Hiding in Plain Sight? Unifying and Reconciling a Destabilised Island
There is no better time to start having a mature constitutional conversation about how we share this island together within Europe says Professor Colin Harvey.
Reports of Cabinet Ministers briefing about Irish unity highlight just how mainstream the discussion now is. Brexit has accelerated this conversation to the extent that referendums on this island in the near future look increasingly likely. This has prompted much reflection on the circumstances that would trigger the process, the need for proper planning and preparation (often political code for inertia), and what it would mean for the future of this island in a substantive sense (in areas such as the economy and health care).
Those calling for referendums have faced derision, combined with the smug reaction of those who never understood the constitutional core of the Good Friday Agreement. Raising this is written off as ‘divisive’, and even ‘toxic’, by people who then proceed to profess their unwavering love for the Agreement in all its parts. What is apparent from the Brexit process is that many on this island have not read the Agreement either. It is all too easy to mock British politicians, but how many Irish politicians and commentators would fail that test too? The Agreement is as poorly understood on this island as it is on the other island: the naked hostility to the ‘border poll’ debate confirms this.
My focus here is on one thing: I argue that it is in fact perfectly defensible, as a matter of basic principle, to raise this Agreement mechanism now in the context of Brexit. This is distinct from the tortuous debates about the evidence required to start the process; it is separate also from any consideration of whether it might lead to a vote for unity or not.
I have addressed these matters elsewhere; I agree with those who want to see sensible preparation starting now. My sole concern here is to suggest that in tackling one of the consequences of Brexit – a hard border on the island of Ireland – a principled way forward is to ask people in this region whether they wish to remain in the UK or not. That does not rule out other arrangements to deal with this problem (as envisaged in the Withdrawal Agreement) it is simply to argue that the existing, and legally endorsed, method for removal of the border is an obvious option.
Weight is added by the fact that this is taking place in the international legal shadow of the British-Irish Agreement, where the constitutional compromise around status is recognised. It is those who resist all talk of unity referendums who are playing politics in their selective reading of the Agreement. Rather than face the established remedy to avoid a hard border, the EU and UK have embarked on ever more elaborate schemes to achieve this objective. That, of course, makes excellent sense: even if there was a ‘border poll’ there is no guarantee it would lead to Irish unity (and thus the proposed solutions would remain necessary), and Britain’s departure from the EU impacts on this island in myriad ways beyond the border issue, and the implications for North-South cooperation. The purpose here is to indicate that it is legally and politically valid to advance the idea of a people’s vote (on unity) on this island. People in this region have the constitutional right to exit the UK (with the agreement of the south of Ireland too) and thus enjoy a shared future within the EU. Remember that this is a region that voted to remain, and where there is widespread anxiety about the negative consequences of a policy fuelled primarily by English nationalism.
One often heard response is that the test for holding a vote has not been met. But even if that is the case (and evidence would indicate it is an open question) this is a misunderstanding of the powers of the Secretary of State. She has discretion to call a referendum for a range of reasons, and testing the desire of the people of Northern Ireland to be in the EU via a united Ireland would certainly be one of them (thus meeting the agreed objective of avoiding a hard border). This issue has, for example, been badly neglected by those calling for a people’s vote (second referendum) in the UK: there is an existing people’s vote mechanism on this island that might achieve the required objective for Northern Ireland.
There is a solution to a hard border on this island; it is hiding in plain sight. It has the great virtue of being there already, as a recognised right. Those pointing this out do not deserve the unpleasant, highly partisan and revealing reaction they have received. Perhaps the most irritating response is that it would be ‘destabilising’: it is Brexit that is the ‘toxic’ imposition that has brought fear and anxiety in its wake.
Having a mature constitutional conversation about how we share this island together within Europe is the reverse of that; there is no better time to start.