The ‘shared island’ approach of the current taoiseach must abandon outdated language if it is not to join the litany of under-achieving initiatives over the decades.

Those of us whose lives were defined by the ‘troubles’ and their aftermath can be forgiven for asking the rhetorical question: ‘Is this it?’ Was it really too much to ask for anything beyond embedded sectarian politics at Stormont and nearly 100 ‘peace walls’ on the ground, against a recurrent rumble of violence? (As chair of the Belfast branch of the National Union of Journalists, as I wrote this article the latest paramilitary threats to my colleagues were reverberating around ‘social media’.) 

Looking back, it’s clear now that opportunities which should have been taken to get the ‘constitutional engineering’ right, to promote reconciliation, were spurned. A British state which couldn’t have been less ‘occupied’ with Ireland allowed a Protestant-monopoly government to foment alienation, even after the civil-rights movement had made ‘direct rule’ an imperative, and while it prevaricated committed (‘Bloody Sunday’) or condoned (internment) egregious human-rights abuses which were the best recruiting-sergeant for a discredited IRA. 

When London did take charge, power-sharing institutions were crafted through months of cabinet-committee consideration, green-paper and white-paper deliberation and discussions with Dublin. The executive established in January 1974 operated with collective responsibility and agreed to start integrating the education system. But a hastily-negotiated agreement on the north-south aspect at Sunningdale, which was to become a misnomer for the whole new architecture, was compounded by the refusal then in Dublin to countenance an end to its constitutional claim over the north or extradition for ‘political’ offences. This provided the ideal target for the bigots who brought the democratic institutions down in May, in the face of British-state pusillanimity towards the paramilitary intimidation on which the strike against them relied to get going. 

Refusal to provide humane conditions for all prisoners allowed the IRA to mobilise humanitarian support behind its 1980–81 hunger-strikes, on which Sinn Féin was able politically to capitalise. A Social Democratic and Labour Party which had drifted from its founding philosophy now disdained an ‘internal solution’, even though John Whyte’s magisterial Interpreting Northern Ireland had demonstrated that was primarily where the challenge lay—in favour of an intergovernmental alternative. 

The resultant Anglo-Irish Agreement alienated the mass of Protestants used from their bibles to an unmediated individual relationship with authority. And the SDLP dialogue with the Stalinist ‘republican movement’—begun after the Enniskillen massacre—was to lead inexorably to the former being sidelined and eventually gobbled up by the latter. 

Huge demonstrations 

Public war-weariness however accumulated. And with the Shankill and Greysteel atrocities making October 1993 the worst month for deaths since the mid-1970s, the voice of universal norms amid all this sectarian shouting, the trade unions, mobilised huge demonstrations across the region, with the support of the voluntary sector, business and the churches. Violence immediately fell (as I was able to assure the late Terry Carlin, then northern trade-union leader) as seen in the database of deaths all journalists had to keep. The ceasefires followed less than a year later. 

The unions always abjured ‘politics’, however, though no one in government had any ideas as to what a new power-sharing arrangement should look like, the institutional memory from the brief 1974 experiment having been lost. What was available was the 1993 Opsahl report, which for all its strengths in terms of equality and human rights recommended a communalist system based on ‘mutual voice and veto’, failing to recognise its deadlocking potential. 

This was by default to provide the template for the Belfast agreement of 1998, all concluded in cavalier manner in a few days before Easter. Sadly over time the polarising incentives prevailed over the rights-based ideas, including because of the foot-dragging of the Ulster Unionist Party under renewed right-wing leadership, before its subsumption by the far-right, ‘Democratic’ version and the refusal of the IRA to decommission its weapons (or abjure spying at Stormont). 

And so to a long hiatus of renewed direct rule, which variously brought down violence and hospital waiting lists, followed by another period of ineffectual devolution, its most substantial piece of original legislation a tax on plastic bags. 

Enter ‘Brexit’, driven by English-nationalist ressentiment, in part inspired by the inchoate manner in which UK devolution had been introduced, leaving unempowered English regions prey to populist anti-metropolitan claims. Its self-evidently polarising effects on Northern Ireland aided a further Stormont collapse and required the region to be quarantined in a kind of European zone of its own. As the poet John Hewitt had recognised long before, the only answer lay in a recognition of the complexity of its citizens’ individual identities by providing a European umbrella for all of them. Brexit will surely now bring Scottish independence, just as surely as Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarian populism spurred the demand for devolution. That will leave the citizens of Northern Ireland, whatever passports they currently carry, with no option but to find some way to share the island of Ireland with their fellow Irishmen and women. 

A laboured ‘shared island’ address 

Which brings us, by that circuitous—and, tragically, needlessly murderous—trail of decades of misjudgements and mendacity to the speech by the taoiseach, Michéal Martin, in Dublin Castle in October, launching the new ‘shared island’ unit within his department. 

It was a laboured address. No one doubts the taoiseach’s integrity nor his longstanding commitment to the north. But it was stuck in the old language of ‘traditions’ and ‘communities’, with no recognition that every democratic constitution in the world has the individual citizen as its unit. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon are other guides to the dysfunctionality which replaces democracy when this is not so. 

Only bromides could thus emerge, along with a fund for investments such as in north-south infrastructure. That is certainly much-needed: at partition there were around 20 railway lines crossing today’s border, where now there is only one. Perhaps most promising was the initiation of a series of ‘dialogues’ and the taoiseach’s specific acknowledgement of the roles of women, young people and newcomers in them. 

The only way Ireland can be genuinely shared is if a republic which has been post-nationalist since Mary Robinson’s presidency focuses on similarly progressive opinion in the north—including the social democrats in the SDLP, the Greens, Alliance and the third sector—and shows what Edna Longley, contradicting Opsahl, called ‘parity of contempt’ towards the nationalistic ideologues (whether they call themselves ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’) on either side. Ever since the brutal wars of the Yugoslav collapse, no one can treat nationalism as a legitimate political definer. 

Any eventual vote on a unified Ireland … would need to offer a reassuring answer on how public services already emaciated by austerity in the north would be supported.

Contrary to what the taoiseach said, rethinking the constitutional engineering to get it right is a key part of that. The Republic remains the most centralised state in Western Europe outside England and, to an extent, Portugal, as reflected in Dublin’s sprawl. The single transferable vote, unknown outside the UK in Europe, except Malta, should long ago have been replaced, given its clientelistic incentives, by the mixed proportional systems common elsewhere, as the late former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald recommended. The Christian pieties of the preamble to the constitution have no place in the multi-national, multi-religious Ireland of the 21st century. 

Only if the debate in the Republic, via the now established mechanism of citizens’ assemblies on which it has led in Europe, moves in this direction can a new place for the north be found in a shared island, with an appropriate differentiation among regional, genuinely local and national competences across the island, all compliant with democracy, human rights and the rule of law. 

Border poll 

Otherwise, we are heading towards another decontextualized and hugely polarising border poll, which the taoiseach is rightly not keen to hasten. The last, in 1973, was only held to appease Protestant paramilitaries angered by the revelation of secret talks between the Northern Ireland secretary and the IRA, recognised within the cabinet at the time as irrational. I abstained from my first chance to vote—for the one and only time in my life—along with virtually the whole Catholic population, which had no desire to take part in a sectarian headcount. 

As with the wider European project, the integration of Ireland should be seen as a process, not an event, and should be driven by a commitment to reconciliation, not ideology. Each step should thus be seen as intrinsically valuable to a reasonable person delivering economic and social benefits and not requiring commitment to a predetermined constitutional outcome. Dialogue and consensus-building should be at its heart, so that no fearmongering warnings of a ‘slippery slope’ can stand. 

Any eventual vote on a unified Ireland, as the commission on a border poll established by University College London has reported, should be linked to tangible propositions as to what constitutionally a ‘yes’ would mean. Critically, this would need to offer a reassuring answer on how public services already emaciated by austerity in the north would be supported. The ‘Westminster subvention’ still amounts to some £5,000 per person per year as the much-vaunted ‘peace dividend’ has never materialised. This would imply a long taper of perhaps a quarter of a century, should this fiscal responsibility be assumed over time by Dublin. 

The great mistake of German unification was that West Germany simply absorbed the ‘German Democratic Republic’, in a manner which, despite the enthusiasm of most east Germans for it, left enduring resentment in the new eastern Länder on which the far right now feeds. More positively, in the context of Brexit, the European Union has made clear that, should there be a unification of Ireland it would, as with Germany, accept the whole of Ireland as the reconstituted Irish member state. This is a correct signal.