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Michael McDowell: Confederacy is only model of Irish unity likely to garner wide support

There is potential for an Ireland in which the Republic and the North could share membership of the European Union without having to share a constitution

If we can draw any overall conclusion from The Irish Times/ARINS research on the issue of Irish unity, it must be that there is a very large gap between majority opinions in Northern Ireland and the Republic respectively.

Quite apart from the issue of whether there should be a united Ireland at all (where northern opinion seems at this point to be negative in the great majority), there is a remarkable divergence on the model for Irish unity. In the Republic, most people seem to conceive a united Ireland as a unitary state with Stormont abolished. Not so in the North.

It is not clear that all the possible models of Irish unity have been fully explored. It is just too easy to reduce options to either an all-Ireland unitary state or an Ireland where Northern Ireland would have a devolved assembly and executive at Stormont.

But there is a third possibility: an Ireland in which the Republic and Northern Ireland would confederate on a partnership basis to share a membership of the European Union. Such an Irish confederation would not involve the absorption or dissolution of either part of the island; both might continue to exist largely as they are but share institutional links such as a joint membership of the EU.


It is noteworthy that a very clear majority (57 per cent) in Northern Ireland favours membership of the EU. That majority could be accommodated in a confederal partnership on the island where EU membership was shared and operated on some form of partnership between the North and South. Some formula for joint external status, possibly along a Swiss or Belgian model, is possible. It may not need a shared flag or an anthem; it may not need a single written constitution.

The classic difference between federalism and confederacy is that the confederal partnership involved is voluntary and consensual. Neither partner surrenders to the other.

Likewise, northern opinion is opposed to the idea that Irish unity would mean Irish citizenship for all on the island. In the North, there seems to be a consensus view that people should be permitted to retain British nationality – much as they are at present. That consensus could be more easily accommodated in an Irish confederation than in a unitary state.

In a unitary state we would have to share a single constitution and presumably it would be amendable by a majority in a referendum. There would have to be a single judiciary exercising the judicial power through a supreme court for the whole island.

A confederal model would leave Northern Ireland with its own courts and legal system. It would also accommodate the northern system of local government based on the existing district council structures. Health and education would continue to be the separate responsibilities of the confederal partners.

The classic difference between federalism and confederacy is that the confederal partnership involved is voluntary and consensual. Neither partner surrenders to the other. Both agree on the extent and terms of their partnership. They devolve limited authority to their shared institutions. They each devolve rather than being devolved.

As regards northern demography, it is clear that there are now three minorities in Northern Ireland. The old model of Protestant ascendancy is gone for good. While identity is no longer binary – British or Irish – identity still remains a potent force in northern politics.

The tricky bit is to postpone political resolution of identity divisions to permit a relaxed context for political, social and economic interaction and sense of partnership among northerners.

I think it is somewhat naive to expect unionist politicians to enter an open-ended dialogue focused on the end of the union. There is simply little or no political gain for them in doing so.

But by exploring alternatives to a big bang end-of-the-union unitary state scenario, those who believe, as I do, in Irish unity can sketch out a more reassuring and less threatening subject for general dialogue on the island.

If anything, The Irish Times/ARINS research seems to suggest that the people of the Republic are dangerously disengaged on what the realities are in the North. We have collectively deluded ourselves into thinking that a united Ireland based on a unitary state is likely to come about in the short term. We have not really asked ourselves whether we need a united Ireland incorporating a badly alienated and very hostile northern minority.

The northern unwillingness to vote for unity demonstrated by the research has come as a big surprise for those in the South who did not listen to or understand what we have consistently been told by neutral and impartial political analysts.

It is not a matter of banging northern heads together, as some seem to think. There is nothing inevitable about Irish unity. Those who want it must educate themselves and work for it. They must first work out what it is that they are working for.

Otherwise we are doomed to repeat the anti-partition campaign of the 1950s – a classic exercise in rhetorical futility and self-delusion.