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David McWilliams: Swiss model of local power is the key to successful united Ireland

British people in northeast could run own affairs in hyper-devolved Irish federation

Swiss citizens casting their ballots in a referendum: direct democracy ensures that everyone participates and reduces enormously the potential for the accusation that the government is not relevant or remote. Photograph: Getty Images

An unexpected consequence of Brexit has been the dramatic increase in trade between the Republic and the North. In the past six months, trade has increased by €800 million, as supply chains adapt to the new realities.

Unlike politics, commerce does not see flags, slogans or borders. The merchant has always favoured cosmopolitanism over nationalism, money over votes, flexibility over regulations and freedom of expression over dogma.

Commerce finds solutions and finding better ways of doing things is the essence of innovation, the elixir of economic growth. Historically, humans traded with each other because it was a better way of getting stuff than fighting. It is as true now as it was in the ancient world.

A peaceful pathway to independence, via an even greater union such as the EU, is open to the Scots

The increased integration of the island economy serves to refocus our minds on constitutional change which is coming. The economics of a future united island will be critical to the debate.


Brexit has loosened the stitching that bound the UK together. It was always going to be so. Ethnically diverse entities, such as the UK, remain coherent as long as the major player keeps its own nationalism under wraps, subsuming it to the amalgamation.

Once the major nation goes rogue, asserting its own nationalism as England did with Brexit, the smaller nations in the confederation become anxious. The obvious example of the major nation in an ethnically diverse confederation tearing a country apart at the seams is Serbia within Yugoslavia from 1989 onwards.

A peaceful pathway to independence, via an even greater union such as the EU, is open to the Scots. Scottish independence polls are about 50/50, the nationalists having lost some ground in the past few months. But it’s worth remembered that 50 per cent Yes today is 25-30 per cent above where the Scottish Nationalists started their last referendum campaign. From here, Scottish millennials and Gen Zs – not Tory politicians – will determine the future of the UK, and they are overwhelmingly nationalist.

So where does that leave us?

Ironically, an independent Scotland, the country with which Northern unionists have most connection, will be the entity that forces the people of Antrim to appreciate that they live on the island of Ireland, not some fictitious ersatz Ayrshire. Unlike Scotland, blunt demographics will not be enough for Ireland; we are too divided. We need to be more thoughtful.

Brutal prism

The numbers are quite straightforward. Technically, unity could be secured with a 50 per cent-plus Border poll, but few believe that such a result would deliver a prosperous new country.

Based on the 2011 census, (the most recent we have) under the age of 40, self-identified Catholics are in the majority in Northern Ireland. This becomes more evident as the population gets younger.

In the youngest age group of 0-5, Catholics comprise  44.3 per cent , Protestants 31.7 per cent, and no religion 23 per cent. Of course, religion and political persuasion is not completely accurate, but it does give a good approximation of voting intentions. In the past 100 years, the number of self-identifying Catholics as a percentage of total population in Northern Ireland has doubled, while the number of self-identifying Protestants has halved. The long-term trends are pretty clear and the middle-ground is now up for grabs.

Although they comprise only a majority in two of Northern Ireland’s six counties today the unionist population of 900,000 or thereabouts would constitute around 15 per cent of the island’s population.

However, when seen through the brutal prism of numbers alone, there are already more immigrants on the island of Ireland than there are unionists, and this trend will continue.

Our system of spectator democracy, where we vote thumbs up or thumbs down every four years and then forget about participation, amplifies the opportunity for extremists

Yet the British people of the northeast of this country amount to a distinct community whose identity, culture and interests must be served in a united island. They are not Irish, and you cannot force them to be Irish.

The days of the Ulster Covenant are long gone but the conundrum remains: what will Ireland look like if a vote on unity is successful? And how can we persuade British people in the northeast of Ireland – or enough of them, including the middle ground – to jump with us?

From a fiscal/budgetary/economic point of view, the Republic could absorb the North, but balance sheets are not enough, there must be more.

One of the most successful economies in Europe is a successful confederation of distinct ethnic, religious and cultural groups, operating under one flag. Unlike in Ireland, these ethnic groups do not even share a common language. That country is Switzerland, a country of three separate ethnicities, German, French and Italian, each with its distinct heritage, culture, language and history.

The majority (62 per cent) use traditional or Swiss-German as their main language, followed by French (23 per cent) and Italian (8 per cent). A tiny minority use the Romansch language. In terms of religion, the population is primarily split between Catholics (35.1 per cent), Protestants (23.1 per cent) and those with no religious affiliation (27.8 per cent), a contingent that has grown significantly in recent decades. Ireland should learn from Switzerland.

Direct democracy

The Swiss have figured out a way to ensure that no ethnic group feels short-changed, dependent or unrepresented. The key to Swiss success is localism, devolved decision-making, and direct democracy, where each locality runs its own affairs, sets its own taxes, and basically doesn’t annoy the people over the next valley.

Critically, local politicians have more power than national politicians. Indeed, one of the great Swiss boasts is while the rest of the world can tell you who is the president of France, chancellor of Germany or prime minister of the UK, few know the name of the prime minister of Europe’s most successful country. Swiss politics is inverted, the higher up you go the less power there is.

The balance of political power in Switzerland is divvied up between the three Cs – the Confederation, the Cantons and the Communes, in descending order of size. The basic rule of Swiss government boils down to the principle of subsidiarity; in short, anything that can be done at a lower political level should not be done at a higher level.

This rule is set out in the constitution. This prevents Germans making the rules for the French or the French making the rules for the Italians, and at a stroke diminishes the likelihood of inter-ethnic grievance.

It’s not that the Swiss don’t recognise the potential for sectarian strife, they just don’t let it happen.

The confederation handles issues of national importance and scale, such as national defence, foreign policy, customs and monetary policy and nationwide legislation. Each of the country’s 26 cantons has equal status and sets budgetary matters, taxation, healthcare and the operation of the political system. At the local level, Switzerland’s 2,300 or so communes determine local taxation, planning, schools and hospitals.

Around one fifth of these communes, mostly large cities and towns, are organised into their own parliaments. The remaining 80 per cent employ direct democracy, whereby all residents are invited to cast votes in a communal assembly. Direct democracy ensures that everyone participates and reduces enormously the potential for the accusation that the government is “up there” or not relevant or remote.

Spectator democracy

Our system of spectator democracy, where we vote thumbs up or thumbs down every four years and then forget about participation, amplifies the opportunity for extremists to argue that government doesn’t represent “the people”. If you are mandated regularly, you are government.

When looking at the future of the island, the Swiss model would be far more palatable to the British people in the northeast of the island because in effect they could run their own affairs in a hyper-devolved Irish federation.

The Rangers-supporting unionist from Larne will be making decisions for himself and his community, as too will be the GAA-obsessed nationalist from Ballina. Nobody will feel ruled by others, particularly those with whom they don’t share a cultural affinity. Local people take responsibility for local affairs, raise taxes locally for local infrastructure and ultimately bring power – and accountability – to the people.

An all-island Irish confederation organised along Swiss lines might be the future.