I see there’s a fresh Sinn Féin campaign for a United Ireland. I seem to have missed the bit where they trot out the usual “32-county socialist republic” rhetoric. Together with an ongoing discussion on Slugger, sparked by Mack taking issue with one of my previous posts, I’ve been led to consider what people actually mean by the words “United Ireland”.
In many ways it’s similar to the term “United Europe” that causes blood to boil in the veins of the susceptible. To its detractors, it is the ultimate bogeyman – an unforgivable affront to freedom and democracy. To its proponents it is a self-evident and necessary condition for those very ideals. What gets lost in the ensuing carnage is the fact that the term itself is so loosely defined that it is almost meaningless.
Compare the United Kingdom with the United States, or for that matter the United Nations. The “Unity” proclaimed by each of these is of a vastly differing nature, and even the close “Unity” of the UK falls far short of the kind to be found in Sinn Féin policy statements of yore. Their new campaign talks of a single health service, transport policy etc., but these are quite technical matters far removed from the emotional, absolutist desire to completely erase the Border which was once the central plank of Republican ideology.
To most Unionists, the term United Ireland means this hypothetical unitary Socialist Republican state, the most extreme antithesis of Unionism imaginable. I sincerely doubt that many Unionists know of (and of those that do, believe in) the SDLP’s version of a United Ireland (thanks for the link, Mack) in which all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are left untouched (what role the North-South Ministerial Council would play in this scenario is left unexplained). If there were to be a vote for a United Ireland, the people would surely need to be told in advance whose United Ireland they were voting for.
The emotional core of the UI debate is sovereignty. But in Northern Ireland the sovereignty of the UK is already highly constrained by international treaty. In effect the Agreements recognise the (limited) sovereignty of the people of Northern Ireland – it is they alone who hold the final decision over any constitutional change. This sovereignty is limited because independence for NI is not an option, rather like the situation in Gibraltar. Would the people of NI retain this limited sovereignty after a border poll in favour of a UI? Unionists would certainly fight tooth and nail for it.
So assuming that a necessary and sufficient condition for a United Ireland would be a (most likely constrained, as now) realignment of sovereignty, what would be the minimum changes required? With a transfer of sovereignty, some shared functions of state would by definition have to exist: head of state, foreign minister, diplomatic service, supreme court. All other matters could remain the competence of the existing jurisdictions, as in Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” arrangement. If we were to take the SDLP proposals at face value, meaning the ministerial council would be retained, it would be obvious forum to manage these shared functions – say a rotating arrangement where one jurisdiction would nominate the President and the other the foreign minister, and each a few judges to the supreme court. From a purely legal point of view, this would amount to a United Ireland.
The question would then be: would Nationalists be satisfied with such a UI? It’s far more lightweight than the arrangement proposed for Cyprus. If too many extra functions were transferred to the ministerial council, there would be questions about democratic oversight. But there would certainly be at least some Nationalists for whom this would be cake and anything more would be icing.