The Cadogan Group


Northern Limits



The Boundaries of the Attainable in Northern Ireland Politics

The Cadogan Group, November 1992


The Cadogan Group consists of individuals from varying political backgrounds who have been meeting informally for some time for political discussion. They were brought together by a common concern that Government policy in Northern Ireland was tending to prolong instability in the province, that it was based on an incorrect analysis of the problem and its origins, and that there was a widespread and largely unchallenged nationalist or neo-nationalist consensus along similarly erroneous lines among observers and commentators in Britain, the Republic, North America and continental Europe. In challenging this nationalist analysis it is certainly not our intention to exculpate unionists from all blame for the present situation in Northern Ireland, or to seek to exonerate them from charges of misrule or intolerance.

Our primary concern has been to hold to realism and discard any analysis or agenda stemming primarily from either a nationalist or a unionist philosophy. Thus widely accepted accounts of what happened in the past must be tested against available facts and statistics, and reviewed in the light of recent scholarship. Deeply imbedded political and cultural attitudes, prejudices, myths and fears cannot simply be dismissed, for they too are part of the real political problem, limiting the possibilities of change. By political realism we do not mean a simple acceptance of the status quo, nor do we intend to dismiss possibilities for change. Our purpose is to outline the changes we would like to see in political relationships in Ireland, North and South. But we believe that too often in the past suggestions for change have been based on subjective fancies, inflated expectations and ideological dreams. We are concerned to propose those limited though significant changes which we believe have a realistic possibility of general acceptance and which we believe to be workable.

Our concluding section puts forward positive suggestions for the future based upon and stemming from our analysis of the problem. One cannot simply suggest alternative solutions without criticising the (often) traditional assumptions upon which policy has been based hitherto. So we attempt to clear some of the mythological undergrowth which infests current analysis. The purpose of the introductory historical section is to redress an unhealthy imbalance in interpretation which postulates a simple tale of unionist guilt and nationalist suffering, with the implications that (a) nationalism is "right" in a moral sense, and that (b) peace can come in Ireland only when unionists accept some form of Irish unity.

Subsequent sections deal with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the European context, the UK dimension, and the economics of Irish unity or joint authority. The intention again has been to embrace political realism, not to justify any party position. As our contention is that much current policy, and most historical analysis, departs from such realism in a generally nationalist direction, much of our criticism is aimed in that direction, particularly at the way in which a traditional and indeed dangerous nationalism has been advanced under the guise of progressive developments in Anglo-Irish relations or as supposedly part of the process of European integration.

This is not to argue for the status quo, or to support traditional unionism. As our conclusions show, we feel that the first need is for stability, that is for a settlement which is accepted as widely as possible by all participants in the present talks, and is accepted as a full and final arrangement. The encouragement of unrealistic aspirations, along with the resulting growth of corresponding fears, has been a major cause of instability. We therefore support an "agreed Ireland" if by that is meant an arrangement which is seen as an end in itself, and not by one party or another as a step towards a desired - or feared - end.

With uncertainty removed over Northern Ireland’s future constitutional position there should be no obstacle to vastly increased North-South cooperation in a wide range of areas. Such cooperation could be promoted within an institutional framework at government level without any constitutional implications. If this is accompanied by greatly improved road and rail communications, Northern Ireland residents would have the option of increasing "the Irish dimension" to their daily lives, while the concept of a common European citizenship would lessen the problem of those who at present see "British" and "Irish" as mutually exclusive labels.



The dividing lines for the present conflict in Northern Ireland were drawn in 1921-22, when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was dismembered and the island of Ireland divided between Northern Ireland within the UK and the largely independent Irish Free State. The quarrel remains, essentially, between those who thought partition a reasonable solution, and those who did not.

The nationalist view of those events is that the island was partitioned "contrary to the desire of the great majority of Irish people" (New Ireland Forum Report, 1984), and was therefore both morally wrong and inherently unstable. This view goes on to assert that within Northern Ireland nationalists were denied the "right to political expression of their Irish identity and to effective participation in the institutions of Government", with the result that workable and acceptable political structures have never been established.

This analysis gives the moral high ground to the nationalist side - the act of partition that created Northern Ireland was undemocratic, and the conduct of affairs within Northern Ireland by the unionist majority, with British connivance, was unfair, infringing the civil rights of the nationalist minority. The reference to the "right to political expression of their Irish identity" seems to equate a nationalist claim with a civil right.

It is that analysis which the Irish Government and the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland have consistently promoted, within the island of Ireland, in the United Kingdom, in the European Community and, particularly, in North America.

Yet it is a seriously flawed analysis. Far from being "undemocratic" the partition of Ireland in 1921 was the inevitable outcome of the irreconcilable aspirations of the two major groups on the island - the more than three million who saw themselves as Irish, not British, and who demanded independence, and the almost one million unionists concentrated in the north east who saw themselves as British and resolutely refused either to leave the United Kingdom or become part of an independent Irish state. Put simply, Ireland was partitioned in 1921 for the same reason Yugoslavia was partitioned in the 1990s - that is there was no basis for unity.

The nationalist claim that partition was "undemocratic" is based on the belief that there existed an Irish nation that included everyone on the island. This was manifestly untrue then and has been made doubly so by the construction, within the constitution, laws and practices of the independent Irish state, of an Irishness which clearly excludes the British and Protestant identity of the Northern unionist.

When Irish nationalism began to challenge the validity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, it arbitrarily deemed the whole island to be the national homeland. In this sense the "partition" of the United Kingdom by detaching the island of Ireland from Great Britain, and securing an area within which nationalists and Catholics would have had a clear majority, would have been as "artificial" as nationalists claim the partitioning of the island to have been.

It may be that the actual line of partition - the present Border - was unwisely drawn. There was an obsession with the county as an administrative unit, when it might have been wiser to ignore the county lines and draw a border that more closely followed the population divide. But both sides settled for the county basis - the nationalists because they initially believed by so doing whole counties might be won, and the new province made unviable. Wherever it was to be drawn, however, a border was inevitable, and it is perverse to portray partition as undemocratic, or morally wrong, or indeed, as doomed to failure.

At the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 nationalists refused to recognise its existence or participate in its institutions. Nationalists elected to the new Parliament boycotted that assembly until 1925-27; nationalists elected to Westminster attended only periodically until 1945. Nationalist-controlled local authorities in 1921 refused to recognise, or deal with, the new authorities in Belfast. On the other side of the coin there is the rhetoric of sectarian exclusiveness displayed by Northern Ireland’s three Prime Ministers before the appointment of Terence O’Neill in 1963 - Craigavon, Andrews and Brookeborough - a rhetoric which inevitably helped alienate a minority which already felt it had been included within the boundaries of a state for the convenience of others. Behind the rhetoric was the reality of the refusal to admit Catholics to the Unionist Party.


Civil Rights

Until the late 1960s nationalist politics were largely limited to anti-partitionism - the prime political goal was the elimination of Northern Ireland by its incorporation in a united Ireland. That is the context in which the charge that nationalists were excluded from effective participation in the institutions of Government must be set, even if it remains true that unionists showed no inclination to encourage such participation. Any honest approach to the problem today must rigorously set aside the common misconception that partition was undemocratic and morally wrong. But even if such a fundamentally nationalist analysis is rejected, there remains a common view that the problem is still, in large part, one of civil rights. This would argue that the systematic denial of civil rights to the nationalist minority has ensured its permanent alienation from Northern Ireland as a political entity, and therefore a solution has to be sought in a wider constitutional context than the present one.

This perception is strengthened by the fact that the present period of upheaval and violence followed on from the civil rights campaign of the late 1960s, when many in the nationalist or Catholic community concentrated on the remedying of specific grievances inside Northern Ireland. Thus the present nationalist leadership retains a public image as champions of civil rights rather than as nationalists pursuing basic nationalist goals. But again this view of the problem must be challenged. First the charge of wholesale discrimination against Catholics or nationalists within Northern Ireland can no longer be taken at face value, but must be rigorously assessed against the evidence available. Secondly, the specific grievances of the civil rights campaign were met almost in their entirety within a short period of their formulation, even if that remedying was seen by nationalists as limited and grudging at the time, and thirdly unionists have not been in power in Northern Ireland at provincial level for more than two decades, and the powers of local authorities have been much circumscribed. Even if they wanted to, unionist politicians have had little opportunity to discriminate against their fellow citizens for more than 20 years.


Catholic Grievances

Catholic grievances focused on issues such as the right to vote, particularly in local government elections, gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, discrimination in relation to jobs and public housing. These grievances were not imagined, but recent research seriously questions the basis for many of the more sweeping assertions. For example, it was generally assumed that the property qualification in local elections - one had to be a ratepayer, that is the owner or tenant of a property, or the husband or wife of such ,discriminated unfairly against Catholics, who were perceived to be less well off. Research now shows that this restriction hit both communities equally; about 60% of those excluded by the property qualification were Protestants. In 1968 "One man, one vote" was the slogan of the civil rights movement, but it now seems probable that the various undemocratic anachronisms in the franchise did not constitute discrimination against the Catholic community. Moreover, the demands of the civil rights campaigners were satisfied by the 1969 Electoral Law Act introducing "one man, one vote" in local elections.

Gerrymandering of local electoral boundaries to ensure unionist control had long been a major charge against the NI authorities. In one blatant case, Londonderry County Borough, this undoubtedly did happen. Arguably it also happened in a limited number of other areas, but the frequent assertions of "widespread gerrymandering", or the claim that such methods were used to deny nationalist control of a large number of local councils must be viewed with scepticism. Civil rights demands as regards Londonderry stimulated the Unionist Government to take control of the city out of the hands of local unionists in 1968, by abolishing the City Council and instituting a Commission within a month of the first major civil rights march there. The complete reform of local government in 1973, involving new units and boundaries, was welcomed by nationalists.

Unfair allocation of public housing by local authorities did occur, motivated both by a desire to favour one’s own side, and to preserve the existing balance in electoral areas. However, such discrimination was also practised by nationalist councils, notably Newry where, in 1962, out of 765 council houses, only 22 were occupied by Protestants. As the Cameron Commission remarked in 1972, while noting anti-Protestant discrimination, two wrongs do not make a right. But such facts must modify the general perception. As long ago as 1971 Richard Rose, in Governing without Consensus, found no evidence of "systematic and widespread" discrimination against Catholics in public housing. Rose’s systematic survey of over 1200 respondents found that Catholics were over-represented in public housing. Catholic tenants in public housing also had higher incomes than Protestants although they had more children. In practice some of the resulting hardship was alleviated by the fact that not all public housing was controlled by local authorities - the Northern Ireland Housing Trust was also a major provider, and was frequently expected to take care of "the other side". Again, this whole issue of housing allocation was resolved in 1973 by taking such power away from local authorities. Since then it has not been an issue.

Overall the Catholic share of local authority jobs has tended to correspond to the Catholic percentage of the working-age population, though there has been serious under-representation of Catholics in senior posts and even at clerical and technical levels. Individual councils, both unionist and nationalist, did discriminate and imbalances still exist, although unfair practices now fall foul of fair employment legislation. Today it seems the existence of politically "extreme" councils is taken by many to imply a likelihood of discrimination even when there is no statistical evidence of it.


Major Complaint

Another major complaint was the proportionately small number of Catholics in senior posts, not just in local authorities, but particularly in the Northern Ireland civil service. Two factors unrelated to discrimination must be taken into account. One was the lower proportion of Catholics completing grammar school education, which meant that they accounted for only 25% of the total grammar school-educated population in the 1950s. The second was the unwillingness of many nationalists to serve in a "Unionist" administration. Throughout almost the whole existence of the Stormont administration, access to the highest recruitment grades of the Northern Ireland Civil Service was possible through the competition run for the UK civil service by the Civil Service Commission in London, which local unionists had no power to influence. So the commonly presented picture of deliberate wholesale Catholic exclusion from the upper reaches of the public service must be considerably modified. Again, the introduction of direct rule more than 20 years ago eliminated even the possibility of such discrimination. It is worth noting, however, that published statistics show that Catholic applicants continue to perform less well in civil service entrance examinations - exams which are set and marked outside Northern Ireland.

In the private sector discrimination was practised by both Protestant and Catholic firms, though it would be wrong to suppose that this was a universal pattern, or that Protestant firms never employed Catholics, or vice-versa. However, Catholics were, and remain, disadvantaged as regards employment. Catholic areas have higher unemployment rates, and - a statistic that is often quoted - a Catholic male is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as a Protestant. This proves Catholics are disadvantaged, but does not prove discrimination against them. Disadvantage in the labour market is a complex issue, and need not imply discrimination. The problem has remained much as it was despite 20 years without unionist rule, and with huge changes in the pattern or ownership and control of private sector employment, most of it now in non-Northern Ireland hands.

The disadvantage is less severe than it would appear from the large difference in unemployment rates since a relatively low degree of under-representation in jobs generates large differences in unemployment. Catholics form 38% of the economically active population in Northern Ireland. Currently the Catholic share of jobs is 32% for males and 37% for females. These figures, which suffice arithmetically to ensure Catholic unemployment is double that of Protestants, must be considered against the background of Catholic reluctance to take up more than a small fraction of the 20,000 jobs in the security sector. Exceptionally strong legislation to counter discrimination is now in place, but a total elimination of disadvantage will be slow without economic recovery and will be difficult without an end to the violence which tends to segregate both residence and workplace.

Further research on these issues remains to be done, but it is clear that the once widely accepted picture of Catholics in Northern Ireland suffering severe disadvantage because of unionist discrimination against them must be revised. There is no intention here to say there was no discrimination, or to whitewash unionism. Discrimination did occur, and unionism was frequently characterised by prejudice and bigotry. Major companies like Harland and Wolff were notorious for the unbalanced composition of their workforces. Although there were, and are, companies with similar pro-Catholic imbalances, nationalists were correct to point to the unacceptability of any anti-Catholic discrimination. What has been overdone is the exaggeration of the scale, one-sidedness and longevity of the problem, often for political reasons. Comparisons with South Africa and charges of apartheid are hopelessly misleading distortions, and seem designed to forestall any rational examination of the problem. Parallels with the lot of blacks in America are similar gross distortions calculated to associate in the American mind the situation in Northern Ireland with the historic civil rights campaign in the deep South.

The presentation of the charge of discrimination is often more influenced by nationalist ideology than by regard for reality. For instance, the New Ireland Forum Report of 1984 claimed that for 50 years nationalists had ". . . suffered systematic discrimination. They were deprived of the means of social and economic development." There is no factual evidence for such an arbitrary and exaggerated generalisation, and it is hardly consistent with the population statistics of both parts of the island. Between the 1926 and 1961 censuses the number of Catholics in Northern Ireland increased by 18%, while total population increase was 13%; over the same period the Catholic population of the South (where emigration has always been greater) declined by almost 3%, and the Protestant population by 37%. Numerous factors contribute to such statistics, but they do argue very strongly against any idea of the Catholics as a sorely oppressed minority in Northern Ireland.

Certainly the unionists did not see them as such. The statistics above, and the contrast with the economic position of the south, with mass emigration and no welfare state, confirmed unionists in their view that Catholic complaints of unfair treatment were motivated more by a basic nationalist refusal to accept Northern Ireland, than by real grievances. The unionist establishment believed conciliation was pointless and unnecessary, and failed to appreciate the underlying problem which Catholic alienation - for whatever reasons - presented. Hence the failure to make necessary reforms before the civil rights storm hit them in the late 1960s.

In the event the civil rights demands were largely satisfied by the early 1970s. In addition to the measures mentioned above, the B-Specials were abolished, the RUC reformed and unionists effectively removed from power by the abolition of Stormont and by the emasculation of local government. Despite these radical changes, nationalist alienation has persisted, as has a sense of grievance. This continued alienation is sometimes ascribed to accumulated historical grievance, but also supports the counter view that alienation reflects more a rejection of partition than a reaction to economic or social disadvantage. It is certainly, and unfortunately, true that any attempt today to measure the more sweeping charges of discrimination against the facts as they have been established is met with an almost hysterical reaction from nationalists as an attack upon a fundamental article of faith.


Irish Dimension

Since the early-1970s the main perceptions of the Northern problem have been how to contain the campaign of violence by the IRA, and how to devise a system of administration within Northern Ireland which would satisfy nationalist aspirations of the SDLP, at least to the extent that their alienation from authority in Northern Ireland would be ended. The Sunningdale agreement and the power-sharing executive of 1974 seemed briefly to achieve this second objective, by means of power-sharing and of the involvement of the Dublin Government through the Council of Ireland.

It failed essentially because such an arrangement was unacceptable to the unionist majority, though there are also indications that it would have broken down anyway without the pressure from the Ulster Workers Council. After 1974 both SDLP and Dublin Government policy focused on securing an "Irish dimension" as part of any solution, and on confirming British Government acceptance of the legitimacy of a role for Dublin in the negotiating of a Northern settlement, and, indeed of a role for Dublin as part of any settlement.

With little prospect of progress inside Northern Ireland, attention moved to the Anglo-Irish axis, first with the "Joint Studies" initiative of 1980, then the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council agreement of 1981 and, in 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement itself. The impetus for this approach came from Dublin.

The Agreement signed at Hillsborough in November 1985 was highly significant in a number of ways. In rather dramatic fashion it indicated a definite shift on the part of the British Government under Mrs Thatcher to acceptance of the Dublin or generally nationalist analysis of the problem. It gave formal, and indeed institutionalised recognition of a role for the Dublin Government in the administration of Northern Ireland as guarantor for the nationalist minority. By excluding the unionists from the deal and dismissing unionist rejection of it, the Thatcher Government reversed a fundamental principle of British policy, that any form of administration in Northern Ireland had to have the broad support of both communities. (The Agreement itself actually reaffirms this principle for any devolved regime, but in practice it was itself implemented in contravention of it).

It would be wrong to see the Agreement as a continuation of the reform process stimulated by the civil rights campaign of the 1960s. As already shown, the civil rights demands had long since been met. IRA violence and the consequent security response had created new problems for nationalists, leading to a new set of grievances. The Catholic community still felt economically discriminated against, in terms of employment and general economic development. But these were now grievances directed against London and the direct rule administration in Belfast - not against unionists, who no longer had power or even influence.

The Agreement remains, seven years on, the cornerstone of both British and Irish Government policy on Northern Ireland. The present talks take it as a starting point, and examination of the Agreement and its implications is vital to any attempt to find a way forward.



The Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985 was justified, by some of its academic and political supporters in terms of rectifying "a defined structural imbalance" in the status of the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. It was argued that it provided a new structural framework within which the two communities could work out a positive relationship with each other, guaranteed and sustained by the cooperation of the British and Irish Governments. The Agreement had been fashioned around the persuasive intellectual arguments of those who stated that it was necessary to put both communities into a "symmetrical relation to state power". In short, this meant "institutionalising the guarantor role of the Irish Republic on behalf of Northern Catholics (and) it means that Britain must fulfil the same role in relation to Unionists". (Frank Wright, The Reconciliation of Memories, in "Northern Ireland, a Challenge to Theology", Edinburgh 1987).

Such political symmetry, it was suggested, would encourage an attitudinal change in both camps since, it was assumed, equality of status would enable antagonistic divisions to become non-antagonistic diversity. The widespread support for the principles of the Agreement in British and Irish public life, in Europe and the United States, seemed to endorse that proposition. The Agreement appeared to be an imaginative attempt to re-adjust entrenched political positions and to provide a necessary stimulus for change in the cultures of unionism and nationalism. The structural change introduced by the Agreement would overcome the lack of trust in unionist-nationalist relations in the island of Ireland. Less benign were the arguments of those who proposed that only one group needed to be politically coerced, that was the unionists — the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to be a way of forcing unionists to free themselves from the shackles of the past, in short, to see reason.

The lesson of the Agreement for unionists was to be that the only way to reduce Irish Government involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland was to agree to a devolved government in Belfast on a power-sharing basis. However, political attitudes in Northern Ireland and ideological preoccupations in Ireland as a whole have been less than malleable to structuralist logic and its expectations. Unionists have found they can have little faith in the prospect of sharing power with the SDLP in governing Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, when the SDLP is willing to consider only ways and means of "sharing this island together" (a favourite phrase of John Hume; see eg his address to the SDLP conference, November 1988) - that is sharing power as part of some wider all-Ireland arrangement supported by the British and Irish governments.

Moreover, the way in which the British Government negotiated the 1985 Agreement behind the backs of the unionists continues to raise doubts about London’s commitment to the Union. It has appeared to sanction an open-ended state of constitutional uncertainty. In John Hume’s phrase, the British Government is now "neutral" on the Union. As Secretary of State, Peter Brooke seemed to confirm this view, notably when he stated that Britain had no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland, and when he several times stressed that the two political traditions in Northern Ireland, unionism and nationalism, are "equally valid", (as in his Dungannon speech of 29 July 1991).

In these circumstances it is understandable that unionists discerned a new political and structural asymmetry in Anglo-Irish relations, which heightened their insecurity and fear of a British scuttle: the SDLP and Dublin were still pursuing a nationalist agenda, London, it seemed to unionists, was (at best) neutral, leaving the unionists in a very unbalanced state of isolation.


Nationalist Agenda

The promise seen by some in the Agreement that unionists could eliminate from it that which they found most distasteful - the role of the Dublin Government - by agreeing to devolution has exercised little or no attraction. Unionist scepticism has been confirmed by subsequent events including the Republic’s Supreme Court ruling that, the Agreement notwithstanding, the "reintegration of the national territory is a constitutional imperative", and more recently by the SDLP’s submission to Strand One of the current talks proposing a scheme of administration for Northern Ireland which would clearly compromise its position as part of the United Kingdom and which would heighten the role of the Dublin Government. Still more recently the SDLP leader has been talking in classic nationalist terms of "a British withdrawal" from Northern Ireland. (Speech to Humbert Summer School, August 1992).

All this has served to confirm the unionist belief that a generally nationalist agenda is being followed, and that the British Government has been happy to acquiesce in this, despite assurances that there must be majority consent for any constitutional change, and despite the appointment of, according to some commentators, a new Secretary of State more sympathetic to the unionist position.

It is precisely the sense of conspiracy attaching to Anglo-Irish relations, and the implications that the institutions of the Agreement are in the pursuit of unrealistic nationalist objectives which compromise the utility and constructive potential of the agreement. Such an understanding cannot simply be put down to the pathological tendencies of a unionist "siege mentality".

The SDLP now wants an Agreement which "transcends" in importance the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The British Government, it believes, should become a "persuader" encouraging unionists to make a new arrangement with Dublin. Devolution will be part of the agenda only if the locus of devolved government shifts from the United Kingdom to some new Anglo-Irish/quasi European arrangement. What the SDLP is seeking is a settlement which is substantially Irish and only residually British. This would mean a significant structural shift in Anglo-Irish relations towards (at least) joint sovereignty.

Informed British opinion appears to see power-sharing devolution as a solution generally acceptable in Northern Ireland, not realising that even the SDLP express no interest in such an arrangement except as part of shared sovereignty involving the Irish Government. This nationalist insistence on blurring the edges of discussion and expanding its scope is particularly unhelpful in the search for political accommodation. So too is the very clear intention to use the institutions of the Agreement and the structure of any talks to try to pressure unionists into accepting something they have no mind to accept. This approach devalues the notion of consent upon which all new Anglo-Irish institutions should be founded.

There is still the illusion that somehow unionists can be compelled to give their consent to some form of Irish unity - by circumstance, by manoeuvre, by external pressure. That is a dangerous illusion. Unfortunately it is still widely held in the Republic and by various elements in Britain, and is explicit in the Labour Party’s policy papers on Irish unification.


Articles 2 and 3

Another factor is the role of the Irish Government, caught between self-interest as a state seeking stability on the island and its ideological mission to unify "the national territory". The Agreement has not resolved that ambiguity and that ambiguity is part of the problem of ensuring constructive relationships on the island. The removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution is central to the atmosphere of good faith without which nothing can be achieved.

The Agreement has now been in place for seven years - about one third of the total duration of the present troubles. If one assesses it in terms of its own objectives of peace, stability and reconciliation, then it has clearly failed to achieve them. This must raise doubts about the realism of the theory or theories upon which it was based. (The suggestion put forward by Peter Brooke, Garret Fitzgerald and others that violence has increased since the Agreement because of Libyan arms shipments ignores the fact that to distribute, store and use such quantities of arms and explosives, the IRA must have maintained a high degree of organisation and public sympathy if not support). If the theory or theories upon which the Agreement was based must now be questioned, then so too must the nationalist objective to extend the scope of the Agreement in the direction of Irish unity. In this nationalists are supported by the British Labour Party’s policy commitment to unity, and encouraged by the neutralist protestations of both Peter Brooke and Sir Patrick Mayhew.

The central stated objective of the Agreement, a generally acceptable form of devolved government for Northern Ireland (Article 4b), remains elusive. Since 1985 it has been assumed by the signatories of the Agreement that any involvement of local politicians in the proper governance of Northern Ireland must be predicated on some grandiose agenda which addresses the totality of relationships within these islands. This approach of seeking a comprehensive solution to the Northern Ireland problem by expanding the political limits of its definition has not been successful. It has not been successful precisely because those limits have not been made clear.

Widening the geographical limits to include the two islands seems realistic enough, but it is surely unrealistic to expand the historical limits in an attempt to redeem the divisive history of the past 100 years. For example, there seems to be no need whatsoever to re-open discussion on 1920 and the Government of Ireland Act in order to address Articles 2 and 3, as the Dublin Government is insisting. These articles are recognised by all the main parties in the Republic, apart from Fianna Fail, as an obstacle in the path of progress in Northern Ireland. This argument has nothing to do with political stances or moral repugnance; it is simply that Articles 2 and 3 are incoherent, given Dublin’s commitment to unity only with the consent of unionists, and indeed given its international obligations as part of the European Community, and of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Some have sought to justify the Agreement as a necessary means of educating the unionists, a way of bringing home to them that they do not own Northern Ireland, and do not have any right to administer it to their sole satisfaction. But that is hard to understand when the Agreement and the policies of both governments might well seem calculated to stimulate the most resistant and paranoid elements in unionism, rather than encourage the more moderate. Yet that is exactly what London and Dublin have done by giving credence to the unrealistic nationalistic objectives of the SDLP.

What the Agreement has actually sponsored has been inflated nationalist aspirations, and an inflation of hostile and suspicious conservatism on the part of Ulster unionism. This is the opposite of what the Agreement’s signatories intended. The inflation of nationalist aspirations has also helped the IRA, whose violent campaign can be sustained only so long as there is expectation of progress towards its ultimate goal of British withdrawal and Irish unity. Without some such expectation, support among the nationalist community would wither.

Some success might be claimed for the Agreement in that SDLP supporters are playing a greater role in public and other boards and services, - partly due to unionist withdrawal post 1985 - with the marked exception of the security forces. But the failure of the Agreement to bring peace has meant a continued process of alienation, particularly of the young, resulting from heavy security activity in strongly nationalist areas. Indeed the Agreement, by specifically recognising the right of the Dublin Government to put forward proposals "in so far as they relate to the interests of the minority community" actually encourages that minority to look to Dublin, which is, to say the least, an odd way of reducing its alienation from authority in Belfast.

The overall impact of the Agreement has been to destabilise the situation in Northern Ireland. Moreover, in its assumption that there is an absolutely clear-cut division within Northern Ireland between the "two traditions" and by institutionalising that division, the Agreement is in danger of promoting a form of apartheid, and of condemning internal Northern Ireland politics to permanent nationalist-unionist confrontation.

Much Government activity post-Hillsborough seems based on the assumption that all things "Irish" belong to the nationalist political tradition. The Fair Employment legislation is based entirely on "perceived" religious allegiance. In reality the overlaps between political nationalism, Irish culture and Catholicism may be very substantial, but to take these as automatic is factually wrong, and in current circumstances is likely to work against reconciliation, not for it. Similarly the broadly unionist political tradition includes people with a very lively interest in things "Irish".


A Common Heritage

Progress in Northern Ireland surely requires a greater recognition that we share a common cultural heritage which, while it is largely western and English speaking, from Shakespeare to Shaw to Coronation Street, has also a strong regional element that embraces not just Irish writers in English, but Irish language, art and folk music. This Irish cultural heritage is, and should be, shared by everyone in Northern Ireland regardless of politics. These distinctions seem not to be made in the Agreement, where the "traditions" are defined in strictly political terms, the "Irish" one directly associated with the Government in Dublin and therefore with the idea of unity within an Irish political entity.

Finally, it should be stressed again that the Agreement is essentially undemocratic in that it confers a right to represent one body of people on a government elected by an entirely distinct set of people. This assumption, that the government in Dublin —whatever government - can somehow represent the views of the "nationalist" population in Northern Ireland - of whatever party - is irreconcilable with the principle, fundamental to the European Community and the western world, of representative democracy. No one in Northern Ireland can vote for, or against, a government in Dublin, and that government remains responsible to the electors in the Republic, and to their concerns and priorities.

Such an arrangement may have had its attractions as an exceptional temporary measure to unblock an impasse. But it is inherently unstable, and unsuitable as a basis for any long term or even intermediate solution.

What needs to be done is to transform Anglo-Irish relations from their present status as a process towards Irish unity into an arrangement which stabilises Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. If policy-makers keep tilting the angle of the slippery slope by refusing to accept the limits of popular consent, then it is little wonder that a hectic and violent political culture continues in Northern Ireland.



If much wishful thinking has stemmed from the concept of placing the Northern Ireland problem in the wider framework of the totality of relationships in these islands, still more fanciful ideas have sprung from contemplation of the European dimension.

Membership by both Britain and Ireland of a European Community moving towards economic and monetary, and also political union, does indeed alter the context of north-south relations in Ireland, and opens up new possibilities. From 1973 on there has been a general assumption that such membership would somehow ease the problem, and, on the nationalist side, that a uniting Europe would, inevitably, help unite Ireland. (There was a corresponding unionist fear). Growing Euro-enthusiasm in the Republic, and among Northern nationalists, has recently stimulated the belief that the answer lies in Europe.

Various scenarios have been put forward - Northern Ireland could become a "Euro-protectorate" tied to neither London or Dublin but administered from Brussels; Dublin could take over the representing of Northern Ireland’s interests in Brussels, and the island of Ireland could become one region for EC purposes; Brussels could help finance Irish unity in order to ease a British withdrawal. And most persistent of all, the Northern Ireland problem will somehow disappear in a Europe of the Regions.

A belief has developed that it is now possible to move beyond the outmoded idea of nation states towards this new Europe of the Regions, and that within this new EuropeNorthern Ireland could be reinvented as a prosperous, stable and harmonious society, no longer torn between conflicting loyalties to the British and Irish states, because they too would have been immersed in a constellation of European regions. Advocates of this idea argue that as the model of the nation state gives way to a Europe based on a network of communities, without "national" frontiers, nations would not disappear but national identities would live on in the language, arts, customs and myths of the people, rather than in political institutions.

This suggestion that the "nation" can be detached from the state, thereby defusing political nationalism without sacrificing cultural identity, has much to commend it, and the European Community is the best hope of it happening. But to pin it to an EC based on regions not states, and to see in such a region-based Community a solution to the Northern Ireland problem entails many questionable assumptions. How will it happen? The authority upon which such a radical redefinition of political relationships is to be established is not specified. Who will define the regions upon which the new Europe will be based? In the case of Northern Ireland, will it be the present six counties, or something more or less? If in the case of Ireland the nation state is dissolved, what authority does the idea of the Irish nation really have, and what claim, or power, over the citizens of the Ulster region would it have?

This dream of a Europe of the Regions has been much favoured in Dublin and by the SDLP leadership, who clearly see in it hope of a resolution of the Northern problem in a generally nationalist context, or at least in an arrangement which would weaken the United Kingdom link and strengthen that with the rest of the island. But is it not much more likely that Northern Ireland, as a free-floating Euro-region, would be totally dominated by the unionist community, possibly by the more extreme elements of such, motivated by a virulent Ulster protestant nationalism?


European Myth

Whatever the answers to those questions, a Europe of the Regions is a myth and likely to remain one. The European Community is based on its member states, and is an embryonic Union of those states. Regionalism is important and becoming increasingly so; it is probable that more attention will be given to regional identities, and to involving regions in their own economic development. That is, after all, what subsidiarity is about. But there are no plans to reorganise the Community on the basis of regions, not states. There is no uniformity of "regionality" across the Community, so a pre-requisite of a Europe of the Regions would be a radical reorganisation of the internal administration of member states. Even then the existing member states would have to be prepared to dismantle themselves, ceding major powers over budget and other vital areas, either downwards to the regions, or upwards to the Community.

The proposal in the Maastricht Treaty to set up a new Committee of the Regions, almost indistinguishable from the existing and anonymous Consultative Council of Regional and Local Authorities, is hardly a step in that direction. The idea that the European Community could assume protectorate-type responsibility for Northern Ireland, or be directly involved in its administration takes no account of the nature of the Community. The EC has no such competence, nor is it likely to have. The idea that the EC could take over the role of external financier of Northern Ireland thereby facilitating a British withdrawal and allowing Dublin to govern the province without undue financial sacrifice is similarly unrealistic. To claim that Brussels could make up the annual £2 billion plus currently transferred (net) from the British exchequer into Northern Ireland reveals a remarkable ignorance both of the budget resources of the Community, and of its budgetary mechanisms and policies, not to mention a growing list of priorities more urgent and more serious by far than the Northern Ireland sideshow.

Yet this nationalist obsession with "a solution in Europe" persists, stemming in part from the growing enthusiasm for things European in the Republic. Ireland’s role in the EC has, ironically given the origins of European integration, stimulated a fresh burst of at least rhetorical nationalism among the Irish in recent years, while John Hume has combined his Irish nationalism with a progressive pro-integration stance on the European stage.

The obsession may also stem from what we have seen has been a consistent nationalist policy to move the Northern Ireland problem into a wider context, first away from being an internal UK matter to being a UK matter in which Dublin had a legitimate interest, and then into an Anglo-Irish concern, and beyond that into a European context in which the British interest would be so diluted it could eventually be done away with.

In this way the pursuit of the narrowly nationalist goal of Irish unity can be dressed up as part of the progressive drive towards European union; as John Hume put it recently, "a New Ireland in a new Europe, built by agreement and respect for diversity. . . . an Ireland that is whole, in a Europe that is whole, in a world that is whole". (Reported in Irish Times, 25 Nov, 1991).

Much of this confused, or devious, thinking can be seen in the SDLP’s proposal on devolution to Strand One of the Brooke/Mayhew talks, which was presented as based on the European model, and which suggested one EC, one Dublin and one London nominee on a six-man Northern Ireland executive commission. The proposal, hailed as radical by its supporters, was, when stripped of its European label, a triumph of abstract ingenuity over common sense. Its notion that the "external aspects" of British, Irish and European involvement are of equal weight is patently absurd as is the proposition that an appointee of the Irish Government should have responsibility for the expenditure of large sums of British taxpayers’ money while also being responsible for negotiations in the proposed North-South Council of Ministers on economic cooperation in the island of Ireland.

Three of the Executive Commissioners would be unelected (and presumably unelectable) and would certainly be unaccountable to the citizens of Northern Ireland. Since each Commissioner would have equal status and influence there would be no direct relationship between public attitudes, public office and public policy in Northern Ireland; the central relationship upon which devolved government is traditionally justified is thus summarily removed. Moreover the proposed Parliamentary Assembly is to be modelled on the European Parliament, which means it will be a largely advisory body, without a legislative role, and with no effective control over the Executive. This will incorporate what is seen as a key weakness of the EC, the democratic deficit left by an almost powerless elected assembly. Can it be that democracy is not appropriate in Northern Ireland because it arrests the movement towards the SDLP objectives ? In essence the SDLP proposal is for an executive machine, divorced from popular control, in a framework within which the authority of the United Kingdom government is diluted, and the North-South Council could push towards Irish unity.

Closer to the realm of reality is the suggestion that Ireland be treated as "an island economy" within the EC. There is scope for greater cross-border trade and cooperation in a wide range of areas of economic activity within the single European market. There is need for much closer inter-governmental cooperation on economic planning, particularly in a situation where economic development on both sides of the Border looks to Brussels for substantial assistance from the EC’s structural funds. It may indeed be possible, through joint approaches, to extract additional funding. But even this practical approach is in danger of drifting into Euro-fantasy when it proposes a single budget line in Brussels to cover the island of Ireland. EC aid for regional development is closely tied to the ability of a member state to fund its own regional development, and this puts Northern Ireland, as a region of the UK, into an entirely different category to the Republic, a small and poor member state. Put bluntly, any dramatic increase in EC funding into Northern Ireland could happen only if there was also a substantial decrease in UK Government funding. To suppose otherwise is to misunderstand the workings of the Community and its budgetary mechanisms.

A similar misunderstanding of the nature of the Community is implied in the suggestion that Irish Government Ministers might better represent Northern Ireland in the Councils of the Community. It is true that Irish Ministers in such forums could be aware of Northern Ireland’s special needs, and, subject to their own national interest, seek to promote them. It is to be hoped that the Anglo-Irish machinery is used to ensure that British and Irish Ministers are well-informed on each other’s concerns in the European context, so that they can work together in Brussels, as far as possible, to maximise benefits for both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

To go beyond that and seek to give Dublin Ministers some formal role vis a vis Northern Ireland in Brussels would conflict with the fundamental institutional structure of the Community. It could present Irish Ministers with an impossible conflict of interest when the concerns of North and South were at variance, and could leave British Ministers actively opposing in Council measures put forward by another member state for the benefit of part of their own (Britain’s) national territory. It would also fly in the face of the basic principle on which the EC is founded - representative democracy. The Council of Ministers remains the key powerful institution of the Community because its Members are also members of the democratically elected governments of Member States.


Political Agenda

Advocates of the single budget line for the island of Ireland insist that such proposals can be taken seriously only if there is "no political agenda", open or hidden. But that and the even more bizarre proposal regarding Ministerial representation, make sense only if there is a hidden nationalist agenda. In the context of the present constitutional position of Northern Ireland they are near nonsense. If that constitutional position is evolving towards some sort of all-Ireland resolution, they could become less so. This apparent tactic of the nationalist side to exploit the European dimension for nationalist aims should not be allowed to obscure the potential contribution of the European Community and European integration not to uniting Ireland, but to solving the Northern Ireland problem. Part of the founding impetus of the Community was the lesson of European history that nation states were inadequate and even dangerous units of political organisation. They had to be defused within a supranational framework. Yet the whole drive of Irish nationalism remains the pursuit of an Irish nation state which would include a million people who do not regard themselves as politically Irish and who wish to have no part in such an Irish state.

What the Community is beginning to offer is the possibility of de-coupling the nation (the people) from the state (the organised political unit). The concept of European citizenship makes national citizenship of individual EC member states interchangeable. Citizenship of a particular state can become a matter of circumstance, of residence, not of specific cultural identity. That identity can remain whatever the citizenship, just as it can wherever the residence. Within the Community important symbols that once tied identity to citizenship are changing - the European style passport emphasises the point that national citizenship is of little consequence within an integrated Europe. Military service, and the possibility of having to fight for one’s country, perhaps the ultimate union of national identity and citizenship, may be defused in a future common European defence arrangement, or even a European army. The right to work and to live in any country of the Community will further weaken the obsolete idea that citizenship and nationality should coincide.

In this way the evolution of the European Community can help ease the problem of cultural minorities, left marooned in states not of their choosing in the untidy scramble for nation statehood earlier this century. Developments at European level will not in themselves solve the Northern Ireland problem, but they can provide a context that will make finding a solution easier. Meanwhile flights of fancy and extravagant claims do not help.



Much current discussion of the Northern Ireland problem focuses on North-South relations in Ireland, and on the accommodation of Irish nationalist aspirations. In these circumstances it is possible to overlook or under estimate the extent to which a clear majority in Northern Ireland - not exclusively Protestant - are content to live their lives entirely within a United Kingdom context, socially, commercially and even culturally, as well as within the British governmental and administrative framework. It may be necessary therefore to offer a brief reminder of this everyday reality in Northern Ireland - a UK dimension that must be taken into account by all those seeking a solution.

Southern governments still tend to speak as though the problem in Ireland is entirely one of convincing unionists of their "Irishness" and that their rightful place is in a united Ireland. This stems, no doubt, from the original mistaken belief that the people of Ireland constitute a nation, that partition was wrong, and that the only right and natural solution, and indeed only possible solution, is some form of unity. Much nationalist thinking, particularly official thinking in Dublin, therefore seems concentrated on persuading or pressurising unionists into dropping their objections to some form of Irish unity. Hence constant talk of the negotiating table, and of promised generosity at it. The reality is that many in Northern Ireland have no interest in Irish nationalism, and live lives which are oriented towards United Kingdom concerns. They have no concessions to demand from Dublin as their price for unity, because they are simply not interested in unity.

In many ways Northern Ireland is increasingly integrated within the UK. Three quarters of Northern Ireland trades unionists belong to unions which have their headquarters in Britain. The employers organisations in Northern Ireland are also UK based. Despite efforts to promote North-South trade, less than 6% of goods produced in Northern Ireland go to the Republic, while 34% go to Great Britain. In 1969 only 326 students left the province to obtain higher education in the rest of the UK, fewer than the number (359) who went south to the Irish Republic. In 1989 some 2,550 opted for Britain while only 184 went to the Republic. People in Northern Ireland are more and more reading British national newspapers. In 1971 Rose found that 32% of the population read a British - as distinct from a local or Dublin - daily paper; the figure today is 53%.

The Conservatives may be the only mainstream British party to organise in Northern Ireland - reluctantly and recently - but that does not mean that mainstream UK political issues are of marginal concern here. The fate of sterling, interest rates, public spending, foreign policy, European policy, policies on education and health are all issues which, when debated at Westminster, are of prime public interest here. Twenty years of direct rule have probably deepened this sense of involvement in British affairs, and there are those who see it as the most promising path forward, freeing nationalists from fear of unionist domination, offering all the hope of a liberal administration free from any variety of local ultra-conservatism, and making possible the evolution of politics here on a non-sectarian basis. This is a vision not restricted to those who advocate continued direct rule; it is shared by many who feel that some form of devolution is essential.



With the exception of a rather over-complicated discussion in the New Ireland Forum Report nationalists have preferred to ignore the issue of economic costs of unification or joint sovereignty. An August 1992 editorial in the Irish News went as far as to assert that economic considerations constituted absolutely no bar to a united Ireland.

The reality is very different. While the earning capacity of the two economies north and south are approximately equal on a per capita basis, standards of living are around 40% higher in the north. Consumer spending per head in the north is one-third above the southern level. Government spending per head on public services (not including defence, business subsidies and debt interest) is two-thirds higher. This higher northern standard of living cannot be fully sustained by taxpayers within Northern Ireland whose income levels are similar to those in the Republic but whose tax rates are lower.

High living standards are instead maintained in large part by UK taxpayers in Great Britain who make a substantial annual contribution to the running costs of government in Northern Ireland through the tax and fiscal system. This is part of the normal public sector financing whereby funds tend to flow out of richer areas and into poorer ones. Underpinning these financial flows is the principle of parity in provision of public services throughout the UK. Any parts of the UK in which local tax revenues are insufficient to fund public services at national standards automatically receive inflows through the public expenditure system.

Having said this, Northern Ireland is different in two respects. Firstly, most of the £6 billion of public expenditure is received as a block and does not come through separate ministries and institutions (such as the NHS) as in Great Britain. As a result Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK for which it is possible accurately to identify the magnitude of net financial flows within the public sector. A second difference between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK is that some public services appear to be more generously funded. This is true of security services for obvious reasons but also appears to be true for health, education and other services. The combination of well-funded public services with lower tax revenues than in the rest of the UK means that Northern Ireland almost certainly has a larger net inflow of public funds than any part of Great Britain.

In recent years the financial contribution from British taxpayers has been running at close to £2,000 million pa or £1, 300 pa for each inhabitant of Northern Ireland. Over the last year the total government financial contribution has suddenly escalated to £2,500 million (£1,600 per person) as a result of falling tax revenues and rising government outlays during recession. The additional £500 million pa represents Northern Ireland’s share of the burgeoning UK government deficit. This now means that the living standard of a family of two adults and two children in Northern Ireland is underpinned to the tune of £6, 400 pa. Of this total, 80% represents transfers from UK taxpayers and only 20% government borrowing. Membership of the United Kingdom is thus of huge financial advantage to all residents in Northern Ireland. This has almost always been the case to some extent, but the scale of advantage increased greatly following direct rule in 1972.

If Northern Ireland were to leave the UK and forego financial support from the UK exchequer, alternative funds would need to be found. Otherwise it would be impossible to maintain public services at current standards or to pay unemployment and other benefits at current levels. There is in our view no prospect that the financial burden of supporting living standards in Northern Ireland could be taken over by the Republic. (Detailed arguments to support this contention are advanced in an appendix to this document). For this reason alone a political unification of the island without continued UK financial support is not a realistic option. Nor is it conceivable that the EC or any other outside agency would fill the financial gap. At present the EC makes a net contribution of only around £100 million pa (or 4% of the contribution made by UK taxpayers).

The financial impossibility of unification is well recognised within government in the Republic, and is a significant part of the ambiguity, not to say hypocrisy, of the territorial claim. However, complete unification is perhaps the least likely of any potential constitutional changes. Current nationalist thinking focuses on shared sovereignty as a short-term aim. The SDLP submission to the talks, for instance, envisages a six person executive for Northern Ireland with one nominee each from the Republic and Great Britain and one from the EC. There is no mention of a financial contribution from the Republic.

Schemes such as this for shared sovereignty involve major problems of public administration since they abrogate the almost universal principle that political authority should be exercised by the representatives of those who pay for government. While the principle is abridged to allow smaller financial contributions from the poor than from the rich in many countries, there are few, if any, examples of non-paying voters in any country having government influence over those in another. The idea of no representation without taxation is as widely accepted in this regard as is its reverse.

Some nationalists argue that under shared sovereignty financial contributions to Northern Ireland might be made by Great Britain and the Republic in proportion to the sizes of their respective populations. This would however leave the Republic with perhaps 17% of the influence, under the SDLP scheme, while contributing only 5% of the finance necessary to maintain living standards. Even this would involve the Republic in making an annual payment of over £100 million to Northern Ireland, an amount which TDs of all parties in the Republic would regard as out of the question. If such an eventuality were to come about, however, we must realise that it would involve politicians elected in the Republic having a major say in spending the money of taxpayers in Great Britain on behalf of people in Northern Ireland. Any contribution from the Republic would involve southern taxpayers in subsidising living standards in Northern Ireland higher than their own. Arrangements of this nature would surely attract major protest in all three jurisdictions and are hardly likely to survive in the long-term.



  1. The idea that partition was undemocratic or somehow morally wrong is an assertion of nationalism, not a matter of historical fact. In the interests of realism it should be discarded as a factor in assessing the problem today. Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s for the same reason Yugoslavia has been partitioned in the 1990s - there was no basis of unity.


  2. The domination of politics inside Northern Ireland by the sterile unionist-nationalist confrontation has its origins in the initial nationalist refusal to recognise the northern state or to participate in its institutions, compounded by the strategy of the unionist leadership in over-exploiting the advantages that flowed from this refusal. Since then minority politics have been largely restricted to the nationalist demand for the dismantling of the state, helping render problematic any evolution towards "normal" politics. Subsequently unionists manifestly failed even to attempt to address the problem of Catholic dissatisfaction.


  3. The belief that nationalists in Northern Ireland were subjected to widespread and severe discrimination to an extent that they even now cannot identify with Northern Ireland or its institutions must be seriously challenged. While unacceptable instances of discrimination are acknowledged, most of these were rectified before the present troubles fully developed. In any event, their existence justifies neither the deaths and mayhem of the past 20 years, nor continued nationalist rejection of Northern Ireland as a "failed political entity".


  4. The assertion that the Northern Ireland problem cannot be solved within the present constitutional framework is therefore tenuous, and represents traditional opposition to the Northern Ireland state in an amended guise. Ours is not however a conclusive argument against changing that framework, but advocates of change must justify their arguments on the grounds of positive benefits it would bring.


  5. All parties to the present talks accept the principle that there must be consent within Northern Ireland to any constitutional change vis a vis the Republic. Realism demands acknowledgement that such consent is not forthcoming in the foreseeable future, and is indeed remotely conceivable only in the event of major demographic change within Northern Ireland. It is unrealistic and destabilising, therefore, to present Irish unity as a distinct possibility in Article 1c of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and indeed as one which the two governments are willing to facilitate.


  6. The clear implication in the Agreement that "consent" involves only a mathematical majority, and not a broad political consensus, devalues the principle of consent. Consideration should be given to redefining the principle to mean the consent of both communities, the sense in which it has been used in relation to an internal settlement in Northern Ireland in legislation such as the NI Constitution Act of 1973, and in numerous government policy statements. Failure to gain such consent to the 1985 Agreement is one reason for the present impasse.


  7. Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution, and indeed other articles which imply that the territory of the Irish state is the island of Ireland are totally unrealistic and should be deleted as soon as possible. They do indeed represent a crude territorial claim and are incompatible with the principle of consent, and with Irish membership of the European Community and other international groupings. It is entirely inappropriate that these articles should be brought to the table as negotiating cards, or that the Dublin government’s commitment to their deletion should be conditional upon agreement at that or any other table.


  8. Articles 2 and 3, and the Dublin Government’s continued assertion that partition was undemocratic and the root of all present ills offer ideological support to "pure" republicanism, and indirectly and inadvertently help sustain the IRA campaign of death and destruction by obscuring the intellectual bankruptcy of its cause. There should be no attempt by government to involve Sinn Fein in dialogue until it has abjured "the armed struggle".


  9. Northern Ireland’s living standards are now heavily underpinned by its membership of the UK, where largescale financial transfers take place from richer to poorer regions. The Republic shows no willingness to shoulder the economic burden of supporting Northern living standards at levels considerably higher than its own. To do so would mean levying high taxes so that the poorer 26 counties could subsidise the richer six. Nationalists must stop dodging or fudging this harsh reality.


  10. The key weaknesses of the Anglo-Irish Agreement were that it was not a final settlement, and that it was not agreed by all the key elements in the problem. It held out the hope, or threat, of eventual Irish unity; it encouraged northern nationalists to look to the Irish Government for representation, thereby encouraging nationalist aspirations to some sort of association with the Irish state; the institutionalised advisory role of the Irish Government in Northern affairs encouraged expectations, and fears, of a future stronger role - expectations which have been reflected in SDLP proposals to the present talks. And it was an Agreement from which a substantial majority in Northern Ireland withheld its consent. It offered, and still offers, no hope of stability.


  11. Any future agreement must take full account of these weaknesses. It must be a real settlement, not a formula for providing temporary accommodation for two incompatible but deemed equally valid political traditions. The constitutional nationalist project of pushing ever more strongly for an enhanced Irish dimension will ensure that mutually acceptable institutions for the good governance of Northern Ireland remain unattainable. What is needed is an "agreed Ireland", not in the sense of some new constitutional arrangement that is essentially Ireland-centred, but a settlement that is accepted as a settlement - and not as a stepping stone to something else - by all the major parties to the talks.


  12. If realism dictates that Irish unity is a de-stabilising pipe-dream that has to be discarded, unionists must face the reality that nationalists do, nevertheless, feel alienated, have problems identifying with Northern Ireland, and generally believe that whatever disadvantages they suffer from result from anti-nationalist discrimination. Unionists must recognise that the principle of consent now entails the consent of nationalists to a settlement which enables them to live in dignity and security short of Irish unity or joint authority. Unionists must, therefore, develop a vision of the United Kingdom which is much more than a vehicle for their own protection; which is rather an increasingly pluralistic society, accommodating various nationalities and cultures, and offering a liberal context within which to enjoy a comparatively high standard of living. In particular they must acknowledge that the nationalist population in Northern Ireland is in some ways quite seriously disadvantaged - notably in employment - and that whether this is the result of discrimination or not, exceptional remedial measures are needed.


  13. Unionists must recognise the significance of the geographical context of the island of Ireland, especially for nationalists. With political unity off the agenda, the oneness of the island in a physical, and in many ways in a cultural and social sense, will become more important to nationalists, and more accessible to unionists. The aspiration to political unity could be replaced by an actual, practical unity in many areas of daily life, where it already exists, in sport, the churches, professional bodies.


  1. This should be reflected in a new North-South Cooperation Agreement to replace the AIA. Such an agreement would set up a formal mechanism to promote cross-border cooperation in economic, social, cultural and security affairs. It could include, at the highest level, a North-South Cooperation Council which would bring together relevant Ministers from Belfast and Dublin, possibly serviced by a joint secretariat working out of both Belfast and Dublin; if thought necessary, liaison offices could be opened in both cities. The Council and its work would be symmetrical, offering Dublin no more involvement in Northern affairs than Belfast would have in Southern ones. The potential benefit from such cooperation would vary from sector to sector, but it could usefully cover security, trade promotion, industrial development, tourism, transport, energy, training and education, agriculture, environment, European Community affairs, and all aspects of culture. Its role would be consultative, not executive. Essentially it would be a mechanism to promote inter-governmental cooperation.

  3. The first action of the new Council should be to draw up a priority cross-border transport programme, for which exceptional European funding might be sought. This should include the proposed upgrading of the rail link and the urgent provision of a dual carriageway road between Belfast and Dublin. (One of the marked weaknesses of the 1985 agreement was its failure to expedite such projects).


  4. These actions would help create an Irish dimension beneficial to all and threatening to none. This would enable people in Northern Ireland to live their lives - business, cultural, social, - if they so wished, partly or even mainly in the context of the island of Ireland, without in any way weakening the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.


  5. Similarly there should be recognition of the oneness of "these islands" - of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland - where political division has not impinged upon a shared cultural heritage nor on a vast network of economic, social and other ties. These links could also be reflected in the institutions and mechanisms of a new agreement, which could deal with" east-west "matters arising between the Republic and Great Britain, including, for instance, energy supplies, transport links, migrant affairs, educational exchange and mutual recognition of teachers.


  6. In approaching a solution, all parties should appreciate the reality of Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom, and of the fact that the lives of many are lived entirely within that context. Unionists are not reluctant nationalists, waiting to be enticed or persuaded into a united Ireland by the generosity of Dublin.


  7. With the constitutional argument settled and the above listed principles accepted, the precise form of internal administration in Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom could be less controversial. Two basic principles should govern its choice: it must have broad consent, and it must be efficient. Furthermore it should:


    (i) include a Bill of Rights to safeguard civil rights and fair administration;


    (ii) address the problem of lack of democratic scrutiny by the people of Northern Ireland of both legislative and administrative processes;


    (iii) while taking account of minority concerns, be aware of the dangers of institutionalising the community divide in any mechanism of government, thereby helping perpetuate essentially sectarian politics.


  8. All the above would not entirely answer the problem of perceived national identity. But the decreasing significance of national citizenship within the European Community, where the concept of a common European citizenship alongside freedom of movement and mutual recognition of social and other rights makes citizenship an incidental of residence, should leave the residents of Northern Ireland in the happy position of deeming themselves to be Irish, or British, or both, as the mood takes them, while remaining, constitutionally, citizens of the UK



The Economic Consequences of a Unification of Ireland

The Northern Ireland Subvention

The potential economic cost to the Republic of achieving a united Ireland increased greatly over the 1970s and has remained huge. Before direct rule in 1972 living standards in Northern Ireland were somewhat supported by financial transfers from Great Britain, but after 1972 the scale of this support and the associated transfers expanded rapidly, as the principle of equality in public service provision was applied to Northern Ireland.

Uniquely within the UK there are official estimates of the scale of financial transfers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. The aggregate transfer, (which is estimated for constitutional rather than economic reasons) is known as the subvention. While public expenditure is known precisely, government revenues raised in Northern Ireland can only be estimated since the Inland Revenue is only partly able to apportion taxes to specific locations.

Public expenditure in Northern Ireland in 1990 was £5,968m. Estimated revenue was under four billion pounds, leaving a gap to be filled by the subvention of £2,018m. Since aggregate expenditure in Northern Ireland was around £12,000m in 1990, it can be seen that the subvention was equivalent to one sixth of total spending. Since 1990 the costs of recession have expanded these figures by 25%, giving a subvention of £2,500 million.

The subvention amounts to £1,600 pa for each Northern Ireland resident or £6,400 pa for a family of two adults and two children. The cost to taxpayers in Great Britain is equivalent to one penny on income tax. Around 20% of the subvention is now financed by Government borrowing which is currently escalating rapidly. The money is used in Northern Ireland to finance one third of the total cost of public services and social security benefits.

The subvention raises Northern Ireland incomes directly in the form of the wages of public employees and in social security benefits and pensions. The benefits are shared more widely in two ways. Firstly, all Northern Ireland residents gain from public services which are provided at a much higher standard than would be possible without the subvention. Secondly, demand for private sector services and products is considerably boosted by the local spending of wages, benefits and pensions financed by the subvention. Part of the incomes of many of those working in the private sector are thus indirectly supported by the subvention.

The consequence is that a large part of the Northern Ireland economy depends directly or indirectly on the subvention. As an approximation we can say that all incomes in Northern Ireland depend on money flowing into the Province. Inflowing money then circulates within Northern Ireland until it leaks out again in the form of payments for imports, taxes, and in the form of savings which are invested outside the Province. Aggregate expenditure is thus proportional to the size of income flows into Northern Ireland. These income inflows are as follows:

Main Flows of Income into Northern Ireland 1990

£million %

Exports of Goods 4,125 59

Tourism and other Services 450 6

Private Sector Investment 400 6

Subvention 2.018 29

Total 6,994 100

Note: Value of exports includes direct imports purchased to produce exports. The other items in the table above also include some direct imports, but to lesser extent than for exports. Figures, excluding direct imports would thus show the subvention to be even more important.

Sources: NIERC Export Survey 1990, NI Annual Abstract of Statistics, NI Tourist Board, Hansard. Figures for non-tourist services earnings and private sector investment are author’s estimates. The investment estimate assumes that 25% of business investment is financed by financial flows into NI.

Since the subvention constitutes around 30% of the money flowing into Northern Ireland, we might thus expect aggregate income to fall by about 30% in the absence of the subvention. Although it does not necessarily follow that unification would involve a cessation of financial transfers from Great Britain, this is one possibility, which has to be examined. In practice even if such transfers were completely cut off due to unification the decline in incomes need not be quite as large as 30% since unification would bring some off-setting financial benefits. These include:

(i) Larger financial benefits from the EC. The Republic currently gains twice as much per capita from the EC as does Northern Ireland. Unification might bring an additional £150m pa to Northern Ireland.

(ii) A revived tourist industry, if political violence were to cease. Over a period of 5-10 years revenues from tourism could rise to a total £250m pa higher than today. If violence continued, these gains would not materialise.

(iii) Higher levels of industrial in-migration. Assuming the Republic’s package of industrial incentives were extended to Northern Ireland, the gain to Northern Ireland might be £100m pa.

Taken together these advantages might raise financial inflows into Northern Ireland by £300m in the first year, rising to £500m by the fifth year. This assumes the cessation of all political violence.

The net result of completely withdrawing the subvention, offset by only the gains listed above, would be a decline in aggregate income of up to 22% in the first year. By year five the impact would have lessened a little, and aggregate income by then would be 20% below the pre-unification level. In practice the running down of private sector financial assets and increases in private sector debt would soften the financial impact of a withdrawal of subvention, but such adjustments would afford only temporary relief In the medium to long term a series of supply-side adjustments would come into play. These might include more rapid growth in exports due to drastically reduced wages, and would also include accelerated outmigration.

Relative Living Standards

Aggregate income is conventionally measured by Gross National Product which includes all of the income accruing to a country’s residents. Using this measure Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have similar income levels. Although wages in Northern Ireland are typically 80-90% of levels in Great Britain, the presence of higher unemployment and larger families reduces average incomes to 74% of the UK average. This is only slightly above the level in the Republic of Ireland.

Gross National Product Per Capita 1990

£ UK = 100

Northern Ireland 6,181 74

Republic of Ireland 5,972 72

United Kingdom 8,323 100

Note: The Northern Ireland figure is GDP. This is likely to be similar in size to GNP.

However, this comparison is distorted, because in the Republic taxation bears down more heavily on individuals and more lightly on businesses, than in the UK

Take-home pay and hence consumer spending, are consequently lower in the Republic than might be expected from a comparison of incomes. Levels of public service provision are also lower in the Republic than in the UK Relative living standards in Northern Ireland are also raised because the UK tax and social security system results in some redistribution of personal income in favour of Northern Ireland.

Measures of Living Standards 1990

Consumer Spending Expenditure on Public

Per Head Services Per Head

£ UK = 100 £ UK = l00

Northern Ireland 4,910 81 2,177 135

Republic of Ireland 3,725 61 1,289 80

United Kingdom 6,087 100 1,610 100

Note: ‘Public Services’ is total public expenditure excluding defence, debt interest, social security, agriculture, and business subsidies. In the case of Northern Ireland, those costs of law and order associated with terrorism are also excluded. Figures for the Republic of Ireland are for 1988 inflated by 5%.

Better indicators of comparative living standards are contained in the table above. This shows consumer spending in the Republic to be a quarter lower than in Northern Ireland, while expenditure on public services is 40% lower. The two measures taken together indicate that overall living standards in the Republic are one-third below those in Northern Ireland.

Costs of Unification

The actual economic impact of unification would depend on the precise financial arrangements associated with any constitutional change. The worst case would involve the UK ceasing to pay any further subvention to Northern Ireland. The best case might involve continuing subvention payments (from the UK and perhaps also the EC) for a period of 10 or 20 years. A large number of intermediate positions are also possible.

The Worst Case

In the worst case, with the subvention completely withdrawn, and with no compensatory payments from the 26 counties of the current Republic, aggregate income and expenditure in Northern Ireland would fall by a fifth below the pre-unification level, as argued above. This could be organised in several ways. If current wage levels were maintained, the number of jobs would fall by around 20%. In this case over 120,000 jobs would be lost, half of them from the public sector. As a consequence migration from Northern Ireland would accelerate rapidly. Alternatively, employment levels could be maintained if everyone (including those on social security benefits) took a pay cut of the order of 20%. Tax rates in Northern Ireland would also need to rise by around half if the large public sector were retained, unless the new joint government were willing to borrow to avoid this.

Even with a reduction in earnings of one-fifth and higher taxes, living standards in Northern Ireland would remain above those in the 26 counties of the current Republic. The question then arises as to the extent to which the 26 counties would be willing to compensate Northern Ireland residents for the loss of subvention, still assuming that the subvention were completely withdrawn. These are three possible scenarios:

(i) A special tax could be levied in the 26 counties alone, to maintain public services and social security benefits in the six counties of Northern Ireland. In this case taxation in the 26 counties would need to rise by around a quarter (equivalent to an additional 10% of personal incomes). It should be noted that in this scenario the poorer part of the new united Ireland would be subsidising the richer part. Also, taxation could be very substantially higher in the 26 southern counties than in the six northern counties. Consumer spending would decline as a result of tax increases, and hence employment and income dependent on local demand would be lost. In the absence of political violence the Republic might save £100 million of additional security expenditure. This would alleviate part of the necessary increase in taxation, but only a relatively minor part.

(ii) A uniform tax across all 32 counties could be levied to maintain Northern Ireland’s public services and social security benefits at pre-unification levels. In this case taxes in all counties would need to rise by 15%-17%. Public service provision in the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain very substantially better than in the 26 counties.

The structure of taxation is in fact so different in the two areas that any common tax system would involve considerable changes. A common tax system would probably involve greater increases in personal taxes in Northern Ireland. Company taxes would probably fall in Northern Ireland or at least not rise by as much as in the 26 counties.

Again, a rise in taxation would lead to lower consumer spending in both northern and southern counties. Jobs and incomes which depended on local demand would be lost. This means that living standards in Northern Ireland would fall below pre-unification levels, since the tax inflows from the south would only partly compensate for the loss of subvention.

(iii) The government of the new united Ireland could increase its international borrowing to replace the subvention. The additional borrowing would amount to around 6% of the GNP of the new united Ireland. Borrowing at this level could not be sustained for very long. The large external debt of the current Republic already reduces living standards. Reduction in the debt will be necessary to meet conditions for monetary union under the Maastricht Treaty. Any substantial increase in debt to finance unification would endanger Ireland’s membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and its desire to join a future European Monetary Union.

Borrowing to finance unification would be at best a temporary expedient since the new unified state could not allow its debt to accumulate at this rate for more than a few years. In addition, the new country would remain economically unbalanced with higher wages and public services in the north, unless steps were taken to unify the tax system, public services provision and wage levels (at least in the public sector).


The Best Case

If the UK and EC were willing to continue financing the subvention at its current level in real terms for a considerable period, there would be no short-term need for any reduction in living standards in either part of the island. An eventual need would however arise, although the impact of the financing burden would depend on expansion in the Irish economy over the years up until eventual withdrawal of subvention. In addition, the subvention could be withdrawn gradually to soften the impact.

Even with no reduction in subvention in the short-term, there might well be strains within the new united Ireland. If no attempt were made to equalise taxes, public services and wages, the six counties of Northern Ireland would retain government funding of public services at levels 70% superior to those in the 26 counties. Personal taxes would also remain higher in the south even though wages were lower. Such imbalances could not be allowed for long. Trade union pressures would tend for instance to push public sector wage levels in the south towards those in the north. Residents of the 26 counties would presumably come to resent paying higher taxes for inferior public services. These higher taxes would include interest payments on the Republic’s foreign debt. The question would arise as to whether residents of the six counties should pay higher taxes to service the Republic’s pre-unification debts.

The new state might of course be established as federal in nature with little economic harmonisation. This would involve little real unification, and again could only survive as long as the subvention continued.

Without a federal state, unification would involve some inevitable north-south harmonisation of living standards and would mean a reduction in living standards in the six county area, even with a continuing subvention. In this case the continuing subvention would in effect begin to subsidise living standards in the 26 counties.

As a final note, a united Ireland with no further political violence would need only half of the current numbers of RUC men. The British Army would return to Great Britain and the Royal Irish Regiment might be absorbed into the army of the united Ireland. The net loss of 10,000 well paid jobs in the RUC would have its main impact on the Protestant community. Generous redundancy terms might be financed from a continuing subvention. Unless many of the redundant RUC members decided to leave the island of Ireland eventually the result would be to increase unemployment. Some ex-RUC members might fail to gain new jobs. Those who found employment would displace others who might otherwise have been employed.


The economic impact of any unification of Ireland depends firstly on whether the UK (and EC) might continue to pay a subvention to the new state, and secondly on any economic gains arising from a cessation of political violence. Even if political violence were to cease completely, it is difficult to envisage economic gains which rose to even a quarter of the size of the subvention even after an adjustment period

If no subvention were paid, income and employment would fall by some 20% in Northern Ireland, unless compensatory payments were received from the South. Without foreign borrowing by the new state government, taxes might have to rise by 25% in the 26 counties to compensate the northern counties. More realistically taxes would rise in both areas, leading to a reduction in living standards in all counties, compared with what would otherwise have been the case. Taxes would need to rise by 15% or more. This increase in tax might be mitigated by a temporary increase in foreign borrowing. However, any increase in borrowing could only be temporary, and would endanger Ireland’s membership of the European Monetary Union.

Even if the subvention were to continue for a lengthy period, pressures to equalise wages, taxes and public service provision throughout the new state would lead to some reduction in living standards in the northern counties. In this case a continuing subvention might begin to subsidise living standards in the southern counties, while living standards were reduced in the north.

Finally, a unification of Ireland would increase the population of the current Republic by 50% and is thus a larger unification than that being attempted by Germany. Since the additional population has living standards 30% above the Republic’s own population, the economic strains would differ greatly from the German unification. It would not be necessary to raise living standards in the added areas as is the case in Germany. In the Irish case, the strains would arise from any attempt to make the residents of the low income southern counties subsidise the living standards of their more affluent northern neighbours. Equally, the majority of northern residents are unlikely to welcome a reduction in living standards as the cost of a unification to which they were ideologically opposed.