The first report in the history of State to outline a road map for reunification throws up a number of ideas.
THE PROSPECT OF a united Ireland was given front page prominence in the Financial Times this week.
The story said that the EU’s guidelines for Brexit will include a provision that would allow Northern Ireland automatically rejoin the EU should reunification with the Republic ever happen – a strategy that has now been backed the EU 27 leaders.
Up until the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016, the concept of a united Ireland seemed a distant aspiration for many. However, since the vote, issues relating to the North, its border and the possibility of reunification have become mainstream discussions.
Rewind twenty years ago, and that certainly would not have been the case. But over the last year, a number of public figures have spoken about, not just the possibility, but the concrete steps that need to be taken to achieve a united Ireland.
In July 2016, Enda Kenny said “the EU needs to prepare for a united Ireland”, while Leo Varadkar (perhaps the next Taoiseach) said he believes he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime.
Both Sinn Fein and Fianna Fáil have produced documents on uniting the North and South, while a Claire Byrne Live/Amárach Research poll found that nearly half of Irish people think it is time for a united Ireland.
The road map to reunification
Next week, a new report which outlines in detail what Ireland needs to do to achieve a peaceful reunification of the island of Ireland will be discussed by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
The detailed report, ‘Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland and Its People in Peace and Prosperity’ runs to over 1,200 pages and contains submissions and writings from key figures who have been involved in conflict resolution across the globe.
It details what needs to be done both before and after a united Ireland becomes a reality.
It may be hypothetical, but it paints a clear, evidence-based picture of what a united Ireland could look like and the issues that will need to be addressed.
For reunification to take place, there would first have to be a vote.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) provides for the people of the island of Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination by agreement between the people of North and South.
If such a vote passed, the process of Irish unification would begin.
Then what? Well, that’s the big question.
The new Oireachtas report – which is the first in the history of State to outline a road map for reunification – includes 18 recommendations. Here are some of the key ideas.
Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson leaving a session of the New Ireland Forum in 1984.
Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
It recommends the establishment of a ‘New Ireland Forum Two’ to set a pathway to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland.
The first New Ireland Forum took place in 1984 to discuss the lasting peace and stability of Ireland through the democratic process.
It listed three possible structures for the future of Ireland: a unitary state, a federal/confederal state, and a joint British/Irish authority.
It’s aimed the new forum could begin in the same way as the original New Ireland Forum, whereby the new group would be the mechanism used to plan for a peaceful reunification.
Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland
A task-force to counter breakout of terrorism
Talk of reunification will not be welcomed by everyone and the report acknowledges that.
Michael Ortiz, who worked as a senior policy advisor on counter terrorism in President Obama’s administration, said to counter any breakout of terrorism an international task force with experts in counter terrorism should be established to devise and implement a plan ahead of any reunification.
The national-level task force would have national and local officials, law enforcement, civil society and other local leaders to examine potential threats, better understand the drivers of violent extremism and evaluate current resources.
“This would help everyone have a baseline understanding of what the challenge is and what needs to be done,” said Ortiz, adding:
Unfortunately, there is not an easy fix to violent extremism… If Ireland is able to launch a transparent, open and inclusive process with strong communications mechanisms, sufficient programmatic resources and creative proposals for strengthening community resilience, I believe this will go a long way in working to prevent terrorism before it starts.
How much will it cost?
The report says the Irish government needs to establish how much reunification will cost.
It calls for research to be carried out into the actual income and expenditure for Northern Ireland.
Dr Kurt Hubner of the University of British Columbia, who came before the Joint Committee, constructed economic models of scenarios of Irish unification, one of which showed a benefit of €36.5 billion in the first 8 years of unification.
Sinn Féin has also argued it would be beneficial to Ireland and has published a report to dispel what it calls the “unaffordability myth” that it might cost £24.1 billion – the figure some commentators claim is spent by Britain on the North.
It also states a report should be commissioned by the government on the impact of unification.
Legal and constitutional issues
Folding in 1.8 million people will have its problems.
The new report states the government needs to carry out an audit in relation to the legal and constitutional changes that would be needed both pre and post-unification.
What issues might it through up? Well, there is the question of citizenship and the significant problem surrounding the question of national identity which is at the core of the clash between the two versions of the constitutional future for Northern Ireland, according to High Court Justice Richard Humphreys whose work in ‘Countdown to Unity’ is relied on heavily in this report.
He highlights other constitutional issues that would have to be dealt with including, allowing for a devolved executive to continue to exist in Belfast, the question of voting rights in presidential elections or referenda which is confined constitutionally to citizens – so, the extending of voting rights to British citizens would need to be addressed.
Again, similar considerations would have to be given to extending the entitlement of non-citizens to run for the office of President or to be a member of Dáil Eireann.
“As with the reunification of Germany, it is clear that any change to the extent of the national boundary of Ireland will require changes in European Union law across a range of issues… it is likely that the technical exercise of adjusting European Union law to accommodate Irish reunification will be an extensive one and may take a considerable period of time,” said Humphreys.
What happens after the reunification of Ireland?
The potential financial problems
Once reunification takes place, there are financial implications.
Northern Ireland’s fiscal deficit would need to be paid for – and the report finds that the Irish government should not have to pay it.
Northern Ireland’s net fiscal deficit in 2013-14 was £9.3 billion (€12 billion).
The Oireachtas report states that the current full Northern Ireland deficit should continue to be paid by HM Treasury for a period of 30 years after a vote for unification.
This could be a hard one to sell to the British.
International Court of Justice
Planning is key for it to work, but issues are sure to emerge. In order to deal with these, the report recommends that Northern Ireland is included in the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to resolve disputes arising from the Good Friday Agreement.
Whatever way you look at it – reunification of Ireland will not be easy. Similar to Brexit, Ireland’s reunification would be uncharted waters.
To close the report, an extract from TK Whittaker, who perhaps captured the complexities of the issue best in November 1968 in a note on North South Border Policy, said:
“We were, therefore, left with only one choice, a policy of seeking unity in Ireland between Irishmen. Of its nature this is a long-term policy, requiring patience, understanding and forbearance and resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism. It is not the less patriotic for that.