Preface (the Commonwealth of NI)

This is the second of a (very!) occasional series of posts providing background notes for the Basic Law of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland. In this post we will walk through the preface, which introduces some basic principles and sets out a declaration of intent.


We, the people of Northern Ireland, believe:

  1. that no form of government is legitimate without the consent of the governed
  2. that the state exists solely to serve the needs of its people, and has no rights or powers other than those granted to it by its people
  3. that all persons are equal before the law
  4. that the separation of Church, Nation and State is essential to the creation of a shared society of equals
  5. that it is the duty of public representatives to exercise their responsibilities in the best interests of all the people, without regard to their political, religious or national allegiance
  6. that all persons have the civic duty to contribute to the process of their own governance, and must be given the means and opportunity to do so in an informed and meaningful way

and acknowledging:

  1. that all forms of government of Northern Ireland to date have fallen short of these ideals
  2. that the current system of government is hostile to the development of a just society
  3. that the people are increasingly alienated from their government
  4. that fundamental change is required, and that change must be brought about from within by the people themselves

we therefore declare the establishment of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland (“the Commonwealth”), as follows:

This preface, like the rest of the Basic Law but unlike many similar documents, is intentionally devoid of flowery language, appeals to mythical pasts or evocations of heroic struggle. The Basic Law is an aspirational document but a hard headed one. It lays out in no uncertain terms what a functioning state should look like, and how far we still need to go. It is not a call to arms, but an exhortation to roll up sleeves.

…the consent of the governed…

This is basic philosophy of government, but bears repeating. Ad nauseam if that’s what it takes.

…the state…has no rights or powers other than those granted to it by its people

States do have rights, but these are subordinate to the rights of natural persons. We must never lose sight of the principle that states are a means to an end, and that end is the improvement of people’s lives. If the state is not bent to that purpose then the state must yield.

…the separation of Church, Nation and State…

It has long been understood that the separation of Church and State is fundamental to creating a society that treats all its citizens equally. What is less commonly understood, but which is vital in a contested space such as Northern Ireland, is the separation of Nation and State. We cannot simply declare all residents members of the same nation when we cannot agree amongst ourselves what nation that is to be. And yet the business of government must continue in the absence of a common nationhood.

Separation of Nation and State is the single most essential prerequisite for a functional NI.

…the best interests of all the people, without regard to their political, religious or national allegiance…

One of the most common and fundamental mistakes that politicians are tempted to make is that they are there to further the interests of a particular side. It does not matter how sides are chosen, only that public representatives should not be beholden to them. Obviously, there will be times when one or other group is being treated unjustly and that standing up for this particular group is the right thing to do. But politicians should be standing up against injustice no matter which side has been wronged.

…all forms of government of Northern Ireland to date have fallen short…

We cannot move forward unless we recognise past failure. This is not to cast blame, but to remind ourselves that our task remains unfinished.

…fundamental change…must be brought about from within…

Dublin or London will not save Northern Ireland from itself. They can help or hinder the process as they see fit, but nothing will change if the people of NI themselves do not take responsibility for that change.

…the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland…

The name of the jurisdiction is carefully chosen, as is the use of the term “jurisdiction” throughout the document. The constitutional status of NI has long been a point of contention, and the use of descriptors such as “state”, “statelet”, “province”, and “country” are seen as prejudicial by one or other side. By contrast, it cannot be credibly disputed that NI forms a separate legal jurisdiction.

The jurisdiction of Northern Ireland already exists, but in the Basic Law we declare a new constitutional entity to govern that jurisdiction, and to draw a line under its past. Again, we seek to find an uncontroversial terminology that does not prejudice NI’s future constitutional status. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a republican state, while the Commonwealth of Australia is a monarchy. Massachusetts is not sovereign, but Australia is. The use of “Commonwealth” cannot therefore be said to favour any particular constitutional aspiration.

The Rorschach Test

I argued in an earlier piece that the word “Unionism” should be handled with extreme care, because it has become overloaded with far too many overlapping yet inconsistent meanings. For slightly different reasons, we should also avoid using the phrase “United Ireland”.

“Unionism” refers to a collection of existing things that can, with effort, be distinguished from each other. “United Ireland”, or its modern euphemism “New Ireland”, means nothing much at all, because it refers to a hypothetical something that has never existed or even been clearly defined.

Because it means nothing, the reader or listener is free to choose what to perceive in it. And just like a meaningless Rorschach inkblot, the reader’s perceptions are determined by the reader’s mind alone. If the reader is inclined to favour Irish Nationalism, then the ideas evoked are likely to be favourable, even Utopian. If the reader is not so inclined, then the phrase “United Ireland” will prompt unease, distaste and even fear.

Because what comes to mind when a vague phrase is uttered is equally vague. Nobody believes for a second that a United Ireland would lead to Protestants being driven into the Bann. But such associations are stored in the subconscious and, even if not remembered explicitly, their presence colours and shapes the reaction to even marginally related ideas. How many people reading the words “United Ireland” involuntarily hear it in an Andytown-accented inner voice?

The art of persuasion is mainly the art of minimising the number of negative associations while maximising the positive ones. And a speaker who wishes to persuade, to sell, must work backwards from what he wants the listener to think, not forwards from what he himself wants to say.

Brexit was such an inkblot. There were well-informed people on both sides, but the majority would freely admit to being ignorant (to varying degrees) of the workings of the EU and the consequences of leaving it. The question was deceptively simple, but it has become painfully obvious in hindsight that those who campaigned for it and voted for it had wildly divergent perceptions of what Brexit actually meant in practice.

Free-traders looked upon the inkblot and saw great ships bestriding the waves. Libertarians saw a bonfire of statutes and judgements. Others saw the return of jobs to provincial towns, or an end to demographic change. Not all of these could possibly be true simultaneously. Maybe none of them will end up being true. The inkblot remains inscrutable.

The 8th amendment referendum could have been as confusing, but the Irish Government took the decision to avoid a Rorschach calamity by publishing the heads of their proposed legislation. No matter what way the result falls next week, nobody can seriously claim that they were not informed.

Now obviously, full legislation could not and should not have been drawn up in advance of the result, and no amount of written detail could ever completely insulate a debate from misinformation or partisanship. But it was rightly recognised that allowing a referendum to go ahead without any constraint on the collective imagination of the electorate would have left the government with no defence against the wildest excesses of Project Fear.

And a border poll will be fought entirely on the basis of Project Fear. Fear of Brexit versus fear of a United Ireland. By the time any such poll eventually comes around, the shape of Brexit will have become much more concrete. And unless a “United Ireland” has also become more concrete, the devil that Northern Ireland knows may not seem so fearsome by comparison.

So anyone in Ireland who would like to see a border poll in their lifetime would be well advised to propose a practical constitutional framework now. Like the 8th amendment, every detail cannot and should not be drawn up in advance. Blank space must be reserved for the meaningful input afterwards of those who will understandably demur at contributing beforehand. But equally, those in favour of change must clearly demonstrate that they have given the fullest consideration to the concerns of all sides, whether actively engaged or not.

That means publishing the constitutional equivalent of the heads of bill, setting advance constraints on the scope of any post-referendum negotiations, and defending these self-imposed limitations against cries of sellout from the back benches.

Start by ruling out the vast majority of options. Cast out the bogeymen, the fevered nightmares, the implausible and the irresponsible. In this context, “United Ireland” ceases to be useful, because it rules nothing out.

It doesn’t rule out the unitary socialist republic of the old Republican faithful, a vision so removed from modern Ireland that it would attract single figures support south of the border. So why allow that spectre to haunt the debate? Rule it out.

Same with anything that doesn’t preserve the minority rights so hard won in the GFA. The principles that protect one minority community while NI remains in the UK must also protect the other minority community in any future settlement. Republican leaders have at times declared that all identities should be protected and embraced, but aspirational statements can be easily dismissed as rhetoric. Be specific about the legal changes you could never support, and rule them out.

Rule out the things you know Unionists most fear. Rule out the things you know southerners won’t countenance. Rein in the starry-eyed ambitions and limit the scope of this particular change. Not because ambition is wrong, or because the horizon must never be admired. But because the future is a journey that will always be in front of us, and destinations will change with the wind and the seasons.

Baby steps.

Once you rule out the impossible, the fanciful, the unaffordable, only then can you give a meaningful shape to the thing that is left.

So what is the shape of that thing?

Northern Ireland will continue to exist. The Border will continue to exist. Jurisdictions cannot be simply bodged together, because a century of legal divergence would take decades to unpick. Stormont will continue to function, as will the rest of strand one. A Northern Ireland jurisdiction requires a Northern Ireland parliament, and that means a Northern Ireland executive. Direct Rule from Dublin would be no more democratic than from London. And meaningful formal ties to GB would be of crucial importance to keep everyone on board, so strand three will also survive.

The Republic will continue to exist in much the same form, because the only people who relish the thought of sixty crabbit TDs from the wee six overturning the political arithmetic of the Dáil are the Shinners. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil will gift Sinn Féin a parliamentary plurality. Nor will Ireland be quartered into provincial states, as per Éire Nua. There is no burning desire for parliaments in Cork or Galway, and despite its frustrations with Dublin, Donegal has no love for dysfunctional Stormont.

Strand two will be enhanced, but not replaced. The President, the Supreme Court and a reformed Senate could be shared between the jurisdictions, with equitable representation for north and south. European and foreign policy would be delegated to a beefed-up NSMC. These newly shared bodies would form the successor state to today’s Republic. But whatever the details it will be a lightweight, Belgian form of unity, nothing whatsoever like the centralised UK. Stephen Hawking was once warned that every equation in his book would halve its sales. Similarly, every extra power granted to the new Irish state will halve its legitimacy in the eyes of the losing side.

And just as the current relationship between the two parts of Ireland can only be changed by simultaneous referendums, so will any future changes to that relationship be subject to a double referendum lock, effectively preventing a future Irish government from simply abolishing the troublesome North.

Would this satisfy everyone? Not a chance. It may not satisfy anybody at all. It would meet a strict legal test for “Irish sovereignty”, but it’s not what many people – perhaps any people – would understand from the phrase “United Ireland”.

Which is exactly why “United Ireland” must be cast aside.

Because whatever emerges from the far side of constitutional change, whatever future may eventually come to pass, it won’t be what anyone currently expects. The GFA was “Sunningdale for slow learners” because everyone already knew what the only practical solution looked like; it just took longer than expected to negotiate the price. A border poll won’t be like that, because nobody yet has a clue what shape the framework will be.

All we have to go on is an ambiguous smudge called “United Ireland”. And so any border poll will be as ill-informed as Brexit unless nationalists and others (and it will have to include Others) produce a proposal with an actual text, and an actual name.

Call it a confederacy. Call it a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Call it what you will, but call it what you mean. If that causes discontent within the ranks, then good. These arguments need to be settled sooner rather than later.

Or would you prefer to sell the Irish people a pig in a poke, without even knowing yourself what animal is inside?

This article was originally published on Slugger on 2018/05/17.

The flaxen revolution

I find myself in the unaccustomed, even uncomfortable position of agreeing with Jamie Bryson. This may be because in a democratic system at least some of the people are happy, while an undemocratic system is offensive to everyone except those in power (and in the case of NI, perhaps not even them).

NI is not a democracy, and grafting standard-issue “democratic institutions” on top of the current state of society will not magically make it one – we had those before in Old Stormont and it did not work. There are preconditions for majority rule to succeed as a democratic system – the willingness of voters to hold the elected to account by withholding or changing their vote; the commitment of the elected to act in the interest of those who did not vote for them; the resolve of both electors and elected to submit to the rule of law and uphold it impartially. None of these conditions prevailed in 1922 and few of them prevail today.

All this is well understood. What is less well understood is that the current system is not a route out of the undemocratic rut but merely a different, less violent rut. We must ask ourselves what we are trying to build – is it a society where power changes hands in the polling booth and the strong are accountable to the weak? Or is it merely a society where anyone likely to make trouble is kept placated with the spoils of office? We have achieved the latter, but seem as far away as ever from the former.

The usual argument against majority rule in NI is that the communal parties can’t be trusted with sole power, an argument given force by history. It is clear that whatever comes after must include safeguards against abuse of power at least as strong as the ones we have today. Those who wish to abolish mandatory coalition have proposed several alternatives, none entirely satisfactory. The most common are weighted or dual majorities, which require a majority of the entire Assembly and a minimum percentage of each community in order for a bill to pass (and in some variants, for the Executive to be elected). The problem comes when that minimum percentage is defined. Too low, and it raises the prospect that one particular party could be ganged up on and excluded forever, even if it were the largest single party. Too high, and it looks little different from mandatory coalition. It is not clear if a sweet spot exists, or if such a system would be sufficiently radical to be worth the effort.

The problem in all these proposals is that they treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Sectarian violence, cultural conflict and ethnic nationalism are far from unique problems – most countries have suffered to some degree from the same. What makes the few hard cases such as NI, Bosnia, and Lebanon special is the way these problems have so comprehensively infiltrated the political system. In each case, structures have been created to manage the symptoms of a dysfunctional politics – but the relationship between the system and its participants runs both ways. We soon find that because the structures of state have been shaped to fit the dysfunctional, only the dysfunctional fit into them.

On paper, there is little wrong with the Assembly as it stands. Everyone is represented, everyone gets a turn, nobody is excluded – and business can still continue if the participants are willing to compromise. The problem is prima facie not with the rules, but the players. However, there is little incentive for parties to compromise when the system rewards brinkmanship and extremism, so maybe the problem really is with the rules.

If we look at how Stormont differs from other, more successful systems, we see that the main innovations are motivated by the desire to prevent exclusion of one ethno-national grouping by another. This is understandable, as this is exactly the problem Old Stormont had, and the one that nationalists in particular still rightly fear. But it leaves as an unstated assumption that ethno-national groupings and political parties are more or less the same thing – and this is a peculiarly NI phenomenon. If we compare to the USA, where the treatment of the black minority was incomparably more brutal than anything dreamed up under unionist rule, we do not see a “black party” in permanent conflict with a “white party”. There may be imbalances in the percentages of different ethnic groups in the political parties, but these are as much a reflection of socioeconomic status as they are of identity. Before the Democrat Barack Obama, the most successful black politician in America was the Republican Colin Powell. The progress of black politicians is a bipartisan success story, and it is also in many ways a colour-blind one. Obama’s voting demographic was correlated with ethnic origin, but by nowhere near the degree we have come to expect in North Belfast.

Of course, black Americans do not seek the overthrow of the state. But if the polls are to be believed, neither do most Irish Nationalists. And in any case this in itself cannot be the reason for NI’s special problems, because Lebanon has no significant separatist movement and still suffered an ethno-religious civil war far worse than ours.

The common thread that separates Lebanon, Bosnia and ourselves from the US and other countries that are making progress with their divided past is the primacy of identity politics over practical considerations. Catholic Unionists and Protestant Shinners do exist, but they remain remarkable exceptions. Half-hearted “outreach” attempts are undertaken not in the hope of converting the doubtful, but of soothing those whose consciences are troubled by this obvious lack of progress.

Any attempt to fix NI must address this immovable object. Removing the Border from the competency of the Assembly was supposed to make normal politics possible. It did not. The constitutional question “went away”, but the parties merely found something else to fight over. Identity politics abhors a vacuum – no doubt if Westminster took flags and emblems off the hands of local politicians, they’d find some other reason to despise each other.

Because it’s not about the Border. It’s not about the flag, or a parade, or the Irish language. These things are excuses, rationalisations, bedtime stories we tell ourselves to make our own fears sound less preposterous. Greater problems have been solved over dinner and cigars. We can’t stand to make common cause with each other because in our gut we know we are still sharing a small box with someone, some thing that once hurt us. This is not going to be solved quickly. But we can make a conscious, rational decision to stop picking at the scab and making it worse.

The long term solution is the integration of our divided society. This will take generations, and it would be foolish to prejudge the details of the world that our grandchildren will build without us. The most important, the only important condition is that it is a whole society, where tales of unionists and nationalists are as misty and abstract as those of roundheads and cavaliers, and where children have to search the archives to discover which sides their ancestors were on.

The short term solution is to cut the Gordian knot of mutual suspicion and veto so that we can at least take the first steps. The current Assembly couldn’t even agree to save itself a fortune by merging two teacher training colleges, so there is no hope of it ever addressing an actual problem. Despite their protestations, the communal parties are too comfortable where they are right now, because getting where they are right now did not require them to grow, or learn. When SF and the DUP had a problem working together they fiddled the system so that they could avoid doing anything really difficult, such as voting for the same First Minister.

No, change is not going to come from within the Assembly – at least not with the current balance of parties. The first alternative is for the governments, perhaps again with the help of the Americans, to step in and impose order upon chaos. This seems unlikely, given the increasing signs of crisis fatigue amongst outsiders. And in the long term, this would perpetuate the infantilisation of NI, where the locals can’t be relied upon to sort themselves out and so will require feeding, changing and babysitting indefinitely. The other alternative is change imposed from below, from the electorate. But with turnout approaching 50% and new political parties failing to make headway, the only outlet remaining would appear to be the street.

And here I find myself agreeing with Bryson again, although for different reasons. Street politics comes in a variety of forms – sometimes joyful, sometimes angry, sometimes from the margins of society and sometimes pouring from every door and window. Sometimes the only way to fix a stagnant, failing system is with the collective will of millions. Sometimes all we need to do great things is the courage that comes from knowing that we are not alone. Sometimes society needs a little bit of revolution. A joyous, multi-coloured revolution.

A flaxen revolution?

Northern Ireland needs a final settlement

It is now fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, and seven years since the St Andrews Agreement. Time has moved on, but Northern Ireland is in a rut. Political institutions are bedded in, complete with safeguards against communal domination, but politics has not kept up. Elections are still fought on the basis of Keeping Themmuns in Their Place. Political protests are limited to turf wars over ownership of public space.

What happened to our brave new future?

The mood in NI, beyond the headline-grabbing onanism of dissident republicans and flag protesters, is one of resigned apathy. The deadly combination of fatalism and fear, knowing we can’t go back but unable to see the way forward, keeps NI trapped in a perpetual twilight of political cowardice. The dawn will come, surely? Some say it will come in the east and some say in the west. Best wait, and when we are proven right the doubters will fall silent.

But political dawns do not come from waiting. They come from political will, and Northern Ireland has precious little of that. The temporary twilight becomes a permanent gloom.

Richard Haass is the latest in a long line of the great and good to try his hand at dragging our political donkeys out of the tribal midden. But it is not his job – it is ours. It is the electorate who should be driving change; it is the people who should be demanding better of our political masters. Haass is merely filling in because the electorate have not stepped up. Why else does Northern Ireland see an endless procession of outsiders attempting to save it from itself?

Northern Ireland has not yet grown up. Northern Ireland has not yet taken responsibility for its own future. We cry to Dublin and London to fly in and save us from Themmuns, when the real problem is not Themmuns, but ourselves. It is our lack of belief in ourselves and our own ability to make common cause that leaves us trapped in the trenches of a war now decades in the past. The Agreements gave us political institutions that were safe, non-threatening, almost comfortable. They allowed government to return to Belfast without requiring politicians to change their minds or their behaviour. They ended the war, but they cannot build peace.

The Agreements have fulfilled their function. It is now time to take the next step, and build a final settlement on which a new politics can grow. The old tribal divisions must be cast off; old political parties must be destroyed and new ones allowed to take their place. We, the people must assert ownership of the state and impose upon all our politicians the duty to be servants of all the people, without tribal favour.

The Basic Law of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland is an outline of just such a final settlement. It is a document of the people, where political institutions are subordinate to the popular will. It is a statement of both rights and duties, of limited government and the separation of church, nation and state. And it is a vehicle in which both unionist and nationalist are free to aspire, without threatening the foundations of our still fragile peace.

In return, each and every political party is required to be broadly representative of the ethnic (and gender) composition of Northern Ireland. Without this requirement, nothing changes and politics remains trapped in the endless twilight. With it, fundamental change is imposed upon politics at the lowest level, and a new future opens up before us.

We must reject Catholic political parties and Protestant political parties, just as we rejected Catholic workplaces and Protestant workplaces. The Agreements reward the victors of the tribal bearpit, silencing those who willingly co-operate and empowering those who must be dragged to the table; the Commonwealth makes tribal co-operation at grassroots level a condition of entry. The Agreements guarantee that all politics is defined along orange-green lines; the Commonwealth encourages politics to realign.

The Commonwealth is an idealistic enterprise, but with a realistic pathway to implementation. All it requires is a majority vote in the Assembly and a referendum; Northern Ireland has done this before and can do it again. It provides a modern, liberal basis for government that both unionists and nationalists can find much to admire in. It copper-fastens the principle that the future of Northern Ireland is in the hands of the people, and protects them from the abuses of power that have been all too common in our long, troubled history.

But most importantly, the Commonwealth gives the people of Northern Ireland a future worth believing in, a goal worth striving for, and the hope that tomorow will finally bring dawn in the North.

P. Equality of Representation (The Commonwealth of NI)

In my previous post (temporarily eaten by wordpress, but now restored), I laid out a proposal for a constitutional settlement that I feel represents the best chance for real political progress in Northern Ireland. It is not a perfect solution by any means, but I have tried to keep the compromises to a minimum. I had intended to write a series of posts walking through the document from start to finish, but based on initial feedback I will start near the end, with the section containing most of those compromises.

P. Equality of Representation

  1. notwithstanding the above, for a period of twenty one years after the establishment of the Commonwealth (unless extended by the consent of the people) the following restrictions on public office shall apply:
  2. all political parties must field an equal number of male and female candidates (plus or minus one) in any election
  3. all political parties must field an equal number of candidates from the Catholic community as from the Protestant community (plus or minus one), as defined in Equal Opportunities legislation, in any election
  4. there shall be no restriction on the number of candidates from neither the Protestant nor Catholic community
  5. the Executive, the Opposition and the Supreme Court shall each contain
    1. the same number of male and female members (plus or minus one)
    2. the same number of Protestant and Catholic members (plus or minus one), as defined by Equal Opportunities legislation
  6. the First Minister and deputy First Minister shall not both be Protestants nor shall they both be Catholics
  7. the Chair and deputy Chair of the Assembly shall not both be Catholics, nor shall they both be Protestants

This section is intended to serve several functions. Firstly, it directly replaces the “ugly scaffolding” currently used at Stormont. Article P5b has a similar effect as the system of designation, except:

  • Members do not designate themselves on political lines but on ethnic lines. Under a “normal” political system we must allow that people’s political views may be swayed by argument.
  • There is no inherent bias against “others” – the only requirement is that Protestants and Catholics are equally represented.
  • There is no assumption that parties are ethnically homogeneous.

This last point is essential, because article P3 goes much further than the current system, and specifically forces all parties to be ethnically inhomogeneous. This addresses the key weakness of Stormont, which is the ossification of the political divide along ethnic lines.

The GFA plucks victors from the sectarian bearpit and forces them to work together in government. Because there is no plausible method for Unionists to vote out a Nationalist party (and vice versa), the political calculation is to mitigate the power of the “other side” by giving them a strong counterbalancing party to share power with. This directly incentivises a retreat into the communal trenches and actively maintains the unreconstructed ethnic base of the major political parties.

In most other advanced democracies, strong party-political ethnic bases are regarded as impediments rather than solutions. It has long been accepted in many countries that rival political parties should make efforts to eat into any ethnic base that their rivals may have, undermining their support among marginal groups. In NI by contrast, there is no sign of any such movement from the major parties, whose outreach efforts appear to be little more than comforting noises aimed at stealing support from more moderate parties on the same side.

I discussed in a previous post the nature of trust in a “normal” democracy and how it fails to work in Stormont. The solution presented there is the basis of section P. Unlike the GFA, which is content to assume that Unionists will be forever the enemies of Nationalists, and seeks merely to bind their hands to stop them harming each other, section P offers a way out of the political impasse. The only way a political party can win power in the Commonwealth is to broaden its membership and stand candidates from both sides. Sinn Fein would be forced to put up Protestants for election, and the DUP would be forced to stand Catholics. If they could not entice enough members from across the ethnic divide they would lose power. Instead of papering over the cracks of politics, change would be introduced at the lowest level.

This has worked before, for employment. Younger readers will not remember (I barely do myself) that for decades many workplaces were as ethnically homogeneous as today’s political parties, even in towns and cities with a mixed population. Fair employment legislation, though an affront to the liberal ideal, works. It is now the accepted norm that workplaces should be ethnically neutral spaces. There is no reason to believe that similar provisions will not work in politics. By enforcing in law what we would expect should happen naturally (if society were to change for the better), we cause a shift in public attitudes that helps bring about the very change that we desire.

Yes, it is an affront. But it is a necessary compromise which will bring about the end of a more dangerous affront – our chronically divided society.

EDIT: For avoidance of confusion I have inserted a new paragraph P4 explicitly stating that there are no restrictions on Others

How can I trust you if you don’t want my vote?

Politicians are often castigated for appearing to put reelection before principle, for lusting after votes rather than doing what’s best for the country. Sometimes this may be justified, but the lust for votes is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be more worried when politicians stop caring about our votes, because then we have no power over them.

The only true power that the electorate has over its elected representatives is the power to hire and fire. ‘Kick the bastards out!’ is a powerful refrain, but so is ‘Yes we can!’ The relationship between the elector and the elected is, in that one moment in the voting booth, visceral and full of possibility. I do my small part to keep my representative under control because he desires my vote, and my vote could make the difference.

But what of those who I did not vote for, and were still elected? It was no choice of mine whether Enda Kenny or David Cameron was personally elected – I don’t live in either of their constituencies. But plenty of people like me do, and if I have no control at least somebody who agrees with me does. The politician may not care for my vote, but his desire for my fellow elector’s vote is the next best thing.

And his desire for votes makes him trustworthy, because he can be relied upon to look after his own self-interest. It is when he stops caring about our votes that he becomes dangerous, because then we lose the one lever of control at our disposal.

One of democracy’s greatest weaknesses is that politicians are tempted to serve narrow interests instead of the general good. In the USA, gerrymandering has so efficiently filleted the landscape that the average politician no longer needs to worry about the opinions of rival-party or floating voters, and so they no longer have any influence over his behaviour in office. In Northern Ireland, politicians from each side of the ethno-political divide have no real interest in courting votes from themmuns, and so politics takes place largely within rather than between communal blocs.

The end result is the same – if you don’t want my vote, then I have no power over you; and if I have no power over you, I can’t trust you to look after my interests. Lack of trust leads to further polarisation of politics, which discourages politicians from seeking votes across the divide, and so it goes.

The only way to break this cycle is to realign the self-interest of politicians with the interests of a broader section of the electorate. Unlike the US, gerrymandering has not been a serious issue in NI for decades. Instead, the problem is tied up with the low threshold of votes (14.3%) required for election under PR, and the lack of incentive for parties to extend their electoral base. We could abolish PR, but that risks returning us to the bad old days of winner takes all. Alternatively, we could force parties to start seeking votes from themmuns. If the electorate knew that the former enemy needed their votes to survive, they could extract concessions and begin the process of normalizing politics.

So can we force parties to seek votes from themmuns? Directly, no – not without dividing the electorate and holding separate elections in each community, a giant leap in the wrong direction. But we can do it by proxy, by forcing parties to stand themmuns as candidates, in the same way that we could soon be forcing them to stand a reasonable proportion of women. We already have the infrastructure available to vet such candidates in the form of fair employment monitoring, so it wouldn’t be a great stretch to require “fair employment” for electoral candidates.

Of course there is a shortcut to compliance, and that is for broadly equivalent parties from either side of the communal divide to merge. Whether a small party would be content to serve as a figleaf for an unreconstructed partner is questionable, so it would have to be a true partnership of equals. The alternative cheat would be to stand token candidates in unwinnable seats. But few people enjoy playing Uncle Tom, so perhaps the only way to guarantee a sufficient number of candidates would be to start taking the concerns of the other side seriously?

Because if you need ussuns to stand under your banner, we have you over a barrel.

The Commonwealth of Northern Ireland


We, the people of Northern Ireland, believe:

  1. that no form of government is legitimate without the consent of the governed
  2. that the state exists solely to serve the needs of its people, and has no rights or powers other than those granted to it by its people
  3. that all persons are equal before the law
  4. that the separation of Church, Nation and State is essential to the creation of a shared society of equals
  5. that it is the duty of public representatives to exercise their responsibilities in the best interests of all the people, without regard to their political, religious or national allegiance
  6. that all persons have the civic duty to contribute to the process of their own governance, and must be given the means and opportunity to do so in an informed and meaningful way

and acknowledging:

  1. that all forms of government of Northern Ireland to date have fallen short of these ideals
  2. that the current system of government is hostile to the development of a just society
  3. that the people are increasingly alienated from their government
  4. that fundamental change is required, and that change must be brought about from within by the people themselves

we therefore declare the establishment of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland (“the Commonwealth”), as follows:

Chapter 1: Fundamentals

A. Legitimacy

  1. the Commonwealth shall have jurisdiction over the territory of Northern Ireland
  2. the Commonwealth shall derive its existence and legitimacy solely from the freely expressed consent of the people of Northern Ireland
  3. the Commonwealth may, with the consent of its people, hold membership of a union of jurisdictions, and delegate the powers necessary for that union to function; while reserving the right, with the consent of its people, to resign from that union
  4. the Commonwealth shall not be dissolved except with the consent of its people

B. This Document

  1. this document shall be considered the founding document of the Commonwealth, and may be referred to as the Basic Law
  2. any item in any Act, Order or other legal instrument that is found to be incompatible with this document shall have no effect within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, to the extent of its incompatibility
  3. if the law is found to be insufficient to fulfil the requirements of this document, the Commonwealth shall enact legislation to address that deficiency within ninety days of judgement
  4. this document shall only be amended with the consent of the people of the Commonwealth

C. Consent

  1. where this document requires the consent of the people to be given, the following procedures shall be used
  2. if a motion to recall a representative of a particular constituency is signed by one tenth of the registered electorate of that constituency, then the Commonwealth shall put that motion to the people of that constituency in a referendum within thirty days
  3. if any other motion requiring the consent of the people is signed by one tenth of the registered electorate of the Commonwealth, or is moved by the Constitutive Council, then the Commonwealth shall put that motion to its whole electorate in a referendum within ninety days
  4. the question put to the electorate shall be in plain, neutral language and invite a single answer of either yes or no; if a majority of those voting choose yes, then the motion shall be enacted; if a majority of those voting choose no, then no substantially similar motion may be put to the electorate for a period of five years
  5. no motion requiring the consent of the people shall originate from either the Assembly, the Executive or the judiciary

D. Symbols

  1. the flag of the Commonwealth shall be a white saltire on a field of blue and green per bend, defaced by a chili-red bend sinister
  2. the anthem of the Commonwealth shall be Danny Boy, set to the melody of the Londonderry Air

Chapter 2: Rights and Duties

E. Human Rights

  1. the Commonwealth shall defend the human rights of all; shall give full effect to those rights in law; and shall provide effective remedy to anyone that has been deprived of those rights
  2. nobody shall be put to death, except where absolutely necessary in defence against immediate and unlawful violence
  3. nobody shall be tortured, or subjected to cruel or inhumane punishment
  4. there shall be no slavery or compulsory labour
  5. nobody shall be deprived of liberty except to facilitate the process of justice
  6. any person detained shall be immediately informed of the reasons for detention; promptly brought before a court of law; and be given a trial within a reasonable time
  7. detainees shall be entitled to challenge the lawfulness of their detention
  8. any person accused of a crime shall be entitled to:
    1. a full understanding of the accusation and supporting evidence
    2. adequate time and resources to prepare a defence, including the right to legal representation and the right to summon witnesses and evidence
    3. equal opportunity to question and refute the witnesses and evidence presented by the prosecution
  9. everyone shall be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt
  10. nobody shall be compelled to give testimony against themselves
  11. all penalties shall be proportional to the gravity of the offence
  12. all judicial proceedings shall be held in public; there shall be no secret courts, evidence or judgements, except where this would compromise an ongoing criminal investigation
  13. everyone has the right to prompt and accessible legal redress
  14. the law shall not be applied retrospectively
  15. the law shall not be applied extraterritorially, except where a person is accused of an act that is a criminal offence both domestically and in the jurisdiction where the act took place
  16. the privacy of all persons shall be respected, except where necessary to facilitate the process of justice
  17. any violation of personal privacy shall be subject to the prior and specific approval of a court of law
  18. everyone has the right to freely identify themselves with the nationality, religion and political beliefs of their choice, and shall not face discrimination on the grounds of that choice
  19. the free expression, publication and exchange of information and opinions shall not be prohibited, except as absolutely necessary:
    1. to safeguard against immediate danger to life or health
    2. to protect personal privacy
    3. to prevent a miscarriage of justice
    4. to safeguard information given in confidence, except where disclosure is in the public interest
    5. to prevent defamation of individuals or groups
  20. everyone has the right to freedom of assembly and association; to join a union or other organisation; and to demonstrate in a peaceful manner
  21. nobody shall be compelled to join an organisation
  22. two consenting, unrelated adults shall have the right to marry and start a family; no body other than the Commonwealth itself shall be compelled to perform a marriage ceremony
  23. nobody shall be prevented from leaving the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth, except as necessary to facilitate the process of justice
  24. no adult shall be discriminated against on grounds of age, except where necessary for the provision of pensions
  25. nobody shall be discriminated against on grounds of sex, sexual preference, ethnic origin, social class, wealth, physical or mental impairment, circumstances of birth or family background
  26. children and those with severe mental impairment may be subject to proportionate and reasonable restrictions of their rights as necessary to protect their own welfare or public safety; they must be consulted on decisions being taken on their behalf and have their views taken into account as appropriate for their ability
  27. nobody shall be subjected to vexatious legal action
  28. everyone shall have the right to the ownership of private property; property shall not be expropriated except:
    1. in an equitable manner for the purposes of taxation
    2. with fair compensation for the development of necessary public infrastructure
    3. by order of a court of law for the dispensation of justice
  29. all children shall have the right to education free at the point of use
  30. everyone shall have the right to emergency healthcare free at the point of use
  31. everyone shall have the right to seek employment on the basis of their ability, and to receive equitable payment for their labour
  32. everyone shall have the right to safe working conditions and reasonable working hours
  33. nobody shall be allowed to fall into destitution
  34. the omission of a right from this document shall not imply that such a right does not exist

F. Citizenship

  1. all persons legally resident within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth shall be considered citizens of the Commonwealth, in addition to any other citizenship they may hold
  2. Commonwealth citizenship shall be the only citizenship recognised by the Commonwealth for any purposes other than immigration control
  3. Commonwealth citizenship shall not be revoked, except after prolonged absence
  4. all adult citizens shall have the right and duty to vote
  5. it shall be an offence to wilfully fail to vote at an election or referendum mandated by this document

G. Institutions of State

  1. the Commonwealth reserves the right to legislate for the operation of its own institutions, subject only to the limits placed upon it by its people through this document
  2. the Commonwealth shall inherit all the institutions and assets of the previous administration; these shall continue to function as provided for by law, unless amended herein
  3. all elections and referenda mandated by this document shall take place across a consecutive Saturday and Sunday

H. Good Governance

  1. the Commonwealth shall promptly publish all information in its possession in machine readable format and free of charge, except where publication would violate personal privacy, compromise ongoing negotiations or criminal investigations, or lead to a miscarriage of justice
  2. the Commonwealth shall at all times consider only universal moral principles, and shall not give undue weight to any particular religious doctrine
  3. the Commonwealth shall not make exemptions from general principle for any particular religious, ethnic or political group
  4. neither the Commonwealth nor any body established by statute, nor any body funded by the Commonwealth shall fund or mandate any form of religious worship or instruction
  5. the Commonwealth shall at all times take due consideration of the best available scientific evidence
  6. the Commonwealth shall repeal any legislation that proves unnecessary or harmful, or that no longer operates in the intended manner
  7. all Commonwealth legislation, other than repeals of previous legislation, shall be valid for no longer than one hundred years
  8. the Commonwealth shall ensure that all legislation is written in plain language
  9. the Commonwealth shall uphold the human rights of those outside its jurisdiction, as it would uphold the rights of its own people
  10. the Commonwealth shall not pay unvouched expenses
  11. The Ministerial Pledge of Office and Ministerial Code of Conduct, as defined in the Multi-Party Agreement of 10 April 1998, shall be annexed to this document
  12. Ministers shall be required to affirm the Ministerial Pledge of Office as a condition of their appointment
  13. no elected public official shall be eligible for severance payments

I. Taxation

  1. all taxation, excise duties and statutory fees levied within the Commonwealth shall be imposed by and owed to the Commonwealth alone
  2. the Commonwealth commits to pay on behalf of its people the value of any taxes, excise duties or statutory fees owed due to its membership of a union of jurisdictions
  3. the Commonwealth shall not enter into any unfunded pension commitment
  4. neither the Commonwealth nor any body established by statute shall issue debt

Chapter 3: Operation of the Institutions of State

J. The Assembly

  1. there shall be an Assembly of no less than eighty and no more than one hundred members
  2. Assembly constituencies shall have equal electorates, and shall return no less than four and no more than six members each by PR(STV)
  3. the Assembly shall have full authority to legislate on behalf of the Commonwealth, subject only to the restrictions imposed in this document
  4. the Assembly shall be dissolved if:
    1. the Assembly fails to elect an Executive within thirty days of its first sitting, or within thirty days of the previous Executive being dissolved
    2. the Assembly fails to pass a budget before the beginning of the financial year or thirty days after its first sitting, whichever comes later
    3. the Assembly fails to pass legislation as required under section B within ninety days of judgement or ninety days after its first sitting, whichever comes later
  5. otherwise, the Assembly shall be dissolved in the fourth year after its first sitting, on the last Friday in April
  6. a general election to a new Assembly must be held within thirty days of the dissolution of the previous Assembly
  7. any vacancy in the Assembly must be filled within thirty days by by-election
  8. by-elections to the Assembly shall be held by the Alternative Vote method (single seat STV)
  9. all ballot papers for elections to the Assembly shall have “none of the above” appearing as if it were a candidate for election; in the event that “none of the above” gains a plurality of first preference votes, the election in that constituency shall be declared null and void, and shall be run again within thirty days with none of the previous candidates permitted to stand for the Assembly again for the remainder of its term
  10. the chair and deputy chair of the Assembly shall be elected jointly by the Assembly from its members
  11. all motions in the Assembly shall require a simple majority; community designation and petitions of concern shall be abolished
  12. any MLA may bring a motion to the floor of the Assembly
  13. MLAs shall be paid two and a half times the median gross wage of the Commonwealth, to be calculated annually
  14. MLAs shall hold no other public office during their tenure
  15. an MLA may be recalled by the consent of the people of that constituency; a by-election shall then be held, with the recalled MLA barred from standing for the Assembly again for the remainder of its term
  16. all parties standing candidates for the Assembly must publish their accounts for the previous five years, including the names of all donors
  17. all election campaigns must be paid for from identifiable campaign funds; all campaign fund accounts must be published, including the names of all donors

K. The Executive and other Committees

  1. there shall be an Executive consisting of a First Minister, a deputy First Minister and one additional Minister for each government department
  2. the Executive acting as a body shall have full executive authority over the government of the Commonwealth, subject to the restrictions placed upon it by this document
  3. the Executive, including the First Minister and deputy First Minister, shall be elected as a body by majority vote of the Assembly
  4. any vacancy in the Executive shall be filled by co-option within fourteen days
  5. the Executive shall be dissolved if it loses the confidence of the Assembly
  6. there shall be a committee of Assembly members for each government department; each committee shall have the power to
    1. audit the functioning of that department, including allocation of budget
    2. approve relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of relevant primary legislation
    3. call for persons and papers
    4. initiate enquiries and make reports
    5. consider and advise on matters brought to the Committee by its Minister
  7. other committees may be established by the Assembly as required
  8. the Chairs and Deputy Chairs of the Assembly Committees will be allocated using the d’Hondt system
  9. parties represented in the Executive shall have their representation weighted by one half when allocating committee chairs and deputy chairs; otherwise chairs shall be allocated proportionally to party representation in the Assembly
  10. there shall be an Opposition, including a Leader of the Opposition and deputy Leader of the Opposition, which shall be elected as a body by majority vote of those MLAs who did not vote in favour of the current Executive
  11. the Opposition shall have equal opportunity to speak and propose legislation as the Executive, and shall be granted sufficient resources to enable it to use that opportunity productively
  12. Ministers shall be paid in total no more than twice the salary of an MLA
  13. a Minister may be removed by a confidence vote in the Assembly
  14. a Minister may be recalled by the consent of the people of the Commonwealth; the recalled Minister shall be barred from Executive membership for the remainder of the Assembly term
  15. any Minister judged to have breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct shall be barred from Executive membership for the remainder of the Assembly term

L. The Supreme Court

  1. there shall be a Supreme Court of the Commonwealth consisting of five members
  2. any vacancy in the Supreme Court must be filled within thirty days
  3. members of the Supreme Court shall be elected individually by the judiciary of the Commonwealth from its own membership, using the Alternative Vote method in one constituency
  4. no Supreme Court judge may be a member of a political party
  5. the Supreme Court shall have sole jurisdiction over the interpretation of this document
  6. Supreme Court judges shall be paid twice the salary of an MLA
  7. a Supreme Court judge may be recalled by the consent of the people of the Commonwealth; no recalled judge shall be eligible for re-election to the Supreme Court
  8. Supreme Court judges may not be removed by any other method

M. The Constitutive Council

  1. every tenth year after the declaration of the Commonwealth, a Constitutive Council of one hundred members shall be chosen from the registered electorate of the Commonwealth by sortition
  2. no sitting judge, nor any elected public representative shall be eligible for membership of the Constitutive Council
  3. the Constitutive Council shall operate under the supervision of the Supreme Court
  4. the Constitutive Council shall draw up a list of motions to be put to the people by the consent procedure above
  5. the Constitutive Council shall be provided with sufficient resources, including independent qualified legal advice, to perform its duties
  6. members of the Constitutive Council shall be paid their current wage plus one half the salary of an MLA
  7. nobody shall refuse to serve on the Constitutive Council except due to incapacity; incapable members shall be replaced within seven days by sortition

Chapter 4: Relationship with Other Jurisdictions

N. The United Kingdom

  1. Northern Ireland shall be a constituent country of the UK
  2. the Commonwealth shall delegate sufficient powers to the institutions of the UK so that they may perform their legal duties
  3. no Act, Order or other legal instrument of the UK shall invalidate any provision of this document

O. The Republic of Ireland

  1. the Commonwealth shall co-operate with the Republic of Ireland through the North South Ministerial Council, and any other mechanism as provided by law
  2. the Commonwealth shall delegate sufficient powers to the Council and its institutions so that they may perform their legal duties
  3. all Council decisions shall be made on the basis of mutual agreement between equal jurisdictions

Chapter 5: Temporary Provisions

P. Equality of Representation

  1. notwithstanding the above, for a period of twenty five years after the establishment of the Commonwealth (unless extended by the consent of the people) the following restrictions on public office shall apply:
  2. all political parties must field an equal number of male and female candidates (plus or minus one) in any election
  3. all political parties must field an equal number of candidates from the Catholic community as from the Protestant community (plus or minus one), as defined in Equal Opportunities legislation, in any election
  4. there shall be no restriction on the number of candidates from neither the Protestant nor Catholic community
  5. the Executive, the Opposition and the Supreme Court shall each contain
    1. the same number of male and female members (plus or minus one)
    2. the same number of Protestant and Catholic members (plus or minus one), as defined by Equal Opportunities legislation
  6. the First Minister and deputy First Minister shall not both be Protestants nor shall they both be Catholics
  7. the Chair and deputy Chair of the Assembly shall not both be Catholics, nor shall they both be Protestants

Q. Transition of Power

  1. the Commonwealth shall be established once a referendum to that effect is passed under the consent procedure above; however the restriction that no motion requiring consent can originate in the Assembly shall not apply
  2. a transitional period of between twelve and eighteen months shall be provided after establishment for enabling legislation to be passed under existing procedures; during this time the institutions of state shall operate as per existing legislation
  3. the initial membership of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the judiciary within twelve months of establishment using PR(STV) in one constituency, with the following modifications:
    1. once three men (or three women) are elected, all other men (or women) shall be eliminated
    2. once two Catholics (or two Protestants, or two neither) are elected, all other Catholics (or Protestants, or neither) shall be eliminated
    3. if any seat remains unfilled, it shall be treated as a new vacancy and filled by the usual method
  4. the Supreme Court shall act in a shadow capacity until the transitional period ends
  5. if no enabling legislation is passed by the end of twelve months, the Commonwealth shall enact such legislation on its own behalf within a further six months
  6. once enabling legislation is passed into law, the transitional period shall be terminated, the Assembly shall be dissolved and the Supreme Court shall assume its full responsibilities


The flag of the Commonwealth is sourced from here. The designer is unreferenced.