Queen's Policy Engagement

Irish Unity Report: Reunification of Ireland or unity amongst those who want unity?

In the first of a two-part article, Professor John Barry casts a critical eye over the recent Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement report on Brexit and the Future of Ireland.

Irish Unity Report: Reunification of Ireland or unity amongst those who want unity?

A report on Irish Unity was released by the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement of the Irish Parliament on 2nd August, entitled, Uniting Ireland and its People in Peace and Prosperity.  The report was the output from an Irish Oireachtas Committee made up of members of both the lower chamber (Dáil) and upper one (Seanad).  The Rapporteur was Fianna Fáil Senator, Mark Daly and the Chair of the Committee was Sinn Féin TD Kathleen Funchion.

Beyond looking at some of the substance of the report, the pedant (and long-time reader and evaluator of written work – from first year essays to PhD theses and book manuscripts) in me means I feel obliged to comment on its presentation and style.  The report is long-winded, could have done with a thorough editing, contains a number of typos and is repetitive in many places.  However, as someone who eagerly read the report, perhaps most disappointingly there is a strong ‘cut and paste’ feel to the report, in that the report is largely composed of summaries of existing positions, points of view, (all overwhelmingly positive as one would expect), books, authors, current and former politicians, civil servants (mostly Irish, but some pro-Unity British and Irish American and German – relating to the reunification of East and West Germany).

However, the authors of the report are to be congratulated for compiling various pro-Unity arguments, not least in the context of Brexit and the inevitable calls for a ‘border poll’ and the reunification of Ireland.  And Brexit looms large in the report, functioning both as context, motivation and…cover.  But the report could be said to conflate Brexit and Irish unity.  While Irish unity is a legitimate aspiration and one set of responses to Brexit and North-South relations, it is not the only one, and the politically destabilising impacts of this report, alongside the hardening of the Fine Gael government’s position in recent days, does not augur well. In some parts the report (for example Section 4), Brexit – and the fact that a majority in Northern Ireland voted against it – is viewed in the following manner:

“Brexit means that the best future for the citizens of Northern Ireland could well be remaining in the European Union in a reunified Ireland. This option must be explored and examined. The challenge now is to lay out how to achieve the constitutional obligation of a united Ireland”.

Reunification is viewed as a remedy for a hard Brexit, offering a ‘better deal’ for Northern Ireland, even better than ‘special status’.  In other parts Brexit is presented as evidence of the UK (which includes both the English vote which effectively took the UK out of the EU, and the current ‘hard Brexit’ Tory government- with ‘supply and confidence’ from the DUP) as ‘perfidious Albion’; and once again acting against the interests of Ireland (both Northern Ireland and the Republic).

A quote from former Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny much repeated in the report offers a good summary of its essence and the Brexit result from last June as the motivation and context for the report. Enda Kenny, speaking in Brussels on 2 March 2017 said:

“The Good Friday Agreement contains the opportunity to put in these negotiations language that has already been agreed in internationally binding agreement, that at some future time were that position to arise, that if the people by consent were to form a united Ireland that that could be a seamless transfer as happened in the case of East Germany and West Germany when the Berlin Wall came down.”

And the reunification of Germany is the main model for Irish reunification that the report focuses on – though it does usefully cover other reunification examples – such as North and South Korea and Cyprus.

Much weight is put on and given to, indeed to an incredible degree, the views of Irish Court Justice Richard Humphreys and his 2009 book, Countdown to Unity: Debating Irish Reunification.  There is extensive reliance on the arguments advanced in that book, including copious quotes from it, in almost every section of the report.  Much of the report is given over to compiling quote after quote, after quote from this book, with no critical analysis, development of his arguments or ‘added value’.

In these sections of the report I was reminded of the classic first year essay which mistakes such careful compilation of quotes for developing an independent argument and assumes that these quotes from one source are ‘true’.  And here I am making a point about the assumption, the (to this reader at least) lazy assumption that quotations from a book written by an Irish Court Justice are evidence and argument.  It could be, if interrogated, brought into conversation with other similar and opposing views, and used as one element in presenting a new argument or position.  But in this report we do not get any of this, sadly.      

Substantively, there is no input from Unionists or sensitivity around how this would be received by the unionist community in Northern Ireland, as per the submission from former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, that the main concern of the report is reassuring Northern Ireland nationalists it seems.  And while nationalists are reassured, unionists/loyalists are presented as ‘problems’ to be ‘solved’ and overcome.  Hence the report’s statement that:

“Senator Daly as rapporteur of this report requested White House, National Security Council, Senior Policy Advisor on counter terrorism in President Obama’s administration, and the first US diplomat focused on countering violent extremism policy at the State Department Michael R. Ortiz to give a submission on how the threat of future loyalist paramilitary violence attempting to subvert a referendum and unification could be addressed.” P.237

So, once again nationalists and republicans are to be addressed through political mechanisms, while the security forces deal with loyalists.   And while the report does make mention that the “Fears and concerns of the Unionist community need to be examined, understood and addressed comprehensively by all stakeholders in advance of any referendum” (p.238), this concern does not extend to considering how the very fact of talking about proposing an inevitable referendum on Irish Unity – and thus ending the constitutional link between Northern Ireland and the UK and the effects of this on those British citizens now ‘cut off’ from Great Britain – will in and of itself stoke those very fears and concerns.  Not least when there has been little or no unionist input in the report or consideration of arguments for the status quo (or a counterfactual such as the Republic rejoining the Commonwealth for example).

To read part two of this article click here.

The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 


Professor John Barry
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John Barry is a Professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include: green political theory, politics and political economy of sustainability, greening the economy, environmental and sustainable development policy-making, environmental ethics, transition to a low-carbon/renewable energy economy.

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