When it comes to the United Kingdom’s legacy colony in the north-east of Ireland, the political concepts, joint-sovereignty and joint-authority (or, –rule), are usually confused or conflated. In fact, they can mean two different things. The former would imply equal or shared territorial sovereignty over the disputed region between Dublin and London, rather the near exclusivity retained by the latter capital. Joint-authority on the other hand, can encompass a bilateral arrangement whereby the Six Counties continues to be “in” the UK while decisions are exercised jointly between the Irish and British governments. In the absence of a restored power-sharing executive at Stormont, the latter option has been flagged for the last year as the fall-back position for the main northern nationalist parties, including Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). It is a suggestion that has also been put forward by ministers and officials in Dublin, albeit with a great deal more trepidation.
The latest pronouncement by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has now placed shared-authority of some sort – explicit or otherwise – very much on the Irish government agenda when it comes to maintaining peace and stability in the UK-administered Six Counties. It also, of course, makes it far easier for Dublin to pursue regulatory alignment for all parts of the island of Ireland as neighbouring Britain leaves the European Union.
Direct rule of Northern Ireland from London is not an option amid the ongoing standoff between Sinn Féin and the DUP, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.
A number of deadlines set by the UK government for the re-establishment of power-sharing have passed, leading Mr Varadkar to say there are now “two options”.
“There first option is another set of elections, which is an option, although it’s hard to see what outcome would raise from that that would put us in a better position,” he said.
“The second option is convening the British-Irish governmental conference, which would allow the two governments to implement the Good Friday Agreement in the absence of an assembly and executive in Northern Ireland.
“So, essentially, the Good Friday Agreement provides for matters that are not devolved to be dealt with by the British Irish governmental conference, and that’s what we will seek.”
There has been much political debate about the potential of a return to direct rule, but Mr Varadkar categorically ruled out the prospect.
“We won’t be supporting direct rule. We didn’t support direct rule,” he said.
Asked whether he was suggesting some form of ‘joint rule’, Mr Varadkar replied: “I wouldn’t use the term joint rule, because that’s not the term used in the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Good Friday Agreement speaks of a British-Irish governmental conference, which is not joint rule, because obviously the legislative powers remain at Westminster, but it does involve real and meaningful involvement of the Irish Government.”
As can be seen above, the unintended consequences of Brexit continue to surprise everyone in Irish and British politics. Consequences the governing Conservative Party in the United Kingdom and the separatist Democratic Unionist Party in this country have no one to blame for but themselves. Having chosen to play a game they didn’t understand, or want to understand, both the Tories and DUP are the victims of their own atavistic hubris.
The prospects for 2021 look increasingly to be a de facto reunited Ireland working alongside a de jure partitioned one. A transitional situation which will satisfy much of the nationalist majority on the island, while alarming much of the unionist minority.