considered reunification.” He stresses that a “key objective” of reunification must be “to make unionists feel welcome and secure in their own homeland, homes, and places of work and leisure”. To this end he believes that “rather than a fast-paced transfer to an integrated Ireland, the preservation of Northern Ireland within a united Ireland for a transitional period may be considered the more prudent judgement”.

Without that extremely challenging advance planning and engagement ‑ not the empty, rhetorical versions that Sinn Féin and  the campaigning group Ireland’s Future espouse – O’Leary admits that unionists could “in extremis” support an attempted loyalist insurrection before or during the planned referendums, targeted in particular at Southern voters, and perhaps aiming for a repartition to hold parts of Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry. “Repartition would materialize as a messy and bloody choice if – and only if – loyalist militia are allowed to arm on a significant scale; if Irish reunification plans are, or are made to appear, deeply unattractive to cultural Protestants; and if unionists prefer the risk of a loyalist insurrection to emigration or remaking their political lives in a united Ireland.”

“Kid gloves must now be replaced by tough love for the loyalist paramilitaries,” the author argues. “Irish strategy must be to persuade sufficient loyalists that they will be equal citizens in a united Ireland, with full political, civil, cultural and religious rights, and significant prospects of improved prosperity, but at the same time deprive them of any hope that an insurrection against reunification would succeed.” He warns that “it is prudent to avoid provoking a loyalist insurrection, and equally prudent to be prepared to defeat one”. The job of persuasion is going to be fiendishly difficult if their most loathed antagonist, Sinn Féin – the party of the Provisional IRA – is overseeing the transition to unity. Putting down a loyalist insurrection is going to be similarly difficult given the weakness of Ireland’s military.

The Irish state must ensure that only its forces tackle any loyalist insurrection, repressing any “private republican vigilantes”. An “adequate army in reserve” will be needed and Ireland – with one of the lowest defence expenditures in Europe ‑ will have to rebuild its defence capacities very significantly over the next decade to deal with such an emergency. Even more problematically, our small Army must “improve its own intelligence-gathering and monitoring of loyalist militia. The Directorate of Military Intelligence must have that as a central goal.” All I can say is that this will be starting from an extremely low base and with few prospects of success: the very notion of Irish army “plants” in loyalist paramilitary groups is almost unthinkable. “Intelligence must be gathered on where loyalists obtain their current weaponry, and significant efforts made to ensure the island is as free of private weaponry as possible. That requires a good navy.” Here the mind starts to boggle at the idea of Ireland’s tiny and woefully undermanned naval service sealing off the whole island to arms importers!

This is the book’s weakest section. O’Leary’s honesty about a probable loyalist backlash is unfortunately not backed by any assurance that the Irish defence forces have the capability to deal with it. But at least he recognises the problem, unlike most people in the Republic, who simply bury their heads in the sand and prefer not to think about it: “Given Irish history, especially in the North, the recurrence of significant violence may happen, whatever action or inaction occurs in the South over the next decade.” However he argues that the threat of violence must not be used to prevent planning for or holding a referendum. “Peaceful and democratic change must not be allowed to be blocked by fear, when such fear could itself be reduced by appropriate and open preparation and planning. Blackmail must be expected; it should not be tolerated.”

The economic arguments for unity are becoming stronger by the day, as Ireland survives Brexit, the Covid pandemic and (hopefully) the cost of living crisis caused by the Ukrainian war in better shape than Britain. O’Leary quotes the economist and journalist David McWilliams on why the Republic is now much better off than the North: its economy four times larger with a workforce that is only two and a half times bigger; industrial output ten times larger; its exports seventeen times greater. He cites a study by Adele Bergin and Seamus McGuinness of the Economic and Social Research Institute which argues that disposable household income is a reliable comparative measure of standards of living, and by that measure the average Republic of Ireland household is already US$4,600 better off per year than its Northern counterpart. With such statistics, “it is better to be poor in the Republic than in the North”, the author concludes.

I would have preferred O’Leary not to have relied so much on the over-optimistic 2015 modelling study of the economic impact of unity by University of British Columbia professor Kurt Hübner and colleagues, which assumed that a peaceful reunification would see Northern Ireland enjoying an immediate boost in GDP per head in the following seven years, with – under the most optimistic scenario – Ireland as a whole enjoying a cumulative increase in GDP per head of over €17,000. Given the likelihood of violence, which will keep foreign direct investment away from the North, I simply do not believe this. Similarly, I would like to see Dublin City University political scientist John Doyle’s argument that the real British subvention to Northern Ireland is not £10-12 billion annually, but – when deductions for historic pension liabilities, UK foreign debt, defence and other items are taken into account – a mere £2.4-2.9 million, confirmed by a study from a reputable economic statistician.

As post-Brexit British democracy totters from crisis to crisis, the pound falls and its economy lags behind its European neighbours, it is hard not to agree with O’Leary’s conclusion that it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Republic of Ireland (and by extension an eventual united Ireland) is now simply a better, fairer and more prosperous country than the United Kingdom. It is a dynamic, English-speaking unit within the world’s largest and wealthiest economic bloc, and a magnet for US and other multinational investment. “A united Ireland may also be judged a comparatively better democracy than its immediate neighbour. The Republic is a more modernised, liberalised, secularised, law-abiding, tolerant and pluralist society than that governed by the Westminster Parliament.” As a Northerner who has spent over fifty years in this republic, I have always resisted this kind of boasting, finding self-regarding smugness to be one of the Republic’s least attractive traits. But on this occasion I am ad idem with Professor O’Leary.

The huge and continuing challenge is to convince a significant number of unionists that this “new Ireland” is worth becoming a part of, and that they should ignore over three hundred years of mutual fear, hatred and conflict and choose, however reluctantly, to throw in their lot with the ancient enemy. O’Leary finishes with a topical warning to the Democratic Unionist Party: “All scenarios in which the Northern Assembly and Executive fail – especially if the DUP is held culpable for that – would make Model 1, as outlined in this book, far less likely to become the chosen form of a united Ireland.” That party “may yet bring about the death of devolution [this time as part of a federal solution] in another self-defeating move.”


Andy Pollak was founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and is a former Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin. He is the co-author of Seamus Mallon: A Shared Home Place (2019). He is from a Northern Presbyterian background.



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