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INDEPENDENCE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND: WHY AND HOW
Paul A. Fitzsimmons

Sustained international efforts during the past three years at trying to implement Northern Ireland's grievously flawed Good Friday Agreement ("GFA") for devolved power-sharing have failed, as the grievously flawed "Sunningdale" power-sharing effort failed more than a quarter of a century ago.

Could anyone justly -- or even rationally -- urge: "Just give us another decade or two and we promise to get a 'Sunningdale Mark III' up and running"?

Similarly, a "let's just wait for reunion" call, if heeded, would inevitably mean another lost generation, or more, for both communities in the North.

Yet, compounding Northern Ireland's socio-political tragedy, many in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere presume that no other way forward exists, even in theory, to resolve "the Troubles." That presumption is in error: negotiated independence might yet be possible and might possibly suffice.

Before inertia slides Northern Ireland back into another generation of unhappy direct rule, the pervasive - and perhaps incorrect - assumption that independence could not work or would not be acceptable needs to be examined and tested vigorously. Six key aspects of fair and workable independence are evident.

First, Britain and the Republic of Ireland could each allow dual citizenship for any in Northern Ireland - and any of their progeny - so desiring it.

Second, a form of government could be constructed which, unlike the North's pre-1973 "Stormont" government, would afford Northern Ireland's Catholic population (now over 40 per cent) a genuine opportunity for political participation. (Eminently clear, for example, is that merely offering guaranteed participation in "watchdog committees" within some new parliament would not be enough.)

Third, Britain, perhaps with the assistance of others, could ensure that a new Northern Ireland state would remain financially viable through long-term continuation of economic subventions such as the North has received for many decades as a part of the UK. (Such subventions - it should be remembered -would unquestionably continue, even without independence, for many decades.)

Fourth, constitutionally established individual and civic rights would be necessary.

Fifth, because adjusting the Irish border could only be counterproductive, independence would have to include all of Northern Ireland's present territory.

Sixth, while Britain required only a bare majority of affirmative votes for the GFA's approval, a plan as dramatically different as negotiated independence would likely require at least two-thirds support at the polls to warrant implementation. At that level, either main community could assuredly "veto" this effort.

Leading members of each of the largest political parties in Northern Ireland-Unionist, Nationalist, Republican, Loyalist, and otherwise - have given independence quiet consideration during the past quarter century, albeit most often merely as a fallback constitutional position. In the 1970s and 1980s, the most affirmative consideration of it came mainly from three men now late of this world - Loyalist John McMichael, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Sean MacBride (on behalf of the Provisional IRA), and Belfast academic/ author/activist Dr. Stanley Worrell - as well as from former British Prime Minister James Callaghan.

Yet, the "logistical" viability of Northern Ireland's independence has long been in doubt (often, it must be said, because various "big thinkers" wrongly assume that challenging logistical problems in this regard are completely insoluble). Moreover, choosing independence would certainly require very plain, very difficult political sacrifices from her Catholic and Protestant communities.

However, an independence proposal would be straightforward and honest (whereas the GFA was described, by supporters from both communities, as "contradictory" and "a flagrant subterfuge").

Just possibly, if presented with an opportunity for fair and workable independence, the bulk of the North's Protestants and Catholics might decide to sacrifice political ties that they respectively cherish (continued union with Britain or future reunion with the Irish Republic) in order to reach an accommodation precluding a result that they would respectively dislike or despise (future reunion or continued union). An April 1997 Belfast Telegraph/Queen's University of Belfast opinion poll showed that roughly half of each of Northern Ireland's Protestant and Catholic communities would at least "tolerate" a settlement involving independence; that poll was taken without any actual independence plan to evaluate ... and before this second failure at "power-sharing."

How might this potentiality best be examined? Independence, if it ever happened, would have to be the product of joint efforts by the British and Irish governments later approved by a super-majority (probably between 66 and 75 percent) of those voting in an independence plebiscite in Northern Ireland. Specifically, the following implementation steps might well be followed:

1. The British and Irish governments would expressly ask Northern Irelanders to encourage their respective political representatives to take part in a transparent constitutional convention presided over by outside constitutional experts.

2. After a constitutional and financial package for independence has been approved by Britain, the Republic, and the EU, and after adequate time for public discussion, the British government would hold a "simple majority" plebiscite in Northern Ireland on the following 'test-drive' issue: "Do you want to see a 'shadow' election held to establish who would hold office under this 'ready-to-wear' scheme if that scheme were later approved in a 'super-majority' plebiscite?"

3. If the majority did not want to take that 'test-drive,' negotiated independence would be well proven to be inadequate and rightly abandoned.

4. If the 'shadow' election proposal did receive majority support, shadow officials would then be chosen, but those officials would have few powers. Assuming that the proposed constitutional government were in the form of a 'presidential' system of government, the elected shadow president and shadow legislators would be empowered to select, in accordance with that system, an executive cabinet and members of the judiciary. The only other power they'd have would be to convene themselves in their shadow positions; at least in theory, they might convene to discuss whether to recommend voter approval of the ultimate 'super-majority' plebiscite on the issue of Northern Ireland's negotiated independence.

5. After some appropriate period of time following an approved 'shadow' election, the 'super-majority' plebiscite would be held. Rejection thereof would entail abandonment of an 'independence' approach. Acceptance thereof would trigger a transition period, likely to be subject to a final 'condition precedent' of independently approved 'decommissioning,' whereupon the shadow members (executive, judicial, and legislative) of the government would be certified as official.

A catch-22 exists, though: independence might ultimately prove to be an acceptable and equitable answer, but few in Northern Ireland will publicly request even that it be examined (often because of pragmatic and philosophical constraints of their own), and Britain is surely loath to undertake that effort without such requests.

However, unlike in the wake of 1974's "Sunningdale" failure, in place today is a British administration with not only the demonstrated capacity for historic vision but also the parliamentary strength to attempt a more radical approach in a situation where less radical approaches have invariably proven inadequate.

Fair and workable independence can happen in one circumstance only: if that option is made logistically and financially possible through the wise, brave, and generous support of the British and Irish governments. Thus, the key question - unanswered by recent events in Northern Ireland - is: "Could the British and Irish governments actually be wise, brave, and generous?"

John Stuart Mill rightly observed in his On Liberty: "There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation." That sage observation notwithstanding, those who today oppose independence too often dogmatically postulate its unworkability as grounds for asserting that independence shouldn't even be formally examined, even in the absence of any other effort towards establishing democracy in that region.

Any form of continued "direct rule" of Northern Ireland is morally inferior to fair, workable, and acceptable democracy there. While the North's voters must have the final say, the time is at hand for the first-ever formal study of Northern Ireland's possible negotiated independence.

Paul A. Fitzsimmons

 

 

 

 

 

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