There has been a lot of speculation in recent weeks about the possibility of establishing joint-authority or sovereignty between Ireland and the United Kingdom over the UK-administered Six Counties. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) suggested this proposal back in the 1970s and ’80s as a lasting solution to the then conflict in the north-east of the country, the so-called Irish-British Troubles or Long War. However it received a lukewarm response from Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army and short thrift from successive governments in Britain, whether Labour or Conservative. Latterly however, with the collapse of the power-sharing northern assembly and executive at Stormont, some in the SDLP and SF have been more positive in their pronouncements on the condominium-style option.
Sean Swan has written a short piece on the complex subject for the London School of Economics, starting with the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an umbrella term for related multi-party and inter-governmental peace-promoting treaties, and the possibility of it being supplanted with a return to “direct rule” by London (with thanks to Sharon Douglas for the heads-up):
…Direct Rule is incompatible with parity of esteem between the two communities. While it gives adequate recognition and protection to the Unionist community, it fails to do so for the Nationalist community.
The only form of Direct Rule which is compatible with the spirit of the Agreement is some form of joint rule by London and Dublin, whether the minimalist joint authority or joint sovereignty. Joint authority would be simple to institute and would meet the requirement for parity of esteem. Joint sovereignty would be more convoluted (and would require a referendum in the Republic), but has certain advantages:
- It would help disaggregate sovereignty within these islands;
- It would be a formal and permanent institutional recognition of the British/Irish nature of Northern Ireland;
- It would help ensure a ‘soft’ border between north and south, and
- It would help facilitate keeping Northern Ireland within the EU.
Under the joint sovereignty of Dublin and London, parity of esteem would be fulfilled and both communities would have a sovereign power with direct control over Northern Ireland to prevent any form of community-based discrimination. Under such conditions it could prove possible to reframe the Assembly without the consociational elements such as ‘designation’ and the requirement for ‘cross-community consent’. This might, or might not, allow for the emergence of ‘normal’ politics. At least the removal of the consociational elements would satisfy those liberal critics who saw in it the ‘institutionalisation of sectarianism’.
Below is an argument for joint-sovereignty from a final report issued in 1984 by the New Ireland Forum, an all-party assembly convened by the country’s major political groupings under the auspices of the government in Dublin. It’s aim was to find a long-term means of ending or pacifying Britain’s violent presence on the island. However its solutions, a unitary state, a federal/confederal state, or joint-authority were dismissed out of hand by the then UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in her the infamous “Out, out, out!” retort. Her hawkish response condemned the peoples of Ireland and Britain to another two decades of warfare, despite the United Kingdom compromising its sovereignty over the Six Counties a year later with the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
8.1 Under joint authority, the London and Dublin governments would have equal responsibility for all aspects of the government of Northern Ireland. This arrangement would accord equal validity to the two traditions in Northern Ireland and would reflect the current reality that the people of the North are divided in their allegiances. The two governments, building on existing links and in consultation with nationalist and unionist opinion, would establish joint authority designed to ensure a stable and secure system of government.
8.2 Joint authority would give political, symbolic and administrative expression of their identity to Northern nationalists without infringing the parallel wish of unionists to maintain and to have full operational expression of their identity. It would be an unprecedented approach to the unique realities that have evolved within Ireland and between Britain and Ireland.
8.3 Joint authority would involve shared rule by the British and Irish Governments. Although this could be exercised directly, there would be enabling provision for the exercise of major powers by a locally elected Assembly and Executive.
8.4 There would be full and formal recognition and symbolic expression of British and of Irish identity in Northern Ireland and promotion of the cultural expression of the two identities. Joint citizenship rights would be conferred automatically on all persons living in Northern Ireland, resulting in no diminution of the existing rights of Irish or British citizenship of persons living in Northern Ireland.
8.5 A comprehensive and enforceable non-denominational Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would be promulgated ensuring the protection of both individual and communal rights and freedoms.
8.6 The overall level of public expenditure would be determined by the two Governments. Problems of external representation of Northern Ireland would be resolved between the two Governments.
8.7 Under joint authority the two traditions in Northern Ireland would find themselves on a basis of equality and both would be able to find an expression of their identity in the new institutions. There would be no diminution of the Britishness of the unionist population. Their identity, ethos and link with Britain would be assured by the authority and presence of the British Government in the Joint authority arrangements. At the same time it would resolve one basic defect of (a) the failed 1920-25 attempt to settle the Irish Question and (b)the present arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland – the failure to give satisfactory political, symbolic and administrative expression to Northern nationalists. Structures would thus be provided with which the nationalists in the North could identify, which might reverse their progressive alienation from existing structures. Security arrangements in which for the first time both nationalists and unionists could have confidence could be developed, thus providing a basis for peace and order. The climate would thus be created for the emergence of normal political life, of compromise and of mutual confidence based on security in the reciprocal acceptance of identity and interests.