The Blanket

Reunion versus
six-county independence


Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 17/6/2002

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over
and expecting different results
- Benjamin Franklin

Contrary to what some cynics might believe, I myself genuinely believe that - if Jesus Christ Himself descended today from a heavenly cloud to the front steps of Belfast’s City Hall, if He hugged the city’s new mayor (or is it “Lord Mayor”?) in front of news cameras, and if He then asked everyone in Northern Ireland to embrace a 32-county republic - Northern Unionists and Loyalists would assuredly flock to the polls to do so.

Short of His videotaped request to that effect, however, I believe that Northern Unionists and Loyalists will not be “enticed” to abandon their majoritarian veto and sever their ties with Britain in favor of 32-county reunion; the entire history of post-partition Unionism supports this view. In his recent “A Case For Change,” Mr. Ciarán Irvine states a contrary hope in response to my earlier “Wishing for reunion but walking yet alone.”

In his article, Mr. Irvine disagrees that he has failed to take into account Unionists’ fundamental anti-reunion views and feelings:

What, otherwise, would be the point of[ my earlier suggestion to bring] the Foreign Treaty powers of the German Lander and Swiss Cantons into the mix? I explicitly mentioned an instance whereby a Unionist-majority tuath could have its own formal relationships with the British Government and the Crown within the Irish Federation. I can imagine instances where Unionist-controlled local areas may have special citizenship arrangements with Britain; where a member of the Royal Family may hold, for example, the honorary position of head of the local council - and many other possibilities whereby Unionist areas can give real and tangible expression to their British sense of identity.

Two responses immediately come to mind. First, these bones thrown to Unionists would inevitably look rather puny - more like choking hazards than anything they could sink their political teeth into - compared to the “formal relationships with the British Government and the Crown” that Unionists currently have and will otherwise continue to have for perhaps three to six decades more. (Relatedly, Unionists would also have to wonder whether an 80 percent Catholic majority in a 32-county state might decide to eliminate all such “formal relationships” after the new 32-county state had bedded itself down adequately.) Second, as long as such “formal relationships” remained legally permitted in the new all-Ireland state, would each election - rather like each election today in Northern Ireland - boil down to a divisive, sectarian “pro-relationship versus anti-relationship” battle?

Mr. Irvine asks: “Surely, also, devolving real governmental power to local areas and allowing treaties with other Governments at a stroke negates Unionist fears of being vastly outnumbered with no power in their own land?” As suggested above, I believe that the answer to this rhetorical question is an emphatic “no, it would not negate those fears.”

However, I feel a different point by Mr. Irvine is fully correct:

The current consensus on “The North” within the London and Dublin Establishments traps all of us into permanent instability and, for Unionists, the appalling prospect of a “death by a thousand cuts” while for Republicans the equally-appalling prospect of an entire community deluding itself into thinking the lá will indeed tiocfaidh, and being eternally disappointed.

Thus, Mr. Irvine and I disagree on how to respond to this overall situation, not whether it exists.

Mr. Irvine maintains, in this respect, that my “stated preference[ is] for a six-county independent state.” Like other critics, he therein makes a small but noteworthy error: my preference would be for a blissfully happy 32-county state. However, because reunion is virtually impossible for several or many decades and because painful socio-political problems in Northern Ireland persist, I have advocated - albeit quite poorly - a radical yet at least vaguely plausible constitutional change that might prove helpful.

The following is Mr. Irvine’s three-paragraph case against independence:

Paul’s stated preference for a six-county independent state has been mooted, on and off, and mainly by Loyalist paramilitaries, for decades. No one seems to be buying, and for good reason.
One of the North’s primary problems is the extreme insularity of the place. Wrapped up in the integrity of its own eternal struggle, the outside world has never really meant much to any of the inhabitants. And an independent six-county state will remain trapped in its own little bubble. Speaking as someone who “escaped” from the claustrophobia of Derry to the Republic 11 years ago, and as someone who has spoken to many other similar “refugees” - in the Republic, in Britain, in the US - the one thing that always crops up in conversation and memory is the day all we exiles realised just how dysfunctional the place of our birth really was. Though we love it all the same, and it will always be home, the whole place needs the breath of fresh air that reconnecting with the outside world will bring.
I cannot see that ever happening while those Six Counties remain either attached by their poisonous umbilical cord to Britain; or free to float in their own space. In fact any UDI would merely exacerbate the existing situation, no matter what idealistic views of a happy-clappy democratic egalitarian Ulster some people may hold. If we Northerners are not sufficiently mature and outward-looking to operate the GFA properly, how does Paul imagine we will be magically transformed into a people that could successfully operate an independent State?

The general notion of independence has doubtless suffered, to a certain extent, from the fact that, twenty years ago, a political wing of the UDA advocated that approach. Essentially ad hominem references to that fact seldom acknowledge the intellectual interest given to the topic by the likes of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Sean MacBride (on behalf of the Provisional IRA), Belfast academic/author/activist Dr. Stanley Worrell, former British Prime Minister James Callaghan, and even Nobel Peace Prize laureate and as-of-this-writing Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble.

Some of Mr. Irvine’s other anti-independence points sound like trite clichés, especially “an independent six-county state will remain trapped in its own little bubble” and “the whole place needs the breath of fresh air that reconnecting with the outside world[ or, at least, reconnecting with Ireland’s other 26 counties] will bring.”

As noted above, Mr. Irvine also tells us:

I cannot see [major socio-political improvement] happening while those Six Counties remain either attached by their poisonous umbilical cord to Britain; or free to float in their own space.

Responding seriously to that statement, which I have heard in various forms many times, is difficult to do without sounding insulting, but here goes: maybe an important problem here lies in Mr. Irvine’s vision. Perhaps independence could work but perhaps Mr. Irvine, in light of his current predilections and prejudices, is literally unable to see that potential. As but one indication of his possible error in this respect, Mr. Irvine refers to my argument as involving “UDI,” i.e., “unilateral declaration of independence”; in fact, I have advocated not any UDI but, instead, independence resulting from negotiation with London and Dublin and implemented only with supermajority support.

Perhaps, as Mr. Irvine suggests, mine are “idealistic views of a happy-clappy democratic egalitarian Ulster.” (The expression “happy-clappy,” new to me, is “[a] disparaging name for the form of Christian religious observance which is informal, musical and spontaneous.” “The Phrase Finder,”

Indeed, a fundamental democratic point does seem to be at the heart of this dispute on independence.

Mr. Irvine in essence argues: “Independence should be neither formally examined nor formally put to any test at the polls because I, Ciarán Irvine, and many other people as well, have divined that independence either could not work or would not be accepted by the voters.”

My view, to the contrary, is that: (i) reunion has been expressly and consistently rejected and looks to continue to be rejected for another full generation or two; (ii) power-sharing - developed by many of the bright lights who assure us that independence cannot work - may now be on the verge of its second failure; yet (iii) still-untested independence has enough inherent potential that it ought to be formally examined and developed to the point whereat it is either formally rejected or formally implemented. More specifically, I have argued for the following “test” of independence, as earlier published in The Blanket:

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.

Rather than analyze whether that particular approach towards possible independence suffers from any infirmities, Mr. Irvine merely asks: “If we Northerners are not sufficiently mature and outward-looking to operate the GFA properly, how does Paul imagine we will be magically transformed into a people that could successfully operate an independent State?” That question I would answer in two parts.

First, a properly posed case for six-county independence, unlike a successful case for “enticing reunion,” would not depend on any magical transformation at all. An independence case would, and could only, present hard and honest truths to Northern Ireland’s voters concerning mutual or reciprocal sacrifices and benefits.

Second, Mr. Irvine’s question proceeds from the fallacious premise that Northerners’ not being “sufficiently mature and outward-looking to operate the GFA properly” has caused the main political problems over the past several years (and may cause the GFA to fall entirely). Instead, the fact is that the GFA has always had sizeable - and, apparently, increasing - opposition within the North’s Unionist community; that group’s representatives have, rather unsurprisingly, taken various steps to manifest their opposition. Whether for good or ill, key inadequacies in the GFA may cause it to become entirely incapable of operation if a bit more than half of Unionists want it to fail; restated somewhat, roughly 30 percent of Northern Ireland’s voters have the power to bring down this well-intended but obviously flawed political experiment. In an earlier The Blanket piece, I described as follows five key illaudable conditions inherent in the GFA:

1. An institutionalization of sectarianism in government through the prescribed Unionist/Nationalist split in the Assembly.
2. An inbuilt potential for grave instability in government, which may become quite manifest after the May 2003 election if no Executive is mathematically capable of being formed due to mandated weightings of votes within the respective Unionist and Nationalist camps.
3. An increasing problem of fundamental credibility in that government, as makeshift patches are placed over its constitutional holes. Last year, an unseemly “queen for a day” transformation was specially permitted for certain Alliance party Assembly members, who temporarily became “official” Unionists in order to help form an otherwise unformable Executive, and it is not clear how far this Assembly version of musical chairs might be permitted to continue. For example, Assembly elections next year may see the British government calling upon some SDLP and Sinn Féin members to “share the pain” by redesignating themselves temporarily as “Unionists” in order to prop up an inadequate UUP bench; depending on the mathematics in play, nay-saying Unionists might then find themselves redesignating en masse as Assembly “Nationalists” in order to hole, from the other side of the aisle, the Good Friday Agreement experiment.
4. An inability, via the d’Hondt system, to exclude from the executive portion of this government any political party with more than marginal support. (For example, if a hypothetical Northern Ireland Nazi party suddenly gained the Assembly votes of roughly 10 percent in the six counties, it might indeed be constitutionally impossible to keep a Northern Ireland Nazi politician from holding a ministerial position … at least not without some new makeshift constitutional patch to the Good Friday Agreement scheme.)
5. An inherent anticompetitive aspect to governance in the region. Whereas fortunes do, from time to time, favor Labour over Conservatives in Britain, and Republicans over Democrats in the United States, Northern Ireland will always have in its Executive (while the Good Friday Agreement scheme persists) Ulster Unionist Party Ministers, Sinn Féin Ministers, Social Democratic and Labour Party Ministers, and Democratic Unionist Party Ministers, and their respective numbers will change rather little. Short of voting so as to make governance through the Executive mathematically impossible, Northern Ireland in practice will have virtually no opportunity to change the overall “philosophical” nature of its Executives; hence, the lack of political competitiveness in Northern Ireland’s governance.

Each and all of those key inadequacies could be entirely avoided through a properly structured independence constitution.

Briefly returning to Mr. Irvine’s reference to “idealistic views of a happy-clappy democratic egalitarian Ulster,” the following is the conclusion of a letter I recently sent to one of Mr. Irvine’s fellow Northern Irelanders:

As a pessimist, I think any vote on any independence plan would - more likely than not - fail. However, I’d be infinitely happier to see such a plan rejected at the polls than to watch Northern Ireland in continued turmoil, “sagely” knowing without trying that independence simply could not succeed. The old basketball phrase - ”Never up, never in” - remains one of my favorites, particularly in this respect. Samuel Beckett’s entreaty also rings true here: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Mr. Irvine’s view of independence as being inadequate also brings to mind yet again a John Stuart Mill thought which I often quote: “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.” Maybe people like Mr. Irvine should regard a formal inquiry into possible independence as a way for their insight and prescience to be publicly and definitively demonstrated.

To his credit, Mr. Irvine puts thought and effort into trying to address the Northern Ireland question. He does so, however, by proposing reunion, which he sincerely wants but which Unionists have repeatedly rejected and which they disdain unto this day.

Mr. Irvine might instead say something along the following lines: “I want reunion, and you Unionists want continued union. A theoretical middle ground exists: six-county independence. Right now, I strongly think independence would not work, and I might in any event ultimately decide not to support it. However, the unarguable fact is that possible independence hasn’t yet been formally examined, and I’d be willing to help examine it now, in good faith, if you would do so as well.”

Which of these two proposals does Mr. Irvine believe would have a greater impact on the Northern Ireland situation? Which course does it seem more likely that the wise Benjamin Franklin and the eminent John Stuart Mill would have urged?

Perhaps no one regrets more than I the fact that independence critics typically content themselves with offhanded statements along the lines of “it can’t work, so let’s just forget it,” whereas the rebuttals inevitably take much longer to set out. Should any reader have made it to this point, my apologies for the necessary prolixity here.

Two pithy sentences from Mr. Irvine, though, in conclusion: “Time for change. Time for hope.”



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Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?
- Frank Zappa

Index: Current Articles

23 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


It Is But Institutionalised Collusion

Davy Carlin


Snarling Down Below
Eoghan O’Suillabhain

Reunion vs Six-County Independence

Paul A. Fitzsimmons

Eire Nua
Sean O Lubaigh


20 June 2002


Against Suicide Bombings

Carrie Twomey

The Power to Force Respect
Anthony McIntyre


Ciarán Irvine, decentralisation, and "Eire Nua"
Seaghan O Murchu

Why the Earth Moved

Ciarán Irvine



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