Is the situation ripe for a Border Poll? And, if it is, what question should be put?
The Constitutional commitment of the Irish state to political unity was maintained from the time the Constitution was adopted in 1937 until it was deleted by referendum in 1998. It was maintained all through the war between the Northern Nationalist community and the British state, from 1970 to 1998. The Constitutional commitment to political unification of the island was not conditional on agreement by a majority in the Six Counties to it, still less on an agreement by the dissenting Ulster Protestant community. The sovereignty claim was based on the assertion that the Protestants in the North were an integral part of the Irish nation no less than the Catholics and that they could have no right on the basis of mere religious bigotry to stand outside the state that their notion was forming. It was clarified by a High Court hearing in 1974, when the war in the North was well under way, that the Constitutional assertion of sovereignty over the Six Counties still stood, that the British regime there was illegitimate, and that, though it was not the policy of the Government in being to act to enforce the sovereignty claim, that policy did not prejudice the right of any future Government to enforce it. This was said in the Government’s Defence Pleading, in the action brought by Kevin Boland asserting that the Government’s signature to the Sunningdale Agreement was in breach of the Constitution. And so the sovereignty claim remained in being for a further 24 years, until the Provisional IRA made a provisional settlement with the British Government on a ‘two nations’ rearrangement of the way the Six Counties were governed. The Dublin Government, with the permission of the IRA, then called a referendum to repeal the sovereignty clause of the Constitution. That is how it was actually experienced, though it was dressed up diplomatically to appear to be something else, and the actual terms of the Good Friday Agreement do not seem to have been taken on board by the Dublin Government which signed it, or any subsequent Government. The crucial thing about it was that devolved government under majority rule was abolished and an egalitarian apartheid system was put in its place, based on a recognition that there was not in fact a Northern electorate constituting a body politic, but two national electorates, each with its own parties. The dominant parties in the North at the time were the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP, led by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon. Neither of them was willing to see the Agreement for what it was and operate it. They overloaded it with reservations and wishful thinking’s. It was not until they were displaced by Dr. Paisley and the Chief of Staff of the IRA, Martin McGuinness, that the Agreement was made to work. Neither of the Governments ever presented it to its public for what it was. Bertie Ahern to this day actively dissimulates it. It came as a shock to hear the truth of it blurted out on BBC’s Question Time by an American black writer, Bonnie Greer, who said the Good Friday Agreement was a “Truce”. With regard to a carefully structured Truce that has taken the place of a war, and is “a continuation of the war by other means”, the prudent thing to do is let sleeping dogs lie. But it was probably inevitable that the decision of the British electorate to leave the EU should lead to the sleeping dogs being poked at.
The Constitutional claim on the North was repealed in 1998 but was not replaced by any definite view of what Northern Ireland was. The view that it was a piece of the Irish national illegitimately held by Imperialist Britain was dropped and it was left at that.
But what is called “The Troubles” by the squeamish did not arise from Partition. It arose from the Northern Ireland system by which Westminster enacted Partition. Northern Ireland was not governed within the British political system, but neither was it in any substantial sense a state separate from the British state. It was an undemocratically-governed part of the British state, and was given a form of government that could only function by the conflict of ‘Parties’ which were in fact all-class communities. The party-system by which the state was governed excluded the Six Counties from its sphere of operation. Communities denominated by religion filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the parties of the British state. And Dublin Governments, while condemning the fact of Partition, approved of the exclusion of the Six Counties from the democratic system of the British state. They always lobbied strongly at Westminster against any move to bring the North within the democracy of the state. In practice, therefore, they preferred the system of local communal aggravation denominated by religion. And that was the system which fuelled the War.
The state was governed by the Tory and Socialist parties. There were plenty of Tories and Socialists in the Six Counties, but they could only be cerebral Tories and Socialists. They were excluded from the Tory and Socialist parties. The danger of British politics in the Six County region of the British state was that it would erode the strict communal division which oriented the Catholic community on Dublin. One of the difficulties about political unification is that the party-system of the Republic is quite specific to it and there are no latent Protestant Fine Gaelers or Fianna Failers in the North who could see themselves in it.
Party organisation capable of maintaining a state by overcoming the anarchy that is implicit in democracy is a vital element in modern political life around the world and is one of the most difficult things to achieve. Michael McDowell, of the erstwhile Progressive Democrats, an eminent barrister and former Attorney-General, has written many things about the North over the decades but has never come to terms with this aspect of it.
We recall his sensible attitude towards the burning of the British Embassy in Dublin in 1972 in response to the Bloody Sunday massacre. It served as a necessary release of popular anger which did minimum political damage. It contrasted strongly with the hysterical view of Dermot Keogh (then on the Irish Press, later a domineering Professor in Cork University), who saw it as marking the emergence of a Fascism that would take over the state. (A few years earlier, in August 1969, Ambassador Sir Andrew Gilchrist lightheartedly wrote of the prospect of the Dublin Embassy being burned: “if I were a fire insurance company I would not like to have the British Embassy on my books. (Fortunately, though highly inflammable, it isn’t ours…”, see Thomas Hennessy, The Origin Of The Troubles, p246.) McDowell had an article about unification in the Irish Times (Nov. 20) on the matter of holding a referendum. The article is entitled, “Groundwork For Any Form Of Irish Unity Has To Be Laid North And South”. He is against a referendum until the groundwork is laid. Without a groundwork laid in advance a vote would be for “a vague concept”. He says that “The UK Brexit referendum showed us how futile if is to vote for concepts in total ignorance of the concrete reality that flows from such concepts…” Unfortunately the consequences of that kind of decision cannot be known in advance of the decision bing made. Britain launched total war on Germany in 1914, amidst great popular approval, having carefully made plans for it over at least a decade. The plans went awry very quickly. But the will to war was there, and Britain persisted until the enemy was crushed. If it could have known in advance what the consequences would be—the undermining of the Empire under the appearance of extending and strengthening it, the wrecking of such European order as there had been in 1913, the launch of Communism, and the crumbling of the great Liberal Party—it would probably not have made war on Germany, or at least not that kind of war. But, after the war, Britain was not going to say that it made a wrong decision in making war, or in conducting it as it did. It still celebrates that war as an exercise of will. And will remains important in Britain. Cost-accounting is no substitute for it. Man does not live by bread alone. Where there is no vision the people perish. All the old clichés still have currency in England. Brexit was not a vote for a concept. “Concept” is a business term. It was a decision to do something: restore British freedom of action in the world. The cases for and against doing it were put with the usual extravagance. The electorate decided to do it, to find out how in the doing of it, and to endure whatever adverse consequences there might be. There was a time when such a thing could be understood in Ireland. But that time seems to have passed. What seems to exist now is the structure of a State which was constructed and made to work by the will of earlier generations. Its only semblance of a purpose is cost accounting. National purpose has seeped away. Sinn Fein/IRA, representing Northern Nationalism, fought a war. Without the actual support of the Nationalist community, it could not have sustained a war. Southern Governments condemned the war as a murder campaign, and pictured the IRA as a rogue element within a hostile Nationalist community. Sinn Fein came South and made great gains on the strength of being a party that had been engaged in the successful conduct of a war. It was poised to take over from Fianna Fail, which was denying its own heritage. It threw away the opportunity and went in for the trivial politics of fashionable causes. Its new leader has to declare of herself that she is a Fenian, lest it be thought that she wasn’t. She does not insist that ‘The Troubles’ were a war and that its victims were war casualties. On the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, 22.11.19), she accepted his characterisations of killings as murders and therefore would not go down “the rabbit hole” of discussing them.
If Dublin treated the “Troubles” as what they were—a war in which Britain deployed an army of 26,000—and would not discuss them on any other terms, Britain would respond. It came close to closing the matter with an ‘Act of Oblivion’ in 1998, but Dublin, out of an incongruous sense of virtue, would not have it so—possibly thinking it would do it some good with the Unionist community. The gist of McDowell’s article is as follows:
“The people of the Republic will not vote for any form of Irish unity in which the unionist and loyalist people of the North are dragged against their wishes into an all-Ireland republic by an Anschluss plebiscite. This would be a recipe for repeating the Troubles or even civil war… “What might be very worthwhile is for a consensus to emerge among political parties in the Republic that the form of unity to which we aspire is a confederal rather than a unitary state… “If that consensus emerged south of the Border, it could feed into a transformation of attitudes north of the Border—and an end to the unionist fear of absorption into an alien state.”
In a Confederal Ireland “the need for accommodating the British identity of unionists would have tangible meaning. The North could even retain a Canadian-type link to the crown…”
The Anschluss reference is absurd. Austria had sought unity with democratic Germany long before 1938 but Britain and France had forbidden it under the Versailles system. And in 1938 there was no resistance by fascist Austria to unification with fascist Germany. Stormont Government is clearly dispensable in the arrangements of the British state and, even if it was restored, it would not be constitutionally equivalent to the Dublin Government. The latter is the Government of a state, the former isn’t and never was. Unless the state was remade comprehensively on the lines advocated by Rory O’Brady (devolution to Four Provinces), there could be no prospect of the Ulster Protestant community just fitting into it. And what is the community in question? If it is Unionist, it cannot be accommodated outside the British state. Its identity as Unionist is that it identifies with and is part of the British state in a range of matters, though excluded from its political life. McDowell says that Sinn Fein—
“are not emotionally committed to powersharing or reconciliation. Their political strategy thrives on crisis and impasse—as long as they are in the thick of it. And that lack of emotional commitment to powersharing and reconciliation is more than matched in the ranks of the DUP. We need reconciliation and normality based on mutual respect and understanding. We also need prosperity”
Polarisation is integral to democratic politics, even to pseudo-democratic politics, which is the only possible kind in the undemocratically-governed region of the British state. Reconciliation is a will-o’-the-wisp, a Jack O Lantern. That is how we treated it fifty years ago. Power-sharing failed long ago. Power-dividing worked for a while with McGuinness and Paisley, and it the only thing that has ever worked.
Normality in the relevant sense is not based on detached feelings, but on the feelings generated by the political routines of a functional state.
The starting point for Southern Nationalists in this matter is to ask the question they have never asked: What is Northern Ireland? And take due account of the evolution of the Ulster Plantation, And take due account of the evolution of the Ulster Plantation, and of British handling of the Six Counties as the major cause of the War, and of whether there now exists in the southern body politic a sufficient remnant of national will to enable any decision to be made and carried through.
CONTENTS Border Poll? Editorial Remember, Remember, The Ninth Of November! Donal Kennedy Final Outcome Hinges On UK Election. Dave Alvey (November Brexit Summary) Readers' Letters: Anti-Semitism In The Times. Pat Walsh The Forgotten Remembrance. Pat Muldowney Commonwealth War Graves Commemoration In Dublin. Manus O’Riordan Orphan. Wilson John Haire (Poem) British Intelligence—A World Of Fantasy? And A Nest Of Vipers? Donal Kennedy LEST WE FORGET (4). Extracts from Irish Bulletin. This issue lists British Acts Of Aggression, 13th to 27th December 1919 (ed. Jack Lane) Es Ahora. Julianne Herlihy (Clair Wills And The Story She Tells, Part 14 Casement And Photographic Evidence. Jack Lane The Subjective Side Of History. Brendan Clifford (A Meeting at Skibbereen, Part 1) Historical Misdirection. Launch Report of pamphlet on 'The Treaty' Beyond Our Ken. Manus O’Riordan (Lemass In The De Valera Era, Part 7) Biteback: Britain—A Country Divided! (Philip Jordan, Irish Times) Does It Stack Up? Michael Stack (A New City For Ireland; New Engine Technology) Labour Comment: James Connolly: A Chapter Of Horrors: Daniel O'Connell And The Working Class (1915)