Northern Ireland, Federalism and the Constitutional Convention: before, during and after Covid-19

Any discussion on UK federalism should acknowledge that Northern Ireland has an exceptional context. This is informed, in the first place, because between 1921 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland was a failed statelet. Under “Home Rule” from 1921 to 1972 the government there had the wide powers that are associated with federalism. The misuse of these powers resulted in human rights abuses, the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, widespread discrimination against Catholics in both the public and private sector and a Catholic community for the most part permanently alienated from the state. The various attempts at direct rule between 1972 and the Good Friday Agreement did little to change this, with the growing perception among the Catholic community that UK governments were part of the problem, rather than providing any solutions. The Unionist and mainly Protestant population were no more satisfied, repeatedly claiming that the UK was selling them out and choosing leaders which were always more right-wing than the one before.

The Good Friday Agreement and subsequent parts of the peace process offered a new beginning. This was based on power-sharing, a promise of equal opportunity, the end of political and cultural supremacy for the Unionist community and human rights legislation. There was also the promise of closer economic cooperation between the two parts of Ireland and the establishment of bodies such as the North-South Ministerial Council, the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association and the North/South Forum which, it was hoped, would bring the two parts of Ireland together.

The threat that Brexit posed and still poses to this vision has been well documented, with new borders between the two parts of Ireland or indeed between Northern Ireland and the UK, which would leave the North in a kind of limbo. That the majority of the Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and that the newly restored devolved Assembly has recently done likewise to the Johnson proposals, reflects the growing differentiation between the Northern Irish and GB. The increase in support for anti-Unionist or non-Unionist parties – now at over 50% – is also part of this trend. During the Covid-19 crisis the Northern Ireland Executive have often formed their own policies and worked in tandem with the Irish Government as much as they have with the UK one.

All this underlines that any discussion on federalism in the UK should accept that Northern Ireland is different and cannot be part of a common template. There should be a realisation that Northern Ireland and its population is growing away from the UK and that both polling and demographic evidence suggests that sooner or later there will be border poll that moves Ireland as a whole into a sovereign state. British Labour should not fear or work against this: the achievement of the people of Ireland ruling themselves fits into Labour’s traditional support for self-determination for its former colonies. Nor is support for this against the Good Friday Agreement. It seems likely that any new Ireland that emerges from current trends will adhere to the same structures established by the Peace Process and that the ending of British authority in Northern Ireland will be under Good Friday terms.

What then should Labour be doing? First, we should support full implementation of the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements, especially on human rights legislation, cultural parity (including for the Irish language) and the full and regular functioning of North/South bodies. This includes the North/South Forum, which was never established.

Second, we should reject any political framework in the UK which bases its policy on strengthening the British/ Northern Irish “Union”. That would not reflect the direction of opinion on the island of Ireland (and indeed, according to opinion polls in GB). It would also be a reflection of the traditional British policy in Ireland which is based on the priority of putting England’s interests first – the philosophy most recently articulated both by May and Johnson and their vows of “no surrender” to any loss of what remains of their Irish territory.

Third, rather than looking at the North of Ireland through a British federalist prism, we should acknowledge and welcome the growing debate across Ireland – and indeed in parts of Britain – concerning what a new 32-county Ireland would look like, and seek to be part of this conversation. This would mean not seeking ways to strengthen Northern Ireland’s links with the UK, but rather asking how we can help to assist the realisation of an emerging vision of a new Ireland, at peace with itself.