Northern Ireland: Stop Speculating – Shape the Future – by Concentrating on the Present
As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement on April 10th I have been thinking, not of the problems of its stops and starts, and decommissioning – which has overshadowed its implementation – but as to how its signatories view the future as they shape the structures and contemplate the societal changes which may arise from the interaction of the two traditions and the expected demographic alteration to the population profile.
In an interview conducted by Nicky Campbell on BBC Radio 5 on Thursday 21 February the question was mooted to Mark Durkan, who replaced John Hume and Seamus Mallon as Leader of the SDLP and Deputy First Minister respectively.
While Durkan tried to concentrate on the need to ensure the effective working of the Agreement, Campbell persisted in raising the question with him, as to whether there might soon be a united Ireland.
When the Agreement was concluded on Good Friday 1998 there was a great deal of speculation on whether it set a course for the ending of Partition or whether it consolidated Northern Ireland firmly as a constituent part of the United Kingdom.
The Accord is in essence a compromise so that both communities can work together and at the same time within its ‘framework’ continue to advance their own aspirations as per the clauses set out on Annex A, on Page 3, Schedule 1, Paragraph 2 as follows :- Subject to Paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise power under Paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a United Ireland.
Paragraph 1 simply states that the Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a Poll for the purpose of Section 1 on a date specified in the order.
Paragraph 3 says that the Secretary of State shall not make an order under Paragraph 1 earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous Poll under this schedule.
It is therefore clear that the decision as to if and when such a referendum might be held lies with the UK Secretary of State Northern ireland and the Westminster Parliament and his (her) / their assessment of the prevailing circumstances and apparent support for holding it.
In dealing with the matter on the air the SDLP leader, who is also Deputy First Minister, agreed that his party is in favour of unification with the Irish republic. But, he said, if id did come about, it would not simply be a swallowing up of the Six Counties.
His view was that, just as Northern Ireland has a devolved assembly within the UK and representation in the Westminster Parliament, he could envisage a similar solution in respect of the Dáil (Irish Parliament) in which Northern Ireland could continue with a devolved administration and at the same time have a much larger representation in the Dublin Parliament than they currently have at Westminster.
He also thought that within the European Parliament and the Council of the Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern and Southern Ireland and the Isle of Man) the interests of Unionists and their traditions could be preserved and ensured.
I believe him to be wrong, when, in reply to a listener who phoned in when he said that within the Agreement a referendum was required in the Irish Republic before Northern Ireland could be incorporated. I can find no reference to this specifically in the document.
In my view, he is taking a very free interpretation of Article 1 on pages 27/28 of the Agreement which lays out the responsibilities of the two governments subsequent to the result of a referendum having been carried out under the clauses set out above, which ever way the vote might go.
Under this article, should the vote be in favour of Irish unification (one bone of contention might be the size of the majority in support of it) the Dublin Parliament would be required to legislate in order to put it into effect and would be based solely on the vote taken by the Northern Ireland electorate.
Of course, if and when a referendum is held on the issue the Government of the Republic would have previously laid out the terms and conditions they were prepared to offer the northern counties.. These, I’m sure, would have to include all the safeguards set out in the Belfast Agreement which received the support of 94% of those who voted on it in the Republic in 1998.
It is hard to visualise a successful ‘yes’ vote without the Republic having laid out probable or specific changes to the electoral system and / or changes to its Constitution.
There would, I’m also sure, be differences in viewpoints within and between the Republic’s political parties as to what they might be, which may require more than legislation to define what proposals might be offered before or subsequent to an affirmative vote in the Six Counties on unification.
With all due respect, while for academics and media presenters it is alright to discuss possible future scenarios and whether Irish unity is likely in their lifetimes (at nearly 83 years of age it is most unlikely in mine), it is not useful or wise for practising politicians, however tempted by media presenters whose only interest is in making a programme, to become deeply involved at this stage in such forward projections .
By the tone and content of the BBC’s ‘On the Record’ programme on Sunday 3 March I think Dr. John Reid, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would agree with my comment. He said that the Westminster Government was not intending to push the Unionists into the Republic. It was mindful of their interests and consequently change within the terms of the Agreement was only possible by consent.
It would indeed be unfortunate if the steps taken to operate the Agreement in respect of the Cross Border Institutions, were bedevilled by suspicions that there was a hidden agenda to, by stealth, incorporate the Six Counties into the Republic in practice.
David Trimble in his role as Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party will this coming Saturday, 9 March, be again facing this sort of problem as he confronts his ruling Council and reports to them the progress if any in the implementation of all aspects and understood items of the Agreement and the review of its operation which is to take place.
In my view the issue now, and for many years into the future, is how to ensure the well-being of all sections of the population within the parameters set out in the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.
This will require not only a consolidation of the Executive into a working team to this end and the establishment of cooperation between the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales as well as with and between the governments in London and Dublin.