The commentator Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times writes that many people are living under the delusion that a united Ireland wouldn’t require considerable compromises on the part of voters in the south if it were to become a reality (‘Believers in a united Ireland without trade-offs are as bad as Brexiteers,’ Irish Times, Opinion & Analysis, December 18).
However, he omits one crucial detail in his discussion. A united Ireland is not only dependent on a majority in the north voting for it in a poll called at the whim of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: it also requires a majority in the south to vote for it in a constitutional referendum to amend the Irish Constitution to accommodate the north and its various communities.
Not only are the terms of that constitutional amendment as yet unclear, but a vote in favour is dependent on a majority in the south being broadly supportive of the details contained therein. Unlike the UK, Ireland does not vote on broad principles like Brexit, referendums instead insert very precise legal changes into the constitution, the implications of which have been spelled out in advance by an independent referendum commission.
Such a constitutional referendum can only be called after the north has voted for unification, and its precise form will be determined by the debate that has taken place in Northern Ireland prior to their vote. People in the south may well decide that the costs of reunification, the risks of violence, and the compromises contained in any re-unification proposal are simply not worth it.
If, as I suspect, an ultra-English nationalist UK government in economic difficulties decides one day to off-load the costs and bother of Northern Ireland on to Ireland, Ireland is under no obligation to accept them. I suspect some very detailed negotiations between the two governments would have to take place first, setting out how the costs and risks of the transition of sovereignty are to be borne.
No doubt the UK government would take the views of unionists and loyalists into account. However, an Irish government which doesn’t take into account the views of Irish voters risks losing the referendum. There is no obligation on Irish voters to accept compromises they don’t like.
Indeed, so long as there isn’t a discussion with active unionist participation, any speculation on the exact form of reunification is so much hot air. Why would Ireland concede (say) on membership of the Commonwealth, if it turns out that unionists couldn’t care less about that, or worse, would bank that concession and then ask for more.
So we are stuck with a binary choice for the foreseeable future — a united Ireland or the status quo. Unionists have no incentive to discuss options for a united Ireland which might only make soft unionists or the unaligned more likely to vote for it. They must retain the bogeyman of a Catholic nationalist takeover to maximise their own vote.
Of course, if there ever were a vote for a united Ireland under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement) unionists would suddenly be all over it demanding cross community support for any proposals, and every concession they could think of to make it less likely the south would vote for re-unification — including copious threats of widespread violence.
The rational response to all of this would be to insist that re-unification will take place, if at all, on whatever basis is discussed and agreed prior to the Northern poll. If unionists insist on the Catholic takeover myth and lose, that is what they should get — a unitary Irish state. If they negotiate and agree to some kind of federal arrangement prior to the vote, that should be honoured.
But as usual unionists may try to have it both ways: claim that it’s all about a Catholic nationalist takeover, and then demand the right of veto over any post-unification legislative proposals — much like their current position on the Protocol, which, despite the demands for a unionist veto, provides only for a majority Assembly vote on its continuance.
The Belfast (GFA) places no restrictions on what a united Ireland would look like, and neither should Ireland, unless by agreement with unionist parties prior to the vote. The principles of parity of esteem are already established in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which has binding force within the Irish Constitution.
So if unionists want to influence whatever shape a united Ireland might take, they had better secure an agreement on that prior to any vote. There is no point complaining about a Catholic nationalist takeover if that is the basis you campaigned on and lost. Democracy can be hard.
Frank Schnittger, Blessington, Co Wicklow, Editor of the European tribune (eurotrib.com) blog
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