As the negative effects of the successful Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom continue to ripple across this island nation there has been considerable kite-flying – or grandstanding – by the Irish establishment in relation to the possible reunification of the country. If Britain insists on dragging the Six Counties out of the European Union, stripping Irish citizens in the north-east of their EU rights while reinforcing partition, then Ireland can suggest a final end to Greater England’s colonial misadventures of the last several centuries or so. Of course, as I indicated above, most of this should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, though it has led to some speculation about what sort of reunited nation we would want. Most of it has been pretty nonsensical, theoretical constructs built upon confederation or federation between two “states” on the island, as if the northern anachronism was something more the English Pale shifted a hundred and sixty kilometres and hundred years northward.
If fact the shape of a future reunited nation has been in plain view since the Belfast Agreement of 1998, in terms of the so-called “reverse-GFA”. In other words, the end of UK-imposed partition would see the continuation of the existing political structures in the north-east with the regional executive and legislature existing in perpetuity within a unified Irish state. Yes, more complex questions would arise in relation to policing and the judiciary and how they would cooperate with all-Ireland structures but Bunreacht na hÉireann and existing Oireachtas legislation would certainly accommodate such things without too much disruption.
It’s not as if all this were new. Local government for “North-East Ulster” has been offered by nationalist politicians to their unionist peers since the 1920s. Éamon de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and other leaders of the Irish Revolution were willing to compromise on this issue throughout the early 20th century. What is proposed now in the early 21st century is simply regional autonomy for slow-learning unionists. To take just two of many documented examples, from the papers of the Irish and British diplomatic teams in the Downing Street negotiations of late 1921, here is the following commitment from the representatives of Dáil Éireann.
“North East Ulster Draft Clause, October 1921
The following constituencies of North East Ireland, viz.: the Boroughs of Belfast and Derry, North, South, East, and Mid Antrim, North, South, and Mid Armagh, North and South Derry, North, South, East, West, and Mid Down, North and South Fermanagh, and North-East, North West and South Tyrone, may by vote of their registered electors (or adult inhabitants) severally elect to be directly represented in the Irish Parliament; provided that if all of them, or a smaller number contiguous and forming a territorially continuous group do not so elect they shall be entitled to maintain a legislature possessed of local governing powers set out in the Act of the British Parliament known as ‘Government of Ireland Act, 1920’ (10 & 11 Geo. 5. Ch. 67), and provided they shall be entitled to the same representation relatively to the rest of Ireland in the Irish Parliament as they would have been entitled to in the British Parliament under the provisions of the above mentioned Act.
Should the constituencies enumerated opt to be directly represented in the National Parliament, it is agreed that a Convention be executed with their elected representatives safeguarding any lawful interests peculiar to the area, and for this purpose a Commission shall be appointed consisting of ______ persons nominated by the National Government and ______ persons elected by the representatives of the area mentioned.
To provide adequate and just representation for the political minority, the Irish Government agrees to take into consultation the representatives of this minority with a view to devising a scheme of proportional representation which will secure this object.
Just a few weeks later their position was reiterated with a willingness to give concrete form to the generosity of that generation of revolutionary republicans towards the British separatist minority on the island:
“Memorandum by the Irish Representatives, London, 22 November 1921
NOTE. The following proposals are put forward upon the assumption that the essential unity of Ireland is maintained.
10. In the event of the existing legislature of the North East of Ireland accepting its position under the National Parliament, Ireland will confirm the legislature in its existing powers and will undertake to provide the safeguards designed to secure any special interests of the area over which it functions.
Having stated our willingness to provide such safeguards as will allay the fears of any section of the population of North East Ulster, we now suggest that it is necessary at this stage to indicate precisely to us what safeguards are required so that every eventuality may be met and any conceivable misunderstanding avoided.”
The shape of a reunited Ireland is already known and it was written a hundred years ago.