When the United Kingdom formally partitioned Ireland in May 1921, six loyalist or secessionist counties in the north-east of the island were separated from the rest of the country to create an autonomous or self-ruling territory of the UK known as “Northern Ireland”. With the political, military and economic support of London, this breakaway region was given its own government, parliament, civil service, judiciary, paramilitary forces and limited freedom in domestic laws and taxation. In this manner the statelet acted as a sort of template for the rebellious ethno-Russian enclaves which emerged from the fall of the old Soviet Union in post-Cold War Europe during the 1990s. Where Britain justified the establishment of “Northern Ireland” to accommodate the pro-British minority in Ireland, so Moscow justified the establishment of the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea”, the “Donetsk People’s Republic” or the “Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania” to accommodate pro-Russian minorities in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. And with much the same violent effect.
However, at no point in the first several decades of its existence was the self-styled “province” in the north-eastern corner of Ireland regarded as an “integral part” of the United Kingdom, as the leaders and agitators of the Brexit movement in the UK now claim. In political and legislative terms the contested region was always a “place apart”; a troublesome legacy of British colonialism among the Irish. At only one point in its constitutional history were the affairs of “Northern Ireland” intimately tied to those of London, when they became the direct responsibility of ministers, officials and legislators in Downing Street, Whitehall and Westminster. And that was during the fourteen years following the collapse of the one-party unionist regime at Stormont, just outside of Belfast. From 1972 until 1985 the governance of the Six Counties was under the sole authority of the UK state through the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and the Cabinet Office, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Office, and effectively the chiefs of Britain’s local military, paramilitary and intelligence services in the overseas territory.
However, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 the government of the United Kingdom granted part of its sovereign authority over the disputed area to the government of Ireland though international treaty, giving Dublin an input into the affairs of the Six Counties. A concession which limited and eventually killed off any attempts to fully integrate “Northern Ireland” into the UK, a position further developed in the regional and international strands of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (which the United Nations recognises as the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland). Since the late 1990s and until relatively recently “Northern Ireland” was again very much a “place apart” in UK politics, and enthusiastically so for administrations of all political hues and persuasions in London. That situation has only changed since early 2017 and the dissolution of the reformed power-sharing regional executive and assembly at Stormont.
All of which explains the frustration of the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, when confronted by the complete ignorance of British legislators and journalists on the complex and deliberately ambiguous constitutional position of “Northern Ireland” in the 21st century, as reported by The Journal in Dublin and by The Guardian in London.
“The Good Friday agreement resolved the constitutional issue in Northern Ireland on the basis of consent, that Northern Ireland as of now remains part of United Kingdom and until some day that changes by the will of the people.
We also have to be very clear on this and, chairman with the greatest of respect, sometimes when I hear people, including some distinguished members of parliament and I totally respect their views and others, talking loudly over the past few years of no basis existing for divergence of any kind between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, I look to wondering had I turned into Rip Van Winkle, that great man from the legend who fell asleep for 20 years and woke up finding everything changed.
The reality is when I changed the constitutional position of Articles 2 and 3, what that did was I said there was a difference between Dublin and Belfast. That’s what I said. But I also said that there was a difference between Belfast and Finchley [in London].
The argument that Northern Ireland is precisely the same as Finchley is incorrect, it’s constitutionally incorrect as per the Good Friday Agreement and I think people need to understand that.
What frustrates me and others is there’s a view that Northern Ireland is so intrinsically linked to the UK in a way that ignores the Good Friday Agreement, and that’s the bit that really upsets us, because it is not.”