2014 marks one unconventional centenary for Northern Ireland, not 100 years from one event, but an average of 100 years from two. You see, it being 2014 means that the 1912 Ulster Covenant and the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic have been dominating the zeitgeist and politics of the six north eastern counties of Ireland for 100 years each. On average.
The founding texts of our present malaise are revered by many on both sides of our divide and are seen as the ideal ends by the more extreme sections. Our use of elections as sectarian headcounts cause our politicians to gravitate towards these extremes, and so these documents and their diametrically opposed assertions underpin all public discourse, even today.
This is despite the fact that Ireland, the UK, Europe and the world have changed beyond recognition since their drafting. Too often opponents of each are happy to assume that their authors’ motives were exclusively bigoted, and all too reluctant to pause and reflect why exactly they want to remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. 100 years (on average) later seems like a good time to examine the reasoning behind these documents and consider if they are still relevant.
First up, the Ulster Covenant, signed (often in blood) on Ulster Day in 1912 and celebrated with great pomp in September 2012. This gives four main reasons why a home rule parliament in Dublin would be bad news for Ulster, claiming that it would be:
- Disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster;
- Subversive of our civil and religious freedom;
- Destructive of our citizenship; and
- Perilous to the unity of the Empire.
The first point is a valid concern. As we all know, in 1912 Ulster, and especially Belfast, was an economic powerhouse, supplying the latest and greatest in linen, ropes, tobacco and ships to the world. It was its place in the British Empire that allowed Ulster to export huge quantities of these goods across the globe. Cutting ties with it would have imposed expensive tariffs on Ulster’s exports, rendering it unable to compete with the industrial cities of northern England and Scotland. There was a perfectly reasonable fear that aside from the bankrupting of the industrial class, hundreds of thousands would be left unemployed, creating deep seated economic and social deprivation. It may sound flippant, but one only needs to travel round some areas of Belfast today to see exactly what they were worried about.
So would a united independent Ireland be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster in 2014? Some might ask “What material well-being?”, but let’s ignore those cynics for now. As members of the EU the UK and RoI enjoy exactly the same export markets, so in terms of trade, there is no difference. There is of course a debate to be had over wider economic policy; some may argue that the RoI’s lower corporation tax rates would spur industry. Others can point to the dire circumstances it has found itself in over the last 7 years, as a decade long property bubble burst and both monetary and fiscal policies were dictated by international bodies. Once the RoI is back on its feet, a united Ireland would alter Ulster’s material well-being. Although the direction in which it would push it is unclear, we can be almost certain that it would not be disastrous. On this point the Ulster Covenant is wide of the mark, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
The claim that a home rule parliament in Dublin would be subversive to the Protestant civil and religious freedom is less clear cut. Irish nationalism around the time (including the Easter Proclamation) did hold religious equality as a goal, but Eamon De Valera’s subsequent de facto establishment of the Catholic church as the state religion of the new republic confirms that Protestant fears were justified. In recent years we have learned of the harrowing child abuse that occurred under the unfettered power of the Church, this may not be exactly what the signatories to the Ulster Covenant were worried about, but again in hindsight it provides justification for their fears.
And so what about 2014, would a united Ireland be subversive to Protestant civil and religious rights? In short, no. Never mind that Catholic and Protestant congregations have declined consistently over the past century, the ultimate guarantor of civil and religious rights in both the UK and RoI is the same piece of legislation: The European Convention on Human Rights. Under this both countries are answerable to the European Court of Human Rights. On top of this, influence of the Catholic church in the RoI has waned significantly in recent decades as the true scale of clerical abuse and cover-ups has become apparent. In 2011 Taoiseach Enda Kenny issued a scathing indictment of the Church in the Dail as he closed the (now re-opened) embassy to the Vatican (the UK has one too). The idea that Protestants would be oppressed in a future united Ireland is a demonstrable nonsense, if anything enormous efforts would be made to make them feel welcome. Again the Ulster Covenant is a good way off the pace and it’s devotees should reconsider their position.
The third concern of the covenant, that a Home Rule Parliament would be destructive of northerners’ citizenship is fairly straight forward. Even if the parliament existed within the UK or British Empire, the revoking of British citizenship under complete independence must have seemed quite likely at some point in the future.
In 2014, a United Ireland would obviously still be destructive of British citizenship; that is the raison d’etre of republicanism. This is the only remaining point of relevance in the Covenant, but people must consider why this ethereal concept of citizenship is important and why a British one is still so much better than an Irish one, given the circumstances of the present day.
The final worry that Home Rule would be perilous to the unity of the Empire has merit in the context of 1912. Even if a self-governing Ireland enjoyed dominion status within the Empire, the fact that it did so so close to the mainland UK could have given Johnny Foreigner all sorts of uppity ideas about his right to national self determination. Any shrinking of the Empire would also have been a shrinking of Ulster’s export markets, with all the economic risks discussed above.
This is where the covenant is most irrelevant in 2014, as it will not have escaped your notice that the British Empire has long-since ceased to be. It is an ex-empire. It has morphed into a well meaning but ineffectual talking shop whose only visible contribution to the world seems to be the staging of a mini-olympics every four years, which give athletes of the former colonies the chance to win medals without having to compete against their US or Chinese counterparts. A United Ireland would mean that Northern Ireland would be no longer represented in the talking shop, and most likely, that its athletes would not be able to compete in the Commonwealth Games. This would be no great loss to those athletes as their chances of making the proper Olympics representing a much smaller Irish population would be much greater than doing so for the UK.
So only one of four assertions of the Ulster Covenant is still remotely relevant in 2014, and as Meat Loaf didn’t say, one out of four is pretty bad. Both sides of our divide need to accept that while this document outlined legitimate and justified reasons for Unionism in 1912, it is no basis for our debate today. And once they have done that they must move on to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic…
Issued by a small and unpopular band of revolutionaries on Easter Monday 1916, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic declared a provisional government of all Ireland from which many in Northern Ireland still claim to derive a quasi-legal authority to maim and kill in its name. This is despite the fact that the majority of people on the island have been participating in a separate government of the twenty-six counties for decades, and in doing so acknowledging that the provisional government declared in 1916 no longer exists. Reflection on it will no doubt form a key part of the celebration of the centenary of the Easter rising in a couple of years.
The text of the document is both more poetic and more rambling than the more matter-of-fact of Ulster covenant, but it possible to discern three main themes; that the government:
- Enshrines the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible;
- Guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens; and
- Will be elected by the suffrages of all Ireland’s men and women.
However in 2014, 16 years after the Good Friday Agreement, it is hard to see what British oppression remains. Despite the claims of many republicans, it is difficult to see how the British Government forces Irish people to do things they don’t want to or prevents them from doing things that they do. Northern Ireland issues are indisputably governed by Irish people at Stormont and through its representatives in Westminster it can influence wider economic and foreign policy.
Contrast this with RoI which has in recent years had its fiscal policy dictated by the European Commission in Brussels, the European Central Bank in Frankfurt and the International Monetary Fund in New York. It’s monetary policy is also dictated in Frankfurt, largely to benefit Germany. This is not independence. It resembles the usurpation of sovereignty by foreign peoples and governments so decried by the Proclamation. It is also difficult to envisage the people of the twenty-six counties opting to leave the EU, having ratified the EU constitution in a referendum as recently as 2009. In short, those who are currently in favour of united Ireland are in favour of a small surrender of Irish sovereignty to foreign powers, very much against the spirit of the Proclamation.
The guarantee of religious and civil liberty and equality for all citizens was and is a laudable aim. However as discussed above, this is also guaranteed by the UK under the same European legislation. A United Ireland would change nothing in this regard. The same is true of universal suffrage, which was granted in the UK in 1928.
Although not explicitly referred to in the text, in proclaiming a republic it also proclaims this as a superior form of government to the UK’s constitutional monarchy. The idea that a person should be head of state by virtue of his or her parents may be archaic, but anyone with a rudimentary understanding of the UK’s unwritten constitution will appreciate that the monarch defers all matters of government to his or her elected ministers, and reigns only with the consent of Parliament and public opinion. In being a widely respected figurehead and global ambassador above the fray of governing politics, the role of the British monarch is very similar, in function if not form, to that of the elected Irish President. It is perfectly reasonable that people have a preference for one form of government or the other, but in reality the impact of a change on the lives of ordinary people would be negligible.
Also not specifically mentioned in the text, but clear from the signature of James Connolly, is the leftish bent of the Proclamation, one that is still maintained by republican parties today. Those parties should consider the the absence of a universal healthcare system free at the point of delivery, and lower corporation tax and National Insurance rates in RoI. They should think about which state best resembles the ideals of the Proclamation.
Since 1916 socialism has been tried in many countries and has never been a ringing success. This is also true of market capitalism, but those who advocate both socialism and liberty should note that in Russia, eastern Europe and still in China, North Korea and Cuba, communism marched in lock step with totalitarianism. The compatibility of socialism and liberty is dubious. Having viewed the trials and tribulations of socialism over the 20th century, the popular enthusiasm for it in 2014 is certainly somewhat muted compared to 1916. Given what has occurred in recent years it is difficult to see the people of RoI demanding more involvement of politicians in the running of the economy, especially if those politicians owe their position to their previous rank in the IRA, or are currently running amateurish guerilla campaigns out of Lurgan.
Again we have a document with ideas that were laudable a century ago but broadly irrelevant today. So why do our politicians continue to celebrate them and strive to see them realised? Two reasons spring to mind, but there are likely to be many more.
One is stubbornness. Too many people have invested their lives in pursuit of these ends, and do not want lose face or render their lives’ works as useless by admitting that it’s not really that big a deal. Another is that many people have simply suffered too much in our troubles to let the other side “win”. While this is understandable, it is wrong. Our debate must be focussed not on what was wrong for our parents, but on what is right for our children.
The aim of this blog is not to argue for or against a united Ireland, or even present a coherent argument. It is to demonstrate both that the usual arguments involved are not based on the facts of the day, and that if there were to be a united Ireland the actual changes involved would not be as great as politicians claim.
So what are we to do? Two suggestions to start with are the integration of all education so our children can grow up free of the mutual suspicion that has dogged previous generations. And although I do not agree with Jim Allister or Jamie Bryson on much, an opposition at Stormont would allow us to hold to account the politicians who continue to peddle these ancient fantasies and all the hate that goes with them.
There is a debate to be had on the future of Northern Ireland, but it is barely worth raising our voices, never mind fighting over.
Peace to all.
A J Fence.