The Cadogan Group


Blurred Vision




The Cadogan Group, April 1994


This second pamphlet by the Cadogan Group examines the idea of joint authority or joint sovereignty. It looks at a succession of proposals which have been put forward over the past 20 years and seeks to assess the potential of the idea as a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland.

The Cadogan Group’s first pamphlet, Northern Limits, published just over a year ago, had as its subtitle "The Boundaries of the Attainable in Northern Ireland Politics". It is in that same spirit of testing claims and proposals against the realities of Northern Ireland today that we have approached the writing of this pamphlet, Blurred Vision.

There is no simple or obvious way out of Northern Ireland’s dilemma. New thinking and new ideas are needed, and possibly new structures to accommodate as far as possible conflicting aspirations and identities. But all proposals, including the most idealistic and innovative, must be tested against the realities of the situation. Of course vision and imagination are needed to make progress but these too must take account of the limitations posed by the conditions of politics in Northern Ireland. Too often politicians, analysts and commentators tend to ignore one reality which, at other times, they all claim to acknowledge, namely, that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without majority consent. At present, and for the foreseeable future, it must be assumed that that consent will not be forthcoming.

For its acknowledgement of this reality in Northern Limits the Cadogan Group has, erroneously, been labelled "unionist" and its approach described as depressing or pessimistic. In recognising the reality of the present view of the majority in Northern Ireland the Group’s position is no more "unionist" than that espoused in theory by, for example, the Irish government or the Social Democratic and Labour Party. And, for all its green rhetoric, there is a core of sense to the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 which indicates, perhaps, an unprecedented recognition of that reality.

We repeat that members of the Cadogan Group belong to different political parties or to none. The Group has no ties to any political party. It seeks in its discussions to approach all issues with no a priori commitment to any single partisan view. Reality in Northern Ireland is a harsh discipline; our embrace of it in Northern Limits provoked harsh criticism in some quarters. But it also appealed to others, and demand for the pamphlet far exceeded our expectations, forcing us into three reprints. This second pamphlet has a narrower focus, concentrating on the single issue of joint authority. Does the growing advocacy of this solution indicate imaginative far-sightedness or is it simply a case of blurred vision?



The idea that administrative authority and sovereignty in Northern Ireland should be shared between Britain and the Irish Republic - joint authority as it is now most commonly called - has an obvious appeal to neutral observers of the conflict. It appears to be a fair and equitable solution to an otherwise intractable problem. If neither side can agree on whether Northern Ireland should be British or Irish, what could be fairer, they argue, than to split the difference and make it both.

The idea has also had consistent if often muted support from constitutional nationalists in Northern Ireland. Unionists in contrast have resolutely opposed it, viewing it as a nationalist strategy to weaken the Union,and ultimately to attain Irish unity. Support for the idea of joint authority has recently been growing in academic circles. This support is underpinned by arguments of equity and fairness, but since much support comes from those with nationalist inclinations, it may also reflect a recognition that full unification is not financially feasible.

Even so the idea is clearly supported by many in the genuine belief that it does offer an honest and fair solution to the problem of conflicting identities and aspirations within Northern Ireland. Any proposal seeming to promise the possibility of an amicable solution must be given serious and sympathetic consideration. The question we pose in this pamphlet is whether it is ever possible to accommodate in one area contradictory desires of people to be part of different states. Even in the present circumstances of nascent European union the principle of national administration and national allegiance remains too strong, in our view, for this question to be taken other than seriously.

This pamphlet examines the practicalities and realities of joint authority. The argument revolves around four issues. How complex and workable would be the administrative arrangements? Would they be durable, or transitional? Who would pay, and finally would the recognition of two allegiances in one territory lead the two communities to become more divided or less divided ?

Our conclusion is that each of these issues poses severe difficulties for joint authority. Underlying all of these factors is the deeper difficulty of consent. In the present and foreseeable future state of public opinion it seems unlikely, to say the least, that joint authority could be introduced with majority consent in Northern Ireland. This difficulty is recognised by sophisticated advocates of joint authority, but they argue that the unionist majority should not be permitted to veto a "fair" solution. Again our view is that this approach is politically unrealistic. The Northern Ireland problem stems from the fact that a minority resolutely oppose the current constitutional arrangements. There seems little to gain from substituting one set of arrangements for another if a different minority, or majority, were to be equally firm in its opposition. With both British and Irish governments publicly wedded to the principle of consent any proposal which lacks consent looks like a non-starter.

In arguing that joint authority, however superficially attractive, is not a solution we recognise that the intractable problem of minority allegiance remains. Here we have a problem. The nationalist case contains a degree of ambiguity which it has always been difficult to deal with rationally. As a claim for equal and dignified treatment within the UK it has rightly received wide support. There would also be sympathy for a claim that nationalists feel an allegiance to an Irish state and would themselves prefer to be part of the Republic. The problem has been that the aspiration has never stopped at this point. It has always been couched in terms which include the persons and territory of the unionists within the proposed greater Irish state. For deep emotional reasons, which have been too infrequently explored and analysed, the nationalist aspiration is at base territorial. This is so despite John Hume’s unconvincing attempts to express it as a wish to unify peoples rather than territory.

The nature of this aspiration poses a fundamental difficulty in debating the merits of joint authority. At base it is difficult to see how joint authority can satisfy the emotional aspiration of nationalism, except as part of a process which, from the nationalist point of view, moves in the "right" direction. If it cannot provide a satisfactory compromise for nationalists, then the rational tactic for unionists must be to oppose it. The unionists’ worst case scenario would be to concede a major constitutional change, only to find that it failed to meet the nationalist aspiration.

That is a serious consideration which applies to any proposed constitutional re-arrangement to deal with the Northern Ireland problem. In this booklet we focus on joint authority and the issues raised by its possible implementation here.



In 1993 Austin Currie, one of the SDLP’s founder members and now a Fine Gael TD, commented that the events of the last 25 years have clarified the "essential issues":

"We now recognise the central problem, know what the solution is and the context in which it can be brought about. Fundamentally, the Northern Ireland conundrum is one of conflicting national identities between those who believe themselves Irish and those who believe themselves British. There are religious, social, cultural, political and other dimensions to the problem but they are only dimensions of that central issue"

The idea of resolving that central issue by placing Northern Ireland under the joint authority of the British and Irish governments has long exercised a simple appeal. In the past two years solutions to the Northern Ireland problem based on this principle have appeared more frequently, have been put forward in greater detail, and have issued from several sources.

In 1992 the Social Democratic and Labour Party presented a paper to Strand One of the Mayhew Talks which put a European gloss on a joint authority proposal. That proposal re-appeared in a slightly modified suggestion by the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in July 1993. About the same time the Labour Party Irish Society brought out a consultative document entitled Ireland, Time for Peace. which suggested a 20-year period of joint sovereignty prior to Irish unification. Joint authority was the recommendation of a policy paper -Options for a Labour Government - drawn up before the General Election of 1992 for the Labour Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Kevin McNamara. It was an idea accorded respect and support in a number of submissions to the Opsahl Commission. And it has been advocated by some prominent academics, notably Anthony Kenny, John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary. Northern Ireland: Sharing Authority produced in the autumn of 1993 by the Labour think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is by far the most considered and detailed scheme which has yet appeared.

The idea is not new. It was put forward by the SDLP in 1972 in their Towards a New Ireland; it reappeared in the New Ireland Forum Report in 1984 and in the Kilbrandon Report of that same year. There are echoes of it in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It has been SDLP policy for some years. It is only in joint authority, that is in some arrangement giving the Dublin government a degree of "authority" in Northern Ireland, that John Hume sees the achievement of what he has called "the minimum political recognition of the nationalist identity". This is a case which his party has argued with some sophistication and there is evidence that it has struck a chord with many Catholic voters,and with commentators outside Northern Ireland..

In this regard there has been a change of emphasis in SDLP policy,moving away from demands for civil rights and equality of treatment within Northern Ireland to a fundamental insistence on the "right to political expression of an Irish identity", a formula which originated in the New Ireland Forum Report. The modification of the system of Direct Rule in Northern Ireland brought about by the Anglo-Irish Agreement was in the direction of joint authority in that it institutionalised an advisory role for the Dublin government in the affairs of Northern Ireland, but did not,it would now appear,satisfy this minimum required for political recognition of an Irish identity.


The document submitted by the party to the Mayhew Talks in 1992 confirmed that the SDLP’s central concern was not civil rights or equality alone, but "the process of political identification upon which allegiance is dependent". Responding to unionist proposals for an internal settlement, the SDLP said:

"while, in general terms, such proposals might be both acceptable and sufficient in a society in which equity of treatment for minorities was the only issue, they are not sufficient in a society in which allegiance is a central problem."

This redefining of the practical problem away from equality of rights within Northern Ireland towards the nationalist demand of equal recognition of political identities has greatly enhanced the attractiveness of joint authority as a solution. Options for a Labour Government makes this clear. It states that joint authority:

"...involves the appealing idea of splitting the national and ethnic differences: both sides gain because their national identity is respected by membership of their preferred nation-state; and both sides lose because their national aspiration is accomplished at the expense of sharing regional territory with another nation-state and another national community."

The authors of Options preferred the term "shared responsibility" rather than joint sovereignty. The IPPR prefer "sharing authority". Whatever phrase is used the general strategy remains the same and the underlying principles remain constant.

In theory joint authority seems an obvious solution to the problem thus defined. But how would it work? A serious difficulty here is that there is no working model anywhere in the world which could provide us with any sensible means of comparison. Until recently one could,with some imagination,have cited Andorra. It did indeed retain a rather feudal system under which the President of France and the Bishop of Urgel (in Spain) exercised joint authority over the 35,000 citizens of Andorra. That has now been replaced by a new system of democratic responsibility even though sentimental recognition is still afforded to the old patrons. Even less relevant to the problem here are the only two historical examples anyone has ever cited - Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides. The first was such an unequal partnership that it is not generally regarded as joint authority. The second was a deal between two colonial powers to share control over a small and distant territory. Both examples were temporary arrangements and both territories involved are now independent states.


Inappropriate Examples

Thus the argument of the IPPR pamphlet that joint authority or condominium is a system of government which has proved itself is just not the case. The authors state that "many (such) systems have existed in medieval and modern times, from the Sudan to the New Hebrides". In fact, those are the only two examples they cite. Support for the idea of joint authority - or "condominium" as he calls it - has also come from an authority on the Irish constitution, Professor Basil Chubb. Writing in 1991 in The Politics of the Irish Constitution he argued that once the British government accepted "that the Irish Government had a role in Northern Ireland and British-Irish cooperation got under way in an organised fashion (as happened in the 1980s) the first steps down the road that could lead to condominium had in fact been taken." Professor Chubb finds similar difficulties with experience. He argues in support of condominium that it is a concept well understood in international law but concedes that there have been "few examples and some of these inappropriate to the case of Northern Ireland." He then cites the Sudan and the New Hebrides as "inappropriate" examples but fails to mention any which might be relevant.

The several schemes proposed for joint authority in Northern Ireland over the years (Appendix 1) have varied in detail but the main virtues attributed to the principle remain the same. The key element of most of them is that power be given to the Dublin government to nominate its own representative to sit, alongside a London nominee, on an executive or governing body in Northern Ireland. Options for a Labour Government proposed an international treaty to define Northern Ireland as a joint territory under the British and Irish governments. The territory would be governed by an executive authority of five members, one nominated by Dublin, one by London, and three elected within Northern Ireland. This is also the broad framework proposed - albeit in much greater sophistication - by the IPPR.

The SDLP in its Talks proposal suggested a six-person Commission as the executive - one nominated each by London, Dublin and Brussels (the European Union), and the other three directly elected within Northern Ireland. The document did not describe this as joint authority,and indeed made no reference to the concept. Subsequently the party has argued that its proposal does not involve constitutional change. This is a contentious assertion,and the suspicion must be that the plan was so framed and presented in an attempt to by-pass the need for majority approval in Northern Ireland. It could be argued that the allocation of executive powers and functions to nominees from outside the United Kingdom does indeed involve a diminution of United Kingdom sovereignty over Northern Ireland and a modification of the province’s constitutional position.

Essentially we regard the SDLP proposal as one of joint authority in that it incorporates what seems to be the kernal of all such proposals in the Northern Ireland context - some role for the Irish Government in the administration of the province sufficient to enable the nationalist minority to identify with that administration and to accept its legitimacy.



Most proposals for joint authority in Northern Ireland involve complicated local institutions and procedures. This raises several serious problems. It is not easy to see where authority in the province would actually lie and how the citizens would relate to it. There must be real fears that with so many checks and balances,the system of government would simply grind to a halt.

Under direct rule there is an evident lack of public scrutiny of government,and almost no input into policy-making by the citizens of Northern Ireland. But the administration continues with relative efficiency in most areas - that is the civil service and various agencies, while not pleasing everyone,carry out their duties reasonably effectively in running the province on a day to day basis. Legislation has been subject to scant parliamentary oversight,at least prior to the setting up of the new Northern Ireland select committee, but it has generally been prepared,introduced and adopted as required.

Would joint authority bring greater efficiency in these practical matters of government, orwould it make things worse ? A main point of joint authority is, presumably, to enable the province to govern itself under the general and balanced oversight of London and Dublin. That would inevitably mean much more decision-making in Belfast,and a considerable legislative programme for the devolved institutions. Would joint authority beable to cope?

The political structures suggested in most proposals seem only to repeat and extend some of the worst features of Direct Rule,particularly in regard to representative and responsible government - they are neither fully representative of the people of Northern Ireland, nor fully responsible to them. There is a rather obvious democratic deficit. The SDLP’s 1992 proposal,for instance,has a Parliamentary Assembly which is largely advisory,has no legislative role and exercises no effective control over the executive. Under this proposal the system would be dominated by an executive commission divorced from popular influence. Since half of the six commissioners would be unelected,and therefore unaccountable to the electors of Northern Ireland,the traditional justification for a local assembly - that it brings government closer to the people - is removed. The other three commissioners would,of course,be directly elected and would therefore,in a presidential sense,be responsible to the electorate. But in practice they would not themselves have a deciding voice in the executive,and could not be held responsible for its actions. So there is a very weak relationship between public opinion,public office and public policy.

This SDLP proposal,by limiting access to executive power to only three elected local politicians,would do nothing to answer the problem of the exclusion of the political classes and parties from participation in real politics. The members of the assembly would be restricted to criticising from the sidelines.

In terms of structures the SDLP proposal is the most straightforward of the various suggestions. This is because it leaves vague or unstated the distribution of responsibilities and the division of powers within a joint authority arrangement. It is a minimalist proposal,incomplete at the time of its presentation to the Mayhew talks. The IPPR proposal,on the other hand,is highly detailed. and requires more detailed consideration. It also clearly illustrates both the problem of democratic deficit and that of administrative complexity.

The IPPR suggest that a new constitution for Northern Ireland would define the province as an

"autonomous and democratic political region,part of the national territory of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Its sovereignty is vested in its peoples and their respective states who are the guardians and guarantors of its Constitution.."

Great Britain and the Republic would be "external co-sovereigns of the region,and the Queen and the Irish President would be joint heads of state". Executive authority in Northern Ireland would reside in a Shared Authority Council (SACNI),made up of three representatives directly elected within Northern Ireland,and one nominee each appointed by the British and Irish Governments from the House of Commons and the Dail. These nominees would hold cabinet posts in their respective governments. There would also be an Assembly of the Peoples of Northern Ireland which would scrutinise the the actions of the SACNI and would share its legislative function. Finally, there would be a Supreme Court which would be the guardian of the constitution and the rights of citizens.


Highly Complex

The ways these institutions would operate and interact with each other are highly complex,clearly designed to ensure fairness and balance between the two traditions,and to satisfy the need for equal recognition and respect. The authors have set out to meet many of the criticisms directed at earlier plans for joint authority,and to anticipate future criticism. But in so doing they have constructed a system so complicated that it would appear to be immune from public influence,and so balanced that it could result in administrative and legislative deadlock.

Its complexity offers opportunity for any number of intra and inter institutional confrontations and impasses. The Shared Authority Council, according to the authors,could not operate on the basis of collective responsibility - given that its British and Irish members would already be collectively responsible to the British and Irish cabinets respectively. In short it would be a collective presidency,without a collective purpose or mandate. Just how policy would be formulated and promoted in these circumstances is extremely hard to see.

The Shared Authority Council would appoint Ministers to run administrative departments in Northern Ireland,and together these would form the Executive Council. The main legislative power would reside with the Shared Authority Council,which could adopt Bills by unanimous agreement among all five members. In the absence of unanimity,a co-decision procedure with the Assembly would operate. Under this procedure measures adopted by the Council by a majority at three successive meetings would go to the Assembly where the relevant committee...

"...may propose amendments and may propose according to a qualified majority rule (two thirds) that a vote on the bills be taken on the floor of the house. If the amendments receive the support of two-thirds of the relevant committee the SACNI must accept them or drop the proposals. If the vote on the floor of the house is against the bills they are dropped. If the amendments receive majority support within the (assembly) committee the SACNI decides whether to accept these amendments by majority vote,providing the Speaker and Deputy Speaker have ruled that they are not wrecking amendments."


Legislation may also originate in the assembly...

"Bills may be proposed by any committee of the assembly if they obtain the support of two thirds of the members of the committee. They are then put to a vote on the floor of the assembly. If they are passed there by a similar majority they become law unless they are vetoed by the SACNI. Should any such bill not be vetoed by the SACNI any dissatisfied member of the SACNI is entitled to challenge the constitutionality of any such law before the Supreme Court."

The above quotations illustrate just how complicated and time-consuming it would be to adopt any piece of legislation, and how limited would be the power of the elected assembly members to alter legislation or to promote their own. Their role would essentially be negative. On the other hand the "government", that is the Shared Authority Council or the Executive Council appointed by it, would require the approval of the assembly for most of its legislation, the only exceptions being those acts adopted unanimously by the Council. Such procedures would seem to be open to all sorts of coat-trailing and obstructionism.

The IPPR system would seem to envisage no regular legislative role for either London or Dublin as regards Northern Ireland. This is because the authors envisage new arrangements for representation of Northern Ireland,as an autonomous condominion, only in the upper houses of the parliaments of Great Britain and the Republic. MPs would no longer be elected from Northern Ireland to the House of Commons. Instead representatives from the province would be appointed to the House of Lords and to the Senate, requiring reform of both institutions. The institutions of the European Union would be required to accommodate some form of Northern Ireland representation.There is also a role envisaged for the Presidency of the EU in adjudicating on differences between the British and Irish members of SACNI if a state of emergency has been declared in Northern Ireland.

A serious weakness in all this would seem to be the extremely limited scope allowed for participation by local political parties. The end point of all political activity in a democracy is the opportunity to exercise control and to implement policy which has been developed at party level and supported by the public at election. Control may have to be shared with coalition partners,and policy modified to take account of broader views but it is still this ability to have a real say in the running of one’s own country or region which is the meat of politics. In Northern Ireland, for many years, the fact that nationalists could not hope to do this was a large part of the problem. Under joint authority this exclusion could extend to all local parties.

The key advantage of the party system is that it imposes a coherence of outlook on government members which is essential to rational and consistent policy making. In the case of Northern Ireland one is talking, not of a national government but of a regional administration with limited powers, in which locally elected politicians would have a limited role. But the need for common purpose and consensus leadership at government level in Belfast would still be vital.

Proposals for joint authority necessarily involve government,or administration, by a mix of local parties plus external nominees who may have interests divergent from the local parties,or who may have little interest at all. The local parties are likely to have contrasting views on social and economic issues as well as on the constitution. Yet they are expected to forge a coherent government. This is unlikely to happen anywhere,except temporarily under unusual circumstances such as war,and it is hardly likely to provide effective leadership or administration in a divided society like Northern Ireland.

For their scheme of joint authority to work the IPPR authors must of necessity assume that both the internal and external policies of Britain and Ireland will remain,if not identical,at least very similar. There is no guarantee that this will be the case. Even within the ever-closer European Union there remains scope for significant policy differences on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Just where and how the citizens of Northern Ireland or their representatives could hope to have any voice on these issues is not clear. In both London and Dublin representation will be in the Upper Houses,not the democratic policy framing chambers. This is perhaps a symbolic illustration of how the system here proposed lacks any vital link between the governed and the governors.

Under it the citizens of Northern Ireland are expected to accept and respect the joint governmental authority so instituted,but they are not offered any real participation in the exercise of that authority,neither in their own region,nor in either of the two states under whose patronage they find themselves. This is for Britain and Ireland to run Northern Ireland as a joint colony,the residents of which are not to be trusted to run their own affairs,and who could not be expected to wish to have,or to be entitled to,any real say in the government of either Britain or Ireland. The colonial origins of the idea of joint authority could hardly be more clearly illustrated; it is a system designed to suit the needs of the two patrons,not the local residents.

We leave aside for the moment that most tricky of administrative details,the financing of any system of joint authority . It needs a chapter to itself.



Any form of joint authority would constitute a radical movement away from the status quo of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom in the direction of some form of Irish unity. What evidence is there to persuade unionists that joint authority is being advocated as a fair and final solution? What evidence is there that it would be accepted as a permanent arrangement and not just seen as an intermediate stage on the way to Irish unification? .

Options for a Labour Government provides an interesting example of the problem. For instance, it makes the valid point that one of the attractions of the idea of joint authority is that it has about it a sense of permanence and durability. In principle at least it implies an imaginative and final historic compromise. It is necessary, argues the Labour document, "to reassure unionists that shared responsibility is not an immediate staging-post to Irish unity". To achieve that end, it is believed that "durability is an essential element of the success of a system of shared responsibility." What is recommended are entrenchment clauses which limit the possibilities of constitutional change. The document examines two alternative ways of achieving the desired end.

The first involves a referendum on the status of Northern Ireland constructed in such a way as to provide vetoes on change for all parties, British, Irish, unionist and nationalist. But rather oddly the authors comment that this might be too durable and inflexible. Their alternative proposal doesprovide for the necessary flexibility to move Northern Ireland towards full integration into a united Ireland. The authors of this proposal envisage it operating for a period "not less than twenty years". From the thrust of the argument one would assume that they would expect it to last for not much longer than twenty years.

The same difficulties were encountered during the New Ireland Forum. In their submission advocating joint sovereignty, Richard Kearney and Bernard Cullen made the all important point about durability. Only if joint sovereignty were to be accepted as a durable solution could the arguments of unionists against the subversive intent of Irish nationalism be properly addressed. As they correctly put it, the problem has not been the aspiration to Irish unity but to the "absolute separatism" of Ireland from Britain. Yet separatism remains central to traditional Irish nationalism. As Professor Cullen put it in his critique of current nationalism in a submission to the Opsahl Commission:

"I had really hoped that we had all come further than this in our appreciation of reasonable unionist resistance to the involvement of the Irish government in actually governing Northern Ireland - as distinct from having a legitimate interest in how Northern Ireland is governed."

The key point is that the durability of respectable compromise between the citizens of Northern Ireland is undermined by increasingly confident nationalist ambition. Joint authority would not be a resting place but another step in the advance of nationalist politics. This would promote an equal and opposite reaction within unionism, presaging a political condition even more pathological than the present one.

The submissions to Opsahl on joint authority all in their various ways brought out this conundrum of "impermanent durability". For instance, the Corrymeela Community’s submission provided some thoughtful insights into both the attractions of joint authority and its practical limitations. "The two governments", it argued, "inevitably will have to develop their own cross-national co-operation to such an extent that there is no possibility for local political interests to portray Britain and Ireland as enemies, each working to impose its own distinct agenda for Northern Ireland". This attractive vision was immediately undermined by the realistic perception that this "will involve Irish nationalists in an acceptance of Britain remaining in Ireland, for which there is little evidence that they are really prepared."

It was Will Glendinning who put the point precisely:

"For joint sovereignty to be worth moving to from a unionist point of view, nationalists would have to be prepared to accept that their ultimate goal of a united Ireland would have to be dropped. Only in that situation is joint sovereignty a true compromise".


Present Reality

The present reality is that the Irish government has great difficulty distancing itself from the unitary ambitions of its Northern clients. These ambitions are frequently stated. Michael Farrell, for instance, would only contemplate a medium term form of joint authority without any modification of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. Jonathan Stephenson of the SDLP could envisage joint authority only as "an appropriate short term response to the failure of all-party negotiations to take place" (a self-fulfilling prophecy?). Discussions with John Hume make it abundantly clear that the SDLP have never even considered the question of providing unionists with guarantees of permanence in return for their consent to constitutional change short of Irish unity..

Joint authority might just be generally acceptable if it were capable of ensuring public peace and political stability. There might indeed be benefits for unionists in having a settled status of equality within arrangements in Ireland as well as permanent representation within the British state. It is one of the virtues of the IPPR pamphlet that it takes this problem of durability seriously. But permanence of sort is not what many Northern nationalists appear to be seeking. There still exists a separatist logic,and a desire for eventual victory.

This other strand of contemporary nationalist politics sees the Anglo-Irish Agreement and more recently the Downing Street Declaration as representing an irreversible breakthrough in tackling the underlying causes of the conflict by conceding the substance of the nationalist thesis,that is that partition was wrong and that Irish unity is the only ultimate solution. The British Government should,it is argued,now sponsor and support legislation for Irish unity. It has already declared itself to have no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland. The task for all those who subscribe to the new nationalist consensus and Irish peace process is to persuade the unionists of the need for Irish unity. If that is the case, and if the nationalist tradition is nothing but a separatist tradition, then it can never be satisfied with any arrangement short of complete separation from Britain. Joint-authority itself is partial separation but can easily be a step on the road to complete separation.

This assertive strand of nationalism is designed specifically to overcome the constitutional reality of Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and the absence of majority consent for changing that status. It has little interest in co-operative institutions, especially of a devolved character within the UK, which would be durable. Durability and stability of devolved institutions (the very language of unionism) would mean the frustration of movement towards the goal of Irish unity. This position can only change if the Irish government adopts a less supportive position vis-à-vis its Northern clients. Joint authority would be, we believe, a step in the wrong direction at the wrong time for Dublin. Far from encouraging the necessary trust for political progress, which Albert Reynolds so correctly stressed in the Declaration, it would only foster another stage of political turmoil. It is a concept too far. Political amour propre should not conceal that fact from the deliberations of the Irish government.

In one respect current government policy in both London and Dublin makes joint authority still more difficult to implement. This is their common commitment to change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as soon as a majority concurs. Dr Brendan O’Leary pointed out in an article in the Sunday Press in February 1994 that a system of shared sovereignty would would require that it would not matter which local community happened to be in the majority. In other words the system must survive any transition in Northern Ireland to a nationalist majority. But both governments insist on what he calls "a crude majoritarian interpretation of self-determination".They both say that the status of Northern Ireland stays as it is as long as it has majority consent;at the point at which majority consent is lost,it joins the Irish Republic. Such an intense commitment by both governments is an integral element in the present political context,and must therefore militate against any joint authority proposal.



The notion of balance - meaning equal respect for all traditions in Northern Ireland and the placing of both the main communities there in a symmetrical relationship to state power - is at the heart of British policy in Northern Ireland. Initially, it implied an end to all discrimination and, in the words of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, " the opportunity for both communities to participate fully in the structures and processes of government". More recently the term has been used by the advocates of joint authority and by nationalists in general to support claims for a fundamental change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

The idea that joint authority balances the traditions in Northern Ireland by giving them equality of "political expression" is advanced as a proposition which threatens no one. But there are problems with it. As we argued in Northern Limits there can be no "parity of esteem" within any political arrangement which sets the Irish Government as the advocate of the nationalist community on one side and ranges the British Government as a "neutral arbiter" on the other. That some proponents of joint authority go so far as to demand that the British government should be a "persuader" would only exaggerate that imbalance. It compounds the same defect of the Agreement and is therefore a potent factor of instability. One of the positive points of the Downing Street Declaration is that the British government declined to take on the role of persuader. But that some - and not just Sinn Fein - expected the British government to do so tends to put arguments for joint authority into a different light. The real asymmetry between the attitudes and responsibilities of the British and Irish states towards the communities in Northern Ireland is something which is too often lightly dismissed. There are a number of examples of this.

In their book The Politics of Antagonism, for instance, O’Leary and McGarry propose that Northern Ireland has been the site of two compounding political failures. On the one hand there is a failure of British state-building. On the other hand there is a failure of Irish nation-building. However, joint authority does not represent a balanced acceptance of these parallel failures. It represents an absolute acknowledgement that Britain can never be the only state in Northern Ireland. There is no similar acknowledgement on the part of the Republic. It can retain its purpose of building a singlestate in the island of Ireland. In practice, nationalists give up none of their demands - except the impossible one of unity now.

Another error in the IPPR booklet is its argument that Northern Ireland is a site of two competing sovereignty claims. However this ignores the historical and constitutional facts. To equate Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution with the fact of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is nonsense. The United Kingdom’s de facto and de jure sovereignty over Northern Ireland is universally recognised,by the Irish Republic as well as by everyone else,in a succession of treaties and international agreements. That many nationalists would wish it otherwise is indeed at the heart of the problem,but for the IPPR to make this wish the logical premise of its argument undermines its logical balance. To propose that "both governments should recognise the validity of the other’s constitutional claim" is another nonsense. Only the Irish government has a claim and recognising it would transform the de facto and de jure exercise of British sovereignty against the wishes of the "greater number" in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is not the site of competing sovereignty claims. Both the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Downing Street Declaration make it clear that any one of three possibilities is closer to reality than the IPPR’s competing claims:

(a) neither the British nor the Irish government wants responsibility for Northern Ireland;

(b) the Irish government ideally would like possession of Northern Ireland but has no practical desire to do so and the British government ideally would like to go but is practically compelled to stay;

(c) the British government really wants out and the Irish government really wants in.

The reality is simply that there are not competing claims. The Declaration confirms very clearly that the United Kingdom has no selfish strategic,economic or political interest in Northern Ireland, but retains sovereignty only because a majority in Northern Ireland so wish. Moreover the United Kingdom has promised the relinquish that sovereignty as soon as the greater number in Northern Ireland say so.

Dublin has accepted that position,but at the same time maintains its claim to the territory of Northern Ireland,and continues to argue the rightness of the nationalist case for Irish unity. It also acts as a guarantor of the rights of nationalists within Northern Ireland - a position formally accorded it in the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In short Britain,from its position of neutrality,acknowledges the democratic wishes of the greater number in Northern Ireland,while Dublin strenuously advocates Irish unity,and acts specifically as the guardian of the nationalist community.

Against this reality,the claim that London-Dublin joint authority would be balanced,with London protecting the unionists and Dublin protecting the nationalists, simply falls apart. There is no equivalence in the relationship espoused in the Declaration (or the Agreement for that matter) between the British government and the unionists on the one hand, and between the Irish government and the nationalists on the other. It is dramatically unbalanced. Britain is not the "patron state" of Ulster Protestants in the way that the Republic announces itself to be the patron state of Ulster Catholics.

The irony of the IPPR position and that of other proposals for joint authority is that it actually advocates what nationalists have always condemned - that the British government should be the protector of Protestant interests, a unionist partisan. The British government has never been that, but is now expected to take on that role. If the British government were to accede to joint authority against the wishes of unionists it could hardly take on the role of patron. It would have little long term interest in this role. What unionist for that matter would see the British government in such circumstances as "his state"? The supposed balance involved in joint authority is an illusion at best, at worst an obfuscation of the real purpose of some of those who advocate it.


Actual Loss

Options for a Labour Government is at least quite honest about the political outcome of an imposed form of joint authority. It argues that

"Ulster unionists would experience an actual loss from shared responsibility, whereas nationalists merely face a speculative opportunity-cost from the creation of shared responsibility, surrendering the prospect of immediate or medium-term national re-unification ".

In other words unionists give up something real and tangible and they give it up for good. Nationalists give up something "speculative". Or, as Martin McGuinness put it, people will have to compromise but some will have to compromise more than others. Without any definition of what the "medium term" actually is nationalists do not have to concede much at all.

The Options paper assumes that Britain and the Republic can formulate a common purpose and satisfy their respective interests. It also assumes a desire on the part of Britain under a Labour government to withdraw and of the Republic to assume sovereignty. It must assume a common engagement to achieve those ends. And since this is also the end sought by nationalists in Northern Ireland for whom the Republic acts as a sponsor we have a very strangely balanced arrangement of three - Britain, the Republic and Northern nationalists - against one,the unionists. It was Professor Edna Longley who, in her submission to the Opsahl Commission, outlined the minimum requirement for real political balance. She argued that balance could only be achieved between the two governments and within Northern Ireland if, and only if, the Republic were prepared to distance itself from the restless ambitions of northern nationalism.

This is at complete odds with the direction of policy co-operation between the SDLP and the Irish government. O’Leary and McGarry have provided an excellent summary of the dangerous limitations of joint authority in an earlier work,The Future of Northern Ireland:

"Even if some nationalists did accept the arrangements as permanent, there is a serious risk that others would not. Besieged unionists in Northern Ireland tend to view the most extreme representatives of nationalism in Ireland as that community’s authentic spokesmen and, therefore, might also see such an arrangement as transitional in nature. As (Anthony) Kenny’s structures must involve an explicit upgrading of Dublin’s power over Northern Ireland, their implementation might produce destabilisation and possibly a very violent reaction."

This warning is repeated in the IPPR booklet,of which O’Leary is one of the authors:

"The key risk of shared authority is that it is likely to lead to a short term increase in both loyalist and republican paramilitary violence, especially the former. However, we believe that this increase in violence will prove to be short run - as the institutional protections for both communities become apparent, and British and Irish security cooperation begins to bite."

For those of us who live in Northern Ireland the prospect of an upsurge in violence is hardly reassuring. Since IRA terrorism in its most recent form has lasted more than 20 years,any vague expectation that a loyalist campaign would last for some unspecified short period is an example of wishful thinking. The prospect of sustained loyalist violence is a very real one,particularly if constitutional change in the direction of joint authority could be represented as a stepping stone to full Irish unity.



All constitutional parties within Northern Ireland,or with an interest in Northern Ireland,proclaim their acceptance of the principle of consent - that there can be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority there. In practice this acceptance does not run very deep on the nationalist side. For instance, John Hume, on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politicson 21 August 1993 argued initially that in a divided society like that of Northern Ireland there should be no settlement in which there would be winners and losers. But his final position was that 2% of the population of these islands (unionists) should not be allowed to frustrate the will of the majority in the these islands. Gerry Adams has said much the same, albeit in blunter fashion. There can be no unionist veto.

Hume’s erstwhile colleague, Austin Currie, was on a similar track in the Guardian (24/8/93). "One lesson of the past 25 years", he said, "is that no new arrangements will work without at least the tacit consent of those to be governed. The withdrawal of consent by any significant section of the population would ensure the conditions for the continuation of terrorism". Yet two paragraphs on and we find the unionists being warned that agreement between the British and Irish governments will have particular implications for them. The terms of membership of the UK should not be determined "by less than 2 per cent of it." The implication of this is clear.

Nationalists have a difficulty in squaring the circle of endorsing consent while rejecting a veto. However there are indications of how they hope the circle might be squared. A distinction made by Garret FitzGerald between joint sovereignty and joint authority is relevant. In his autobiography, All in a Life, he describes joint authority as:

"simply a method that the British government might choose to adopt in the exercise of its sovereignty in order to regulate the affairs of one part of the kingdom."

John Hume and the SDLP chairman, Mark Durkan, have both argued that the SDLP’s proposals for the governance of Northern Ireland - the six-man commission including appointees from Dublin and Brussels, and a council of ministers, including one from Dublin - would not involve a change in the status of Northern Ireland and would therefore not require the consent of a majority. There would be no question of a "unionist veto".

The argument seems to be that Northern Ireland would remain under nominal British sovereignty but would in fact be governed under an arrangement agreed by London and Dublin. Asked to explain such a proposition, the SDLP’s Brian Feeney told an Irish Association meeting in Belfast in October 1993 that under this arrangement unionists would find their constitutional position unchanged. They would still be able look to London and a British identity while nationalists could now look to Dublin and an Irish identity. Here we are in a very grey area,or greenish grey. Unionists denounced the advisory role given to Dublin under the Anglo-Irish Agreement as modifying the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK. Indeed that was,and remains,their key reason for rejecting it. The counter-argument was that as Dublin’s role was advisory only,no question of sovereignty was involved,as indeed the Agreement itself asserted.

Whether such an argument could be sustained in an arrangement whereby two external powers - the government of the Republic and the European Union - were actually nominating members of the executive body administering Northern Ireland is very doubtful. It is also hard to reconcile with the SDLP’s assertion that the plan was deliberately based on the European Community. The unique feature of the Community is that its member states do indeed agree to share authority over a wide range of their national responsibilities. The assumption must be that the real intention is to find a way around the unionist veto on constitutional change. This raises serious doubts as to the genuineness of the acceptance of the consent principle by both the SDLP and the Dublin government.

Whole-hearted acceptance of that principle by the nationalist side would mean a concentration of effort by them on finding a settlement with unionists within the present constitutional arrangement,rather than straining to find ways of circumventing the consent principle,or of persuading London to put pressure on unionists to give consent. Confidence in Dublin’s acceptance of consent is further undermined by clear indications that in the forefront of the Irish Government’s thinking is the possibility that demographic change will render unionist consent unnecessary. Evidence of this was the swift action by government to renege on the inclusion of "unionist consent" in Dick Spring’s Six Principles,dismissing it as a drafting error. After several days of wide publicity in the original form,the wording was changed to "majority consent".

At his meeting with the Irish Association in Dublin on January 10,1994, the Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was asked if he would consider a 51% majority in favour of Irish unity as sufficient consent for change; his reply was "not 51% - 50% plus one would be enough".

The pinning of hopes by nationalist leaders to demographic change,and the argument that joint authority need not involve constitutional change,must suggest,at least to many unionist minds,a greater concern to achieve nationalist goals than to reach an accommodation within the limits set by present realities - the most significant of which is the principle of consent. In the Downing Street Declaration the Taoiseach- and particularly the Taoiseach placed great stress on the need for trust,and for building trust in Ireland. Trying to change the rules as to what is constitutional and what is not, and plainly hoping that your opponents will be outbred, is hardly best way of going about building trust and reaching a consensus.

Our view is that true consent is essential for a stable settlement. The shallowness of nationalist and Irish government adherence to the principle of consent makes it difficult to hold negotiations in good faith about joint authority, or indeed about any aspect of constitutional change. What is clear is that at present consent for either joint authority or Irish unification is lacking. Virtually all of Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority prefer to stay fully within the United Kingdom, rejecting joint authority.A recent opinion poll in Northern Ireland (December 1993) showed that only 32% of Catholics favoured Irish unity (or 14% of the electorate as a whole). Another 33% of Catholics, or 17.8% of the electorate, named joint authority as their most favoured solution. One could therefore argue that 65% of Catholics want some constitutional change involving the Irish state in Northern Ireland. One third of Catholics preferred solutions within the UK. Hence the preference for joint authority as opposed to the status quo receives the support of only 28% of the total electorate.

Moreover all existing poll evidence relies on answers given in a vacuum. The prospects which respondents choose are often very hypothetical. One important missing element in almost any discussion of constitutional change is a realistic assessment of the costs involved and of the consequent impact on peoples’ standards of living.



One impetus for joint authority comes from a growing realisation amongst nationalists and their sympathisers that full Irish unity is financially out of the question. As a consequence the immediate objective has become more circumspect. Joint authority enables movement towards Irish unity whilst retaining most of the moneys injected annually into Northern Ireland by the British government. A common theme which runs the gamut of constitutional nationalism and, indeed, republicanism, is that Irish self-determination ought to be subsidised by British taxes. For instance the economic difficulties of Irish unity help explain why the SDLP’s joint authority proposals submitted to the Mayhew Talks did not involve any change in the responsibility for public expenditure in Northern Ireland. The SDLP was realistic about the limits of Southern financial capacity and benevolence and, above all, about the material expectations of its own electorate. The great service done by the authors of the IPPR pamphlet is that they try to confront the question of how joint authority is to be financed. That pamphlet shows a degree of intellectual honesty in confronting a problem which others have avoided. For that reason what follows concentrates on the IPPR proposals.

What is involved is another problem of balance: how does one transfer half of the sovereignty and authority over Northern Ireland to the Republic without transferring half of the costs? The IPPR propose that the costs should be shared and provide a formula which it believes is equitable. The basis of this cost sharing is not, as one might expect given the IPPR assumptions about state-sponsored co-nationals, in proportion to the relative sizes of the nationalist and unionist populations. Instead it is to be apportioned according to the relative sizes of the UK and Irish economies. Since the UK economy is over 20 times larger than that of the Republic this leaves the UK paying approximately 96% of the costs and the Republic paying a little under 4%.

The IPPR justify this disproportionate burden on the UK taxpayer on the grounds that a 50/50 division of costs would be an intolerable drain on the Republic’s budget. It is estimated that financing half of the Northern Ireland "subvention" (or, as unionists now like to call it, the UK cohesion fund) would substantially reduce consumer spending in the Republic. Since the Republic has living standards among the lowest in Europe,combined with an externaldebt among the highest in Europe,the IPPR are realistic to view toview the assumption of large additional public expenditure costs as unsupportable.).

Paying in proportion to the relative sizes of the UK and Irish economies is defended as being "a more just, sensible and realistic interpretation of equal sharing" of the financial costs of joint authority. This proportionate principle is understood by the IPPR authors to be consonant with the principle adopted by the United Nations. In the UN,they argue, participating countries have equal voting rights but only make financial contributions in proportion to the sizes of their respective economies. Let us set aside the inconvenient fact that UN members do not all have equal voting rights. Even if we do so, the comparison is hardly valid. Firstly, the UK contribution to the UN is very much smaller than the moneys spent in Northern Ireland. Countries, like individuals, are more relaxed about paying proportionate contributions when those contributions are small. Secondly, influence in the UN doestend to reflect financial contributions irrespective of voting rights. Thus the United States can use and has used the threat of withdrawing its money to increase its influence,as the recent experience of UNESCO reveals.

Any such disproportion in funding in Ireland would lead to a similar imbalance of power. Contributions of 96% and 4% hardly constitute a balanced set of relationships. Northern Ireland really would become an economic colony of Great Britain albeit ruled in conjunction with the junior partner of the Republic. Why Britain would want to continue to pay the piper while giving up the power to call the tune is a mystery. It would be an unprecedented and improbable act of statesmanship. The arrangement would be subject to intolerable political pressures at Westminster. There would be constant danger of reductions in British contributions in annual public expenditure reviews. Even under direct rule and full British sovereignty some politicians and journalists have tried to exploit the issue of "British taxpayers’" money subsidising the "spongers" in Northern Ireland. It takes little common sense to imagine how much greater would be the incentive for politicians to cut their losses in an area in which they will come to have even less strategic, economic or political interest than at present.


Economic Weakness

The danger of the present subvention being subject to attrition is the economic weakness of all joint authority proposals. Again, the IPPR authors are honest in regarding the British subsidy as impermanent. They state that they "cannot think of a good argument in equity or logic" for a permanent subvention fixed arbitrarily in real terms at present levels. They favour instead a subvention which is open to review when Northern Ireland is "ready for greater economic autonomy"

The possibility that the subvention would eventually be phased out under joint authority would alarm all but the most ideological of nationalists,north and south of the border. It would, of course, be anathema to unionists who see the subvention not as political charity but as a right of citizenship. Both unionists and nationalists would stand to forfeit a significant part of their current standard of living. Yet the IPPR view is the only realistic one. Why should nationalists - of all people - believe that perfidious Albion will sign up to be permanent funders of an Irish way of life? There is no such thing as subsidised self-determination. There may be some theoretical economic virtue in the threat of cutting off the subvention. It might induce the sense of crisis required to induce the radical reforms necessary to improve Northern Ireland’s productivity and competitiveness. However, the prospects of even greater unemployment and a severe cut in public services are hardly ones to attract electoral support for joint authority.

It is important to stress how important the subvention really is to Northern Ireland and why it can be regarded as secure only if Northern Ireland remains firmly within the UK. To stress this reality is not to suggest that the greater number in Northern Ireland ought never to choose at some future date to end the Union. It is only to clarify the material realities involved. We presented these arguments originally in Northern Limits and restate them here for convenience.

Living standards are 40% higher in Northern Ireland than in the Irish Republic which is one of the materially poorest countries of the European Union. These higher living standards in the North are not based on a local economy which is little more productive than the Republic’s. They simply reflect the financial support from the British Treasury which amounted to £3.3 billion in 1992-93. This support functions in order to equalise, as far as possible, the benefits of British citizenship. It now contributes half of the cost of public expenditure in Northern Ireland. It enables per capita public expenditure to be 66% higher than in the Republic while keeping taxes lower. In turn these lower taxes allow citizens in Northern Ireland to support levels of consumer spending over 33% higher than in the Republic. Public expenditure per capita is not only higher in Northern Ireland than in the Republic. It is also higher than in Great Britain. About one third of this higher spending is due to the greater costs of law and order but most of it reflects high levels of subsidy to agriculture, industry, housing, health and education. This higher expenditure is not based on any exceptional principle,but follows normal UK principles of funding public provision on the basis of need.

This subvention is funded from the UK exchequer by taxation and borrowing. Throughout the late 1980s the subvention was running at a level of about £2 billion per annum and financing 33% of Northern Ireland public expenditure. This was equivalent to an extra 1p in the pound on income tax throughout the United Kingdom. In the 1990s the subvention has increased by almost 50% as the recession has cut tax revenues while at the same time increasing expenditure on social security. Part of the Northern Ireland subvention is thus implicitly funded by exchequer borrowing and represents a share of the burgeoning UK public deficit.

There is no prospect of the Irish Republic taking on a significant part of financing the British subvention. As opinion polls have consistently shown the drop in living standards required in the Republic to promote unity would not gain majority support. The same difficulty would apply to joint authority. Theoretically, it might be possible for an Irish government to consider paying a part of public service costs in Northern Ireland in return for joint sovereignty. In practice it would be difficult to sell to the Republic’s electorate the proposition that the highly taxed and poorer population of the 26 counties should subsidise (whatever the burden) the lightly taxed and richer population in the 6 counties. On his 1994 St Patrick’s Day visit to the United States the Taoiseach Mr Reynolds blandly assured a caller on a TV programme that in the event of unity the British,or external subvention to Northern Ireland would have to continue undiminished for the foreseeable future.


Help from Europe?

The European Union and the United States are unlikely to undertake a part of the financial burden to achieve an objective of such dubious political and security merit as joint authority. The IPPR authors mislead when they argue that part of the costs of supporting Northern Ireland is already met by the EU. This is only theoretically the case. EU support at present amounts to only £0.1 billion per annum. But this covers expenditure already determined and supported by the UK exchequer. In reality,most EU funds go directly to the Treasury. Since the UK is already a net contributor to the EU budget, the EU cannot be regarded as providing a significant contribution to Northern Ireland’s finances. As the IPPR pamphlet correctly observes there is little prospect of the EU taking on the role of a financial partner to the enterprise of joint authority, especially as it turns its attention to the problems of Eastern Europe. Similarly, the SDLP rhetoric of Europeanism does not engage with the material reality of European possibilities. It is wishful thinking.

The most financially secure option for the citizens of Northern Ireland is to remain within the UK. This ensures that that subvention remains a relatively uncontroversial part of national public expenditure. Indeed, the size of the subvention is likely to fall in real terms in the 1990s as economic recovery boosts tax revenues.

Advocates of joint authority ,including the IPPR authors,point to financial gains which might offset the continuing costs of the subvention. Most of these,however,would result from to the cessation of violence. If peace were available only in association with joint authority,it would be appropriate to set gains from such things as a reinvigorated tourist industry against the subvention. However supporters of the Hume-Adams initiative and of the Downing Street Declaration,plus many unionists who support neither,would view peace as possible without major constitutional change,that is without joint authority.

If the paramilitaries on both sides respond to the offer of the Downing Street Declaration and abandon their terrorist campaigns then the government would save £0.6 billion on policing. It would also save an additional £0.3 billion on the costs of the army in Northern Ireland. It would also relieve a financial drain on the resources of the Republic. The onset of stable politics would aid the recovery of sectors like tourism and boost local economic well-being to the advantage of everyone.

This defence of the economic benefits of UK statehood does not rule out imaginative political changes in relationships. But it does point to very substantial limits to any realistic promotion of such changes. In particular, it raises profound doubts about the political as well as economic viability of joint authority.



Advocates of joint authority argue strongly that it is based on a recognition of the realities of division within Northern Ireland,and that it alone offers the chance of an administration with which both communities could identify. But there must also be the fear that it would heighten those essentially conflicting senses of identity which are now deemed a major part of the problem. In other words it could deepen division,not lessen it.

One of the declared objectives of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was to promote reconciliation within Northern Ireland. Its key feature was the institutionalising of the role of the Irish government as patrons or protectors of the nationalist minority in the North. Almost nine years on,reconciliation is arguably further away than ever,and ghettoisation,both physical and political, has not decreased and may be on the increase. Joint authority could confirm rather than reverse this trend, given its almost exclusive concern with competing identities and allegiances. This would inevitably shift the focus of political attention and endeavour away from the common problems of a single society; it would weaken the centre ground,where the ethic divide is not always,or nearly as visible as the analysis upon which joint authority is based would suggest. In its more rigid forms this analysis lends intellectual support and underpinning for an even more divisive and segregationist approach to life in Northern Ireland than we already have.

The danger of joint authority is that it widens divisions between those Catholics and Protestants who share an acceptance of Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom in order to placate nationalist and republican minorities for whom joint authority is not the real aim. Public attention is most often concentrated on the divisions within Northern Ireland,but the truth is that in many if not most instances there is little to divide Catholics from Protestants. Opinion polls constantly show that only a minority of northern Catholics prefer a full divorce from the UK. Around a third express a preference for constitutional forms within the UK. A majority of SDLP voters even told the last General Election Survey that they accepted the constitutional position within the UK.

The contented section of Catholic opinion,often living side by side with Protestant neighbours are sometimes dismissed as middle class,as though this was some unimportant minority. Such people however comprise a third of both communities,are steadily growing in number and in the long run provide most leadership of public opinion.

For the middle classes of both religions it makes little sense to devise constitutional arrangements which put pressure on individuals to identify with different states. The status quo works tolerably well for the majority of such people. Catholics in this category may feel culturally Irish,playing Gaelic sports,enjoying Irish music,learning the Irish tongue,giving their children Irish names. These are,however,activites fully compatible with UK citizenship; they also include activities in which numbers of Protestants can happily share. With constitutional uncertainty removed it seems likely that a significant number of Protestants would do so.



The pressure for Irish unification or for joint authority comes instead from the one half to two thirds of Catholics who identify politically with the Irish state as well as culturally with lrishness. This group comprises only a quarter of the Northern Ireland electorate,but contains within it an intransigent category of those commonly referred to as republicans for whom full unification is a strong preference. It is this group, a third of Catholics or 13% of the total electorate, for whom joint authority is chiefly designed, as a compromise between them and equally intransigent but much more numerous Protestant unionists.

That is one reason why we argue that the joint authority approach is addressing the wrong problem,and why in the broader context of Northern Ireland it could be more divisive than reconciliatory. It is ironical that it seems to embrace the two-nations theory which Irish nationalism so vigorously denounced when it first appeared more than 20 years ago. Indeed the extent to which the policy of the Irish Government is now based on this acceptance of the two-nations is remarkable. It is implied in the Anglo-Irish Agreement where Dublin’s role in the North is explicitly acknowledged to relate to one section of the community only - the nationalist one - and it appears regularly in such comments as that of Mr Reynolds in the Dail on March 3,1994,when he insisted on the right of a substantial number of people in Northern Ireland to be allowed to express their Irish identity. This is a long way from traditional nationalist insistence that all the inhabitants of the island are Irish.

It is a view seemingly shared by the British Government which,as in Sir Patrick Mayhew’s speech at Coleraine in 1993,sees culture,religion and national allegiance as clearly dividing the entire population into Irish or British. To proceed from that to urge parity of esteem,and to promote by government action both traditions sounds reminiscent of the apartheid policy of separate but equal development. To lump together cultural and religious views with political allegiance may serve as a rough guide to the divisions in Northern Ireland,but it is seriously flawed as an analysis upon which to base policy. Irishness in Northern Ireland has not yet become an explicitly and exclusively political label,nor should government policy seek to make it so.



In summary our reservations over joint authority stem from six main considerations:

  • It is impracticable. There is no modern precedent for it, and most schemes put forward for Northern Ireland look unworkably complex.
  • It is impermanant. Many proposals are either explicitly or implicitly put forward as transitional stages towards a greater degree of Irish unity.
  • It is unbalanced. Fundamental to the concept is the supposition that the British government has the same relationship with unionists as Dublin has with nationalists. This is not so.
  • It is undemocratic. It tends to isolate the governors from the governed, leaving the administration remote from and unrepresentative of the people of Northern Ireland.
  • It is almost impossible to finance on a permanent basis. All schemes assume that the very high costs involved would be paid by Britain or by external sources. No proposal suggests that British financial support would necessarily prove permanent.

Overall we have the general reservation that joint authority is a solution addressing a problem which is not, in fact,the problem in Northern Ireland. We do not accept that conflicting claims from London and Dublin are central to the issue, nor do we fully accept that a conflict of national identities within the province is the whole story. Assuming it is, as the advocates of joint authority seem to do, is more likely to promote deeper division than it is to help reconciliation.

Ironically, the ambiguity at the heart of British government policy in Northern Ireland both encourages and makes impossible the use of joint authority. The insistence that the unionist and nationalist traditions - the defence of the Union and the determination to break it - must be afforded equal esteem would seem to point clearly in the direction of joint-authority. On the other hand, the insistence that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without majority consent makes such a policy initiative impossible to achieve. The attempt to avoid facing up to that contradiction has ensured continued instability in Northern Ireland and has made a settlement more difficult to achieve..

The reality is that unionists are a majority in Northern Ireland and it is, in fact, unionist consent that is needed for any constitutional change. That is the only basis on which political discussion about the future of Northern Ireland should proceed. This is a reality which must be accepted by nationalists,including the Dublin government. This is not to give the unionists a veto - they already have one. Their majority strength in Northern Ireland gives it to them in practice,and the consent principle endorses it.

If the principle is fully accepted then the refusal of consent must also be fully accepted and become the basis of policy. There is no consent inside Northern Ireland to constitutional change, therefore it is perverse for anyone subscribing to the consent principle to put forward proposals which do require such change, without at the very least putting forward substantive arguments as to why such consent might be obtained.

Similarly it is unrealistic to expect that any settlement within the present constitutional framework can simply be imposed on a reluctant minority. Here again the task is one of persuasion, of persuading that one quarter of the population (or two thirds of the Catholic minority) who currently demand constitutional change, that their Irishness can be accommodated within the United Kingdom, and that the best hope of peace and stability on the island lies in pursuing such a settlement.

Recognition of the realities of these limitations would open up the potential for those constructive developments in relationships which all intelligent Irish people, north and south of the border, would like to see. And it would also help to dissolve the rigid mental borders between unionist and nationalist which continue to diminish us.


Wider Aspects

The purpose of this booklet has been to examine joint authority, not to offer alternative solutions. Yet our arguments against joint authority also question wider aspects of current thinking on Northern Ireland. For the last decade both Dublin and London, with the support of the SDLP, have sought a solution by means of associating the government of the Irish Republic in some way, with the exercise of authority inside Northern Ireland. Under the Anglo-Irish Agreement this was through the advisory role exercised within the institutional framework set up by the Agreement. This has not worked; it has not satisfied nationalist ambitions, and it has been categorically rejected by the unionist majority.

As the Cadogan Group suggested in Northern Limits, there is another way., based on accommodating Irishness within the United Kingdom. There is common ground to build on . There is an Irishness to which many non-nationalists in the North can subscribe. It is a broad cultural identity embracing the mixed heritage of the region, rooted in a sense of place, of shared geography and a shared history. It does not define "Irishness" in terms of distinctiveness from or antagonism to "Britishness". Nor does it feel any need to express such Irishness politically through association with the southern state and its own particular brand of "Irishness". And there is also a sense of "Britishness" defined not as narrow Protestant supremacy but as equality of citizenship and rights to which non-unionists can equally subscribe. This "Britishness" is a condition of relative material prosperity and increasing legal recognition of diversity.

An "agreed Ireland" could be built on these foundations. Full account, and full advantage, should be taken of the geographical and cultural context in which we find ourselves; namely, that we live in a province open to diverse cultural influences; and on the island of Ireland, an island which contains two states both of which are members of an evolving European Union.

A deep strand of anti-Britishness in Irish nationalism remains a stumbling block. This is a form of nationalism which sees the only acceptable goal as territorial unification and the elimination of any British presence on the island. It is a form of nationalism which has long had sharp critics within the Republic, and which is now being increasingly attacked by a wide range of writers, commentators and politicians. There are indications that the general public in the Republic is losing interest in it.

But it resurfaces at government level in relation to Northern policy, and it is still potent among Northern nationalists. It manifests itself when nationalists in the north oppose the establishment of something as straightforward and proper as the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland. This is essentially the same separatist nationalism that helped partition the island in 1921,and which still fails to come to terms with the fact that perhaps a quarter of the population of the island are indeed British. It is the mind-set which rushes to dismiss any proposals for enhanced north-south relations,or for all-Ireland institutions which do not involve changing the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as "sops" to nationalists, as another invitation to the Croppies to lie down. It is possibly the greatest single obstacle to progress in inter-party talks.

It is matched in part by the refusal of some elements of unionism to accept that exceptional arrangements for the internal government of Northern Ireland, such as power-sharing, are necessary. Although such arrangements embody some of the defects associated with a lack of normal party political government we would support them, particularly as a medium-term measure until non-sectarian party politics emerge as the norm.

In a situation in which the threat of constitutional change was removed measures could be adopted at all levels of society as a way of giving nationalists a new focus for their Irish identity - the focus being the island of Ireland rather than the political unit of the Republic. This is a focus which could be shared by a large majority in Northern Ireland, including many unionists and which might overcome the stumbling block of a deep-seated anti-Irishness in some parts of traditional unionism.

This would be a major change of direction. To build upon it would require more unionist flexibility,and a greater realism on the part of nationalists and of the Dublin government. Both sides, at times, seem to be moving in those directions, though each is easily distracted by ideas and proposals that offer it the advantage or seem particularly threatening.. Joint authority, for all its apparent attractions, is one such distraction.




Towards a New Ireland (1972) SDLP

This document called for an immediate declaration by the British government of its intention to promote Irish unity. Pending unity a joint sovereignty arrangement would be put in place reserving to the two governments control of foreign, defence and financial matters and policing.. Each government would be represented by an appointed commissioner. The two commissioners would approve the selection of a chief executive who would coordinate an executive of 15 members. This executive would be responsible to an elected Assembly. There would be no Northern Ireland representation at either Westminster or the Dail. There would be a new National Senate for Ireland composed of members of the Assembly and the Dail that would prepare the ground for Irish unity.


New Ireland Forum (1984)

One of the models proposed in the Forum Report recommended the establishment of an Executive Joint Authority of the British and Irish governments which would appoint a Joint Authority Commission to administer Northern Ireland. In one mode, the Joint Authority Commission would govern on the basis of joint direct rule with no need to consult a representative assembly in Northern Ireland. In another mode, the JAC would oversee a locally-elected Assembly to which it could devolve powers. There would be representation in both the Dail and Westminster as well as a British-Irish interparliamentary body (along the lines of the one which currently exists). Security would be under the control of the joint commissioners and the security forces would be commanded by personnel from the two states.


Kilbrandon Report (1984)

The majority report advised the setting up of an executive within Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom which would be comprised of 5 commissioners: the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (or deputy), the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs (or deputy), and three representatives elected by the voters of Northern Ireland. This executive would appoint ministers to run the day-to-day affairs of Northern Ireland. Executive and ministers would be scrutinised by an elected Assembly.


Options for a Labour Government (1991)

The recommendation of this document claims to be a synthesis of the Kilbrandon and Forum proposals. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would be defined as a joint territory of the Great Britain and Republic of Ireland governments. This would be specified in an international treaty. Governmental power would be vested in an Executive Joint Authority (EJA) of the two governments and the people of Northern Ireland. There would be 5 members. One Irish, one British and 3 from Northern Ireland. The EJA would appoint Northern Irish Ministers to run Northern Ireland. These Ministers would be chosen from a representative panel elected by a Northern Ireland Assembly. These Ministers would be responsible to the Assembly and could be dismissed by it or by the EJA. There would be a comprehensive Bill of Rights and a supreme court of 5 judges (selected on the same formula as the EJA) to ensure its enforcement. Legislation could be passed either by agreement of the EJA or by weighted votes of the Assembly and there would be provision for vetoes in disputed cases. Security policy would initially be the joint responsibility of the British and Irish nominees to the EJA. There would be joint army support for a newly established police force. There would be three judge courts in a modified legal system. There would be joint international representation of Northern Ireland and citizens in Northern Ireland could elect a (small) number of TDs in the Dail and MPs in Westminster. The Northern Ireland Office would be replaced by an EJA Secretariat, a more powerful version of the one already existing at Maryfield.


SDLP’S "European Model" 1992.

Presented to Strand One of the Mayhew inter-party talks, but not published, this paper was put forward as based on the principles and the institutions of the European Community. It proposed an Executive Commission made up of three nominees, one each from the governments in London and Dublin, and one from the European Commission in Brussels. The other three would be directly elected by the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive Commission would be the regional government. There would be an elected assembly based on the European Parliament: this would have advisory and scrutinising roles exercised through a committee system. There would also be a North-South Council of Ministers, though the precise nature of that Council’s role was not given in the 1992 paper.


Northern Ireland: Shared Authority (1993) Institute for Public Policy Research.

The IPPR booklet runs to 150 pages and presents highly detailed proposals argued at length, though its core is similar to earlier plans. Under it Northern Ireland would be declared formally to be part of the national territory of both Britain and Ireland, and would have two heads of State, the British Monarch and the Irish President. There would be a Shared Authority Council of Northern Ireland consisting of 5 members: 3 locally elected and 1 member from the British and Irish cabinets respectively. There would be an Assembly of the Peoples of Northern Ireland which would scrutinise legislative proposals from the SAC and the policy implementation of the ministers appointed by the it. A reconstituted Supreme Court would responsible for ruling on a domestically-incorporated European Convention on Human rights, and would be the ultimate arbiter in disputes arising from a convoluted legislative procedure. The cost of the running of the province would be shared by London and Dublin in proportion to the size of their two economies -at present that would mean the UK paying 94%. The status of Northern Ireland could only be changed with the support of 75% of the electorate. However, consent of the people is not deemed to be necessary to establish shared authority in the first place