EU leaders note Germany as precedent
By Bernard Purcell
EU leaders last weekend agreed that should voters in Northern Ireland opt to be part of a United Ireland, supported by people in the Republic, the region would automatically be accepted into the Union.
It is not new but it is an affirmation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, an internationally recognized treaty, and is nevertheless politically significant. While to some it may be a statement of the obvious that as Ireland is a full EU member, it should follow that Northern Ireland, as part of Ireland, would be also be part of the Union. But it’s not that simple.
The declaration was both a gesture of good will by Europe’s Heads of Government and a fairly significant coup for Irish diplomats and politicians who have been lobbying for recognition of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances since last year. But some of Britain’s pro-Brexit media outlets saw it as “trolling” or a threat by the EU to Prime Minister Theresa May that it would retaliate by trying to break up the United Kingdom and that Ireland was being opportunist.
It will come as no surprise that Irish politicians, diplomats and even most voters would quail in terror at the prospect of imminent unification and its attendant costs. The only party that has been pushing United Ireland, straight away and at any cost, has been Sinn Fein as it is the party’s long established – and some critics might say ‘only’ – party policy. It also takes the focus away from the party’s record on bread and butter, day to day politics.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny was at pains to say that the agreement only cleared a potential obstacle should unification happen several years from now, after Brexit has been finalized. The precedent is East Germany’s unification with EU member West Germany. Mr Kenny said that Irish unity would not happen “in the immediate future” and stressed the declaration, while “hugely important”, was “not about triggering any mechanism”.
“If Irish unity occurred at some stage in the future, he said, EU membership for Northern Ireland is assured. (But) “let me be clear, this is not about triggering any mechanism. The conditions for a referendum [on Irish unity] do not currently exist, but an acknowledgment of the principle, of the potential in the Good Friday Agreement, is hugely important.”
Any unity referendum could only be triggered by the British government, he stressed. One of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Kenny’s predecessor, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, was swift to warn against any rising clamour for Border Poll on Irish unification. Such a move, at this stage would be divisive and destabilising in Northern Ireland and could even undermine or reverse the progress made since the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements.
“The idea of a border poll…. was put there when I was conceding Articles two and three of the constitution and we were giving up the territorial right of the north and I wanted to copper-fasten in that if the day came where on the principle of consent people in the north – of all traditions – voted for a united Ireland then we would have an agreement on that.
“It was not for some kind of a sectarian vote or a day that the nationalists and Republicans could out-vote the unionists and loyalists… if you want trouble again in the north play that game. It’s a dangerous game,” he said.
Instead, he said, working papers should be drawn up on practical matters of immediate relevance – the customs union, the right of citizens of Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll, the right of UK and Irish citizens to work in each other’s countries and the maintenance of the common travel areas.
Meanwhile, another former Taoiseach, John Bruton, also a former EU Ambassador to Washington, has urged Irish politicians and voters to go in entirely the other direction and do all that can be done to stop the UK leaving the European Union.
Addressing an Oireachtas Committee last week he singled out UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who led last year’s Brexit campaign – for scathing criticism. He accused him of peddling falsehoods and criminal irresponsibility.
Former Tanaiste and Progressive Democrats leader Michael McDowell called for a special economic zone to be set up in Northern Ireland to reduce the damage caused by Brexit: “The economic outlook for the north post-Brexit is quite bleak; foreign investment will be very difficult for the north to attract outside of the EU. If the north-south trading relationship and the north’s agricultural economy were preserved in a post-Brexit arrangement, the outlook for the northern economy might look a lot less bleak. This is an area where there is huge scope for imagination and flexibility in the EU negotiating position.”
This week, in Dublin, Ireland’s politicians will discuss a recent report, published late last month, which purports outline in detail what Ireland needs to do to achieve a peaceful reunification of the island of Ireland. It will be discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
The detailed report, ‘Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland and Its People in Peace and Prosperity’ is more than 1,200 pages long, has seven sections and eighteen recommendations and contains submissions from key figures who have been involved in conflict resolution all over the world. It was published by Fianna Fáil’s Seanad Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs Mark Daly who acted as Rapporteur to the Joint Committee.
Contributors included counter-terrorism expert Michael Ortiz, a former advisor to then US President of Barack Obama, and Dr Kurt Hubner of the University of British Columbia.
Dr Hubner told the Joint Committee he had constructed economic models of scenarios of Irish unification, one of which showed a benefit of €36.5 billion in the first 8 years of unification.
Introducing his report Senator Daly said: “To date much of the discussion on Brexit has focused on the huge difficulties associated with the UK decision to leave the EU. The report I have produced aims to highlight the economic and social opportunities that have arisen for the entire island of Ireland in the wake of Brexit.
“The purpose of this report is to take on board the opinions and feedback of people involved in conflict resolution and reunification efforts across the globe. The report sets out a clear roadmap to the peaceful unity of Ireland and its people following the decision by the UK to leave the European Union.
“The report highlights that the majority of people on the island of Ireland want to remain in the European Union, and that this can be achieved through a United Ireland. The report outlines the future of this island, the opportunities and obstacles that have arisen as a result of Brexit and the steps that need to be taken to achieve a United Ireland through peaceful means.
“The report focuses on the huge challenges facing Northern Ireland when it leaves the European Union. Economic analysis shows that Northern Ireland is currently ranked 44th on the UN Human Development Index, but is set to tumble to below 50th position after Brexit joining the likes of Kazakhstan and Belarus. The report emphasises that Northern Ireland would face a brighter economic and social future within the European Union in a United Ireland.
“This is a comprehensive report which shows what Ireland needs to do to achieve a peaceful reunification of the island of Ireland. It also offers a view to the committee on what conditions Ireland should seek in the final negotiations between the EU and the UK. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement I intend to continue highlighting not only the drawbacks of Brexit, but also the opportunities that it presents us with.”
The seven sections are:
1. Brexit and the Future of Ireland;
2. The Precedent in German Reunification for Irish Unification;
3. Economic Modelling of Unification;
4.Uniting Ireland and its People in Peace and Prosperity;
5. the Good Friday Agreement;
6. Referendum as Provided for Under the Good Friday Agreement;
7. Constitutional and Legal Changes Before and After a Referendum.
It includes copies of Acts and Agreements relating to Ireland and Britain from the Act of Union to the Good Friday Agreement.
Irish High Court Judge Mr Justice Richard Humphreys’ own ‘roadmap to peaceful unification’ ‘Countdown to Unity’ is also cited extensively in Senators Daly’s Report. Humphreys’ ‘Countdown to Unity’ highlights various constitutional considerations including, allowing for a devolved executive to continue to exist in Belfast, voting rights in presidential elections and referenda which are reserved to Irish citizens in the Republic.
“As with the reunification of Germany, it is clear that any change to the extent of the national boundary of Ireland will require changes in European Union law across a range of issues… it is likely that the technical exercise of adjusting European Union law to accommodate Irish reunification will be an extensive one and may take a considerable period of time,” according to Humphreys.
The report being discussed this week recommends the establishment of a ‘New Ireland Forum Two’, the first was in 1984, to set a pathway to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland.
New Ireland Forum
The original New Ireland Forum recommended three possible structures for the future of Ireland: a unitary state, a federal/ confederal state, and a joint British/Irish authority. They were famously rejected by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her ‘out, out, out’ speech.
It also recommends a taskforce to pre-empt or respond to a resumption of terrorism, as suggested by the aforementioned counter-terrorism adviser to President Obama, Michael Ortiz. It should comprise, he advises, national and local officials, law enforcement, civil society and other local leaders to examine potential threats, better understand the drivers of violent extremism and evaluate current resources.
“This would help everyone have a baseline understanding of what the challenge is and what needs to be done…unfortunately, there is not an easy fix to violent extremism… if Ireland is able to launch a transparent, open and inclusive process with strong communications mechanisms, sufficient programmatic resources and creative proposals for strengthening community resilience, I believe this will go a long way in working to prevent terrorism before it starts,” he advises.
The report also says serious work must be done to get an accurate cost of unification. Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit in 2013-14 was £9.3 billion (€12 billion). Dr Kurt Hubner of the University of British Columbia, who gave evidence to the committee about how he had constructed economic models of scenarios of Irish unification, said one of his economic models showed a benefit of €36.5 billion to the island of Ireland in the first eight years of unification. But the Oireachtas report says – perhaps quite unrealistically – that Northern Ireland’s deficit should continue to be covered by the British Treasury for 30 years after any vote for unification.
The report quotes, in its conclusions, the late, great Irish public servant and economist TK Whitaker, who died at the start of this year, aged 100 describing earlier considerations of Irish unification and the various dilemmas it posed: “We were, therefore, left with only one choice, a policy of seeking unity in Ireland between Irishmen. Of its nature this is a long-term policy, requiring patience, understanding and forbearance and resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism. It is not the less patriotic for that.”