Unionist fears in a united Ireland

Professor Brice DicksonPhoto of Brice Dickson

Editors’ Note: This post is part of an IACL-AIDC Blog Symposium on unification of the island of Ireland. The Symposium is co-hosted by the Constitution Project @ UCC Blog. Selected posts will also be co-hosted by the UKCLA Blog. The full set of posts can be found here.

Assuming that a border poll occurs, and that the vote in both parts of Ireland is in favour of unification, what might unionists in Northern Ireland want to see happen in order to reduce the fears they might have of living in the new State?

In a perfect world their worries will have been sufficiently anticipated in advance of the poll to ensure that certain guarantees will be secured to them in a united Ireland. As is now commonly acknowledged, a prime lesson to be drawn from the Brexit referendum in the UK is that if voters are to be given a choice between two stark alternatives, it is paramount that the features of each alternative are clearly delineated prior to the poll so that the choice made can be as informed as possible. That was basically the message enunciated by Peter Robinson, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, in his controversial speech at the MacGill Summer School in 2018. Unionists who responded by denouncing Robinson for even raising the subject of a border poll fell into the very trap he was warning them against.

Clearly the best option for unionists to advocate for in the run-up to a border poll is that, if there is to be a united Ireland, the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement should continue to apply, at least for a fairly lengthy transitional period. That is the outcome ably argued for by Mr Justice Richard Humphreys of the Irish High Court in his book Beyond the Border (2018). It seems the fairest and safest way of ensuring that, even if overall sovereignty in Northern Ireland switches from the UK to Ireland, responsibility for day-to-day governance of the six counties will remain for the time being with political representatives elected there. Of course the Northern Ireland Executive will require assurances that there will be adequate funding to implement its programmes for government during the transitional period, so a new treaty to that effect would need to be agreed by the Irish and British governments, together probably with the EU.

In a united Ireland with no devolved Assembly in Belfast, unionists might reasonably fear that their political ideology would become completely obsolete. There being no prospect of a reversal of the vote for unification, they could be reduced to nothing but a marginalised group of TDs (members of the Republic of Ireland parliament) and perhaps a few Senators. Yet in a unified Ireland there could possibly be 60 or 70 new Dáil seats in the six counties currently lying in Northern Ireland and, in an election based on Ireland’s current proportional representation system, unionists might easily win about half of them. These 30 or more seats would be a sizeable bloc and it is therefore conceivable, as pointed out by Brendan O’Leary in an earlier post in this series, that unionists could even be part of a future coalition government in Ireland led by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. On the other hand, Sinn Féin would also be likely to gain some 20 or 30 additional seats in the North, greatly boosting their Dáil numbers over those of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Naturally, for unionists such an outcome would be very much a second-best option compared with the maintenance of devolution in the North. If it eventuates, however, there are some key aspects of unionism which their representatives would want to focus on.

First, as their ideology is essentially a conservative one, certainly in economic terms, unionists would strive to ensure that Ireland does not become an overtly socialist State, a possibility which Sinn Féin’s success in Ireland’s recent election makes not unthinkable in the near future. Unionists would certainly object to the spending and tax-raising policies of the type argued for in the 2020 manifestos of Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and (to a lesser extent) Ireland’s Labour Party. The challenge facing unionists in this context would be that the political ground they would be seeking to occupy is already well covered by the two big parties which have swapped power in Ireland since the foundation of the State – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – but if those parties choose not to organise in the six counties unionists could still win many seats there.

It is otherwise hard to know what aspects of economic conservatism unionists could push for which Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not already supporting. ‘Irexit’ – promoted last year by the fledgling Irish Freedom Party – might conceivably be one such aspect, but it is one that is extremely unlikely to gain much purchase in a State which, thanks to strong EU support for Ireland in the difficult negotiations over Brexit, is now more deeply embedded in, and grateful to, the EU than ever before. (The Irish Freedom Party, by the way, received just 0.3% of first preference votes in Ireland’s recent general election.)

Second, as nearly all unionists are from a Protestant background (if they are still religious at all), they would want to be sure that the new State protects all religions equally. Yet their worries on that score would be easily dealt with, since the Irish State has now largely succeeded in disentangling itself from the clutches of the Catholic church. What is more likely is that Protestant churches will join forces with the Catholic church to campaign for a return to more restrictive attitudes on issues such as homosexuality, transgenderism and abortion. Such cooperation would be facilitated by the fact that Protestant churches, apart from the Free Presbyterian church founded by Ian Paisley in 1951, are already organised on an all-Ireland basis. But there is very little evidence that such a campaign would stand any chance of success, certainly amongst younger voters.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, unionists would be keen to ensure that a united Ireland appropriately acknowledges the cultural heritage of their community. They would want to counter any suggestion that British influence in Ireland since the 12th century has been constantly pernicious. They would crave recognition of the role played by Northern Ireland in the defeat of fascism in World War Two. Claiming to be a ‘national minority’, they would seek to vindicate their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights under Articles 4 to 19 of the European Framework Convention on National Minorities – the Irish government ratified that Convention in 1999 to fulfil an obligation imposed by the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. No doubt a claim will also be made that the Ulster-Scots language deserves protection under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a treaty which Ireland has not yet signed, let alone ratified.

Finally, it might just be that in a united Ireland unionists would re-discover their historical enthusiasm for a Bill of Rights. As observed by Peter Munce in 2014, they have not been a fan of that idea in Northern Ireland, but that is because, until recently, they have always been in the majority there. They could plausibly argue that Ireland’s Constitution is deficient in the protection it accords to the full range of rights supposedly guaranteed by the country’s treaty obligations, not least the rights of minorities.

Brice Dickson is an Emeritus Professor of International and Comparative Law at Queen’s University Belfast and a former Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.


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