Arriving at agreement on a new Irish Constitution following a post-Brexit Border Poll would expose the cracks in Irish identity. There is little public evidence that any government—in the Republic, Northern Ireland, or the UK—has given serious thought to the steps that would need to follow a double yes vote.
The Northern Ireland government operates under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as modified by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. Reserved for Westminster, inter alia, are powers relating to international relations, defence of the realm, nationality, immigration, and asylum issues, matters concerning national security, including provisions for dealing with terrorism or subversion. In addition, the Northern Ireland Executive is required to develop strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots language.
The 1937 Constitution of Ireland created a unitary state, The power to make laws is vested solely in the Oireachtas (parliament). In recent times, the most pronounced Catholic inspired provisions, concerning divorce, blasphemy, abortion and same sex marriage have been removed. Although the preamble, referencing as it does the Most Holy Trinity, retains a Catholic flavour, constitutionally the Republic is a secular state. The Republic is often assumed to be a Catholic country. However, a 2018 survey Pew Research found only 24 percent of adults in Ireland identify as highly religious and, in another survey, found 46 percent are non-practicing Christians.
In the North Unionists are often equated with Protestants and Catholics with Republicans. But the numbers do not line up quite so neatly. In 2011 the census in Northern Ireland 82 percent identified as Christian – 48 percent Catholic, 19.1 percent Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 13.7 percent Church of Ireland, and 10.1 percent no religion. When asked how they identify themselves, 48 percent of people considered themselves to be British, 29 percent as Northern Irish and 28 percent Irish.
Language is another divisive identity issue on both sides of the border. The withdrawal of Sinn Féin from the power sharing arrangements, initiating the ongoing collapse of government in Northern Ireland, was triggered by the failure of the Democratic Unionist Party to support a standalone Irish Language Act. Sinn Féin has been seeking the ‘restoration of Irish as the spoken language of the majority of people in Ireland’, giving it equal status with English, and pursuing the establishment of Gaelteacht (Irish speaking) areas. A compromise DUP proposal to promote Ulster Scots culture, heritage and language as well as Irish was rejected by Sinn Féin.
For certain Northern Irish nationalists, the issue of the Irish language has become a powerful emblem of identity. The reaction of the hard Unionists is equally strong as they seek to entrench the language and cultural markers of their identity. The Irish Constitution recognises the Irish language as the national and first official language and English as a second official language. A potential constitutional stumbling block. However, in the Republic only 39.8 percent of people can speak Irish and just 4.2 percent use it daily. Almost a quarter of all people able to speak Irish never do.
At a minimum drafting a new constitution for a reunified Ireland would see fierce contention over nationalist identities and the status of language and religion. These are likely to be employed as cover for pursuing more fundamental constitutional issues. Should a reunified Ireland be a unitary state with its capital and parliament in Dublin, with the six (or maybe nine) counties of Ulster being reduced to the same standing as the existing provinces of Connacht, Leinster, and Munster, or should Ulster, perhaps expanded to reincorporate the pre-Partition counties, be a largely autonomous region in a federated set up?
There will potentially be big political winners and losers depending on the Constitutional outcome. Sinn Féin might look forward to becoming a far more formidable political force in a unitary state, as it is unlikely Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil would gain additional voters in an all-of-Ireland election, and the Unionist parties currently dominant in the North would be marginalised. But retaining partition de facto through a federated system by giving a good measure of autonomy to Ulster would be very unpopular with Nationalists, and probably with the Irish in general, while northern Unionists would see it as an essential protection for their identity.
Any negotiations on a constitution are certain to see incommensurable demands from a range of interested parties. Simply structuring the negotiations would be a complex task. The Republic has a Fine Gael minority government with 48 seats in a 136 member parliament, while Fianna Fail has 43 seats and Sinn Féin has 21. How the Republic of Ireland government might arrive at a coherent strategy for negotiations is not apparent? Stormont is dormant at present and, even if reanimated, like the Republic, it is unlikely to arrive at a consensus on an approach to constitutional negotiations. If the stalemate continues in the North, the imposition of direct rule from Westminster might see the UK government leading in the negotiations. Whose interest would the UK represent? Not a situation to which all parties would be amenable.
The imposition of a hard border in Ireland has understandably been the major Irish issue in the Brexit debates. However, a successful Brexit might give birth to an even more intractable problem, the reunification of the island of Ireland. Hopefully, Brexit has demonstrated the dangers of rushing into a referendum without it being preceded by a major public education and discussion exercise and extensive public testing of an appetite for the risks and benefits. Prior to a Border Poll it would be important for all parties to have agreed on the processes for resolving disagreements.
It would be foolish to underestimate the strength of feeling over the various versions of Irish identity. At this point there don’t seem to be leaders in Dublin, Belfast, or London with the ability to manufacture the hard political compromises required if reunification comes to pass. This child of Brexit could be more fractious even than its parent!
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.