As the Irish Times has noted, talk of a reunited Ireland is very much in the air. This is reflected in the announcement by the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin TD, that his party is preparing a detailed proposal or White Paper on reunification. According to the Journal the policy document will suggest that unity may require:
- Two parliaments. If there was a united Ireland, would there be two parliaments, one north, one south? “In my view, there would,” Micheál Martin said
- Education. Martin says there is the potential for an All-Ireland approach. This includes third-level education and research
- One All-Ireland food safety body
- One Enterprise Ireland to promote all small business
- A common corporate tax rate.
All sorts of terms have been bandied around by politicians and journalists since the certainty of Brexit became obvious late last year. However much confusion exists in the language and the concepts being discussed. For a start the reunification of Ireland will not take place in the context of a confederation or a federation, or indeed a new nation state of any kind on the island. That would represent a major alteration to the existing Irish nation state, one significant enough for the united territory to be regarded as a new and sovereign entity under international law. Do we really want to see a Thirty-Two County republic applying for membership of the United Nations and the European Union, with all the global legal, diplomatic, security and economic troubles associated with that?
In order to achieve a constitutionally smooth process of reunification Ireland would need to argue that it was simply exercising a form of territorial reintegration. That is the Six Counties would be integrated into the national territory presently represented by the Twenty-Six Counties. The resultant Thirty-Two County entity would act as the continuing state of Ireland and not a successor state, a hugely important point under international law. What the country might decide to do thereafter under local arrangements, be they federal or otherwise, would be a largely domestic affair. Though even there, crucial differences exist between concepts like federation and confederation. The former may be internal but the latter might have external implications for relationships with other entities, be they countries or transnational organisations.
This is why a “Reverse Good Friday Agreement” would be the only practical arrangement to cover the early years of reunification. In theory both governments, through international treaty, have already left the door open to such a transition, while Bunreacht na hÉireann readily facilitates it (legislation through the Oireachtas would formalise any move from “east-west” to “north-south”). For the Dublin and London governments it would simply be a matter of swapping roles, at least initially. Again, whatever follows after that period of transition, whatever devolved or shared powers were granted to a north-eastern region would be a purely Irish affair, the British acting as guarantors of unionist autonomy.
We should remember that precisely this model, a self-governing “North-East Ulster”, was offered to the pro-UK unionist minority on the island way back in the 1920s, during the Irish Revolution. Rather than inventing new and untenable templates the reunification of the country will have to look back to the old ones first. Including the rather more recent reunification of Germany.