Field Day - The Belfast Agreement

Last year someone in Derry started painting the post-boxes green. All year they alternated from green to red and back again. It started me thinking about what a reunited Ireland would look like. Arafat reputedly returned to Gaza after the Oslo Accords saying he wouldn't stop until Palestine had its own direct dialling code. Sovereignty can come down to direct dialling codes and the colour of post-boxes; it should, however, involve much more.


The Belfast Agreement provides for a border-poll. A majority in the North voting for reunification would require the British Government to act and yet no political party, North or South, and neither government has given serious thought to what that might mean for Irish society and politics. Indeed, it is now over 20 years since there was a wide-ranging discussion of the subject, namely, the New Ireland Forum of 1984. In the event of a pro-reunification vote in a border-poll, two options that took centre stage back then would be likely to re-emerge. The first is a unitary state with a centralised government and harmonised laws North and South. The parties involved in the Forum favoured such an outcome, chiefly because nationalistswere then suspicious of any arrangement that would leave existing political structures and practices (particularly the "unionist veto") intact. The second option is a federal or confederal Ireland with special regional status for the North. This option raises questions about the representation of the North at the centre and the level of autonomy it might retain. Of course, a pro-unity majority in a border-poll would mean that unionists had become a minority in the North and, therefore, regional status alone would not fully address their concerns. That would require some form of pro-unionist weighting at regional level. One possibility would be to retain power-sharing; another would be shrinking 'the North' in the reunited Ireland to create a smaller but predominantly unionist region. And any discussion of regional status for Northern Ireland would almost inevitably raise the issue of regional government elsewhere on the island. A third option comes to mind. An initial period of federalism, with power-sharing along the lines of the Agreement, would safeguard the interests of the unionist minority. Federalism could last for a period to be negotiated among the parties; in Germany transition was planned for about one year, in South Africa five years, and in Hong Kong 50 years. During this time, a Constitutional Convention could work out the modalities for permanent reunification.

All three of these options indicate that reunification will require a major constitutional re-think. However, allowing constitutional reform to revolve around how political élites would carve up the country puts the cart before the horse. A constitution should be a "we the people" document which grapples with the identity of the people, the basic needs that they require to be protected, and the values that they would like expressed in their legal and political systems. By using the "sectarian" issues in the North to open up the constitutional fault lines of the South, it should be possible to start the debate in a very different place. Any new constitution will need to address questions of belonging and citizenship for the new state. "Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters" no longer includes everyone. Addressing the concerns of Northern Protestants can not be done without also (re)addressing the position of racial and ethnic minorities whose equality needs are, if anything, more stark. If Irish systems of democracy are to be redefined to protect unionists, then why not also experiment with other ways to redefine democracy? Deliberative or participative democratic models focus on how citizens can actively contribute to decision-making on an ongoing basis, rather than merely through periodic elections. A Constitutional Convention might address the limitations of the "social partnership model" in the South and consider an expansion of the consultation processes begun by the Agreement's "equality duty" – a clause requiring public bodies in the North to conduct equality impact assessments on their policies. Paradoxically, equality standards North and South might be the most difficult to harmonise. A Constitutional Convention would also be a forum in which to consider how best to ensure equality regardless of religion, race, gender, disability, age, and sexual orientation. In particular, it might debate about narrow, formal equal treatment versus more result-oriented "equality of outcome" notions.

Any project of economic reunification would raise the issue of socio-economic rights. With divisions between rich and poor, both North and South, widening (in line with global trends), a new Constitution could provide a different way of doing business. Would, should or could a new Constitution have anything to say to the struggles of the Shankill or Ballymun, or parents of disabled children for their basic education? Or would the Celtic Tiger's teeth be sharpened by cross-border business and political pressure for deregulation? A Constitutional Convention would also have to explore how powerful institutions could be held accountable for their mistakes or wrong-doing. This would cut across government, courts, police, and indeed church–state relations. As a practical matter the new human rights institutions in the North would need to be carried into the United Ireland, particularly given their new political currency for unionists. Indeed, unionists might find themselves in an uneasy alliance with those in the South frustrated and weary with a Tribunal system that has done little more than bewail at huge expense. "Transitional justice" for the past conflict may well become more attractive to unionists once it includes an examination of events in the South, while the construction of a new state, on an optimistic view, might also increase the possibility of delivering some truth for those who had been victims of British and/or Irish state-sponsored violence.

Talk of reunification is likely to persist as the only clear alternative to implementing the Agreement. Yet there is little real debate; "United Ireland" is less a rallying cry for nationaliststhan a bogey-man to scare unionists into devolution. I, for one, am fed up standing in the murky sunrise on the cover of the Belfast Agreement, stuck between devolution in Northern Ireland that isn't happening and a Republic of Ireland that lacks the North's mechanisms for democratic renewal. The South's constitution is well past its sell-by-date, and the North's constitution is in never-ending transition with no end-goals. To suggest that we in the North replace Blair with Ahern seems like a massive non-sequitur. We – Nationalists/Unionists; North/South; East/West; Them/Us – need to work out how we want to be together. This could be done by moving forward the Constitutional Convention's alternative agenda. We could continue a discussion, barely begun by the peace process and largely confined to the North, regarding all-island identities, values and relationships, fair treatment and inclusion for all. If we start with the truly difficult issues, we may find new ways to reach agreement on borders, sovereignty, and permutations of government.