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book review

Irish author Brendan O’Leary.Alex Schein/Penguin Random House UK

  • Title: Making Sense of a United Ireland: Should it happen? How might it happen?
  • Author: Brendan O’Leary
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
  • Pages: 384

The motivation behind this book by one of Ireland’s most distinguished intellectuals is his belief that Irish reunification is probable during the next decade or so. A referendum on Irish unity – or rather two referendums, one in Northern Ireland, the other in the Republic of Ireland – is provided for under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, as soon as it appears there is sufficient support. O’Leary believes that the dual referendums will be held within this decade and that all interested parties should start preparing now.

The likelihood of Irish unity will come as a surprise to many Canadians. It was virtually unthinkable in Ireland itself not so long ago. Two things explain the change. First, Protestants and unionists in Northern Ireland have lost their status as demographic or political majorities. Catholics and nationalists are not yet majorities, but the pivotal voters in a future referendum will be drawn from a middle group outside the traditional unionist and nationalist blocs. Second, that pivotal middle group is shifting toward support for Irish unity because of Brexit, the dramatic and increasing prosperity of the Republic of Ireland and the latter’s embrace of secularism and liberalism over Catholic conservatism.

O’Leary understands that the reunification of Ireland will be extremely contentious. It will be opposed by most unionists, while loyalists (hardline unionists) may resist it violently. He argues that violent opposition to a democratic vote for unity will have to be confronted by Ireland’s security services and that the U.K. should be prepared to help. But he also argues throughout the book that Irish nationalists should accommodate unionists in a united Ireland because that is the right thing to do – and because it may reduce opposition.

One way to accommodate unionists, O’Leary argues, is for nationalists to offer to retain an autonomous Northern Ireland within a united Ireland, complete with the power-sharing institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement. In this scenario, described by O’Leary as “Model 1,” a yes vote in the referendums would entail a simple switch of sovereignty from the government in London to the government in Dublin.

The catch here is that Irish unity will require a yes vote in the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland, and the republic’s voters and northern nationalists do not like Model 1. Nationalists throughout Ireland consider Northern Ireland a “failed entity” and prefer a unitary Ireland in which the north would be governed from Dublin in exactly the same way as Cork or Galway. This scenario is O’Leary’s “Model 2.”

If Model 2 is adopted (it is explained persuasively why other models, such as a federal Ireland of four provinces or 32 counties, are unlikely), O’Leary points out that there are still ways to accommodate unionists, although he prefers Model 1. In either Model 1 or 2, unionists could be offered guaranteed power-sharing provisions in Dublin. As one-sixth to one-seventh of Ireland’s population, O’Leary explains, they would enjoy more clout in a united Ireland’s government than they ever did or could in the United Kingdom’s.

It will also be important, he argues, that the symbols, anthem and flag of a united Ireland be changed so they are either binational or neutral. This will likely include changing the Irish tricolour flag, originally designed in the 19th century to symbolize peace between the “green” and the “orange,” because unionists do not relate to it. Nor do they relate to Ireland’s anthem, which, among other things, calls for Ireland’s soldiers to confront the “Saxon foe.”

Another gesture to unionists that O’Leary calls for is to have a united Ireland rejoin the Commonwealth, to provide a “British dimension” to Irish unification. This is another step that will cause Irish nationalists to choke on their proverbial cornflakes, but his arguments seem sound to me. He points out that the Commonwealth is no longer formally the “British Commonwealth,” that it has far more republics than monarchies and, interestingly, that there is no formal requirement that the British monarch after Charles III will be its “head.” Of course, the Commonwealth also has no legislative, executive or judicial authority over any of its members.

One concession O’Leary is not prepared to make to unionist opinion is the demand that Irish unity should require more than a simple majority (50 per cent plus one) in Northern Ireland, or even that it should require a majority of both nationalists and unionists. This issue should be of interest to Canadians, as the unionist position against a simple majority is in line with our constitutional law, which requires a clear majority for any province to secede.

O’Leary gives several reasons for sticking with the simple majority rule. First, it treats all voters equally, whereas insisting on a clear majority privileges those who vote no. Second, this is the rule that was agreed to by unionists and nationalists in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and the British and Irish governments have promised to uphold this agreement “in all its parts.” Third, the idea that a simple majority in Northern Ireland needs to consent to Irish unity is already a concession from Irish nationalists. Before the Good Friday Agreement, nationalists argued that because Ireland had been partitioned against the wishes of the majority in Ireland in 1921, it would be wrong to give Northern Ireland a veto over reunification. Insisting on a supermajority in Northern Ireland now, nationalists argue, would be akin to giving a veto to a minority of a minority (i.e., a minority in Northern Ireland). Fourth, the simple majority rule is the democratic norm in referendums across the world. Brexit, for example, was delivered by a slim majority of the U.K. electorate, 52 per cent.

O’Leary’s book is an intellectual tour de force, the pick of a number of books on this subject in 2022. It goes far beyond the points raised here. It lays out the economic arguments for unity, showing not just that the republic can “afford” Northern Ireland, but that both can derive economic advantages. It comes complete with a rigorous examination of lessons from other attempts to reunify partitioned countries, including a success story (Germany) and a failure (Cyprus). The author cautions against early referendums, as sometimes called for by Sinn Féin, on the grounds that preparation is needed. He cautions against unclear referendum questions, something else Canadians should be familiar with. Here, O’Leary has in mind the Brexit referendum, where the yes side managed to convince the electorate that a vote for Brexit could mean remaining in the European customs union or single market, neither of which turned out to be true.

O’Leary is aware that whatever type of united Ireland is on offer in the referendums is not up to him. But he thinks it should not be solely up to politicians either, and calls for the engagement of citizen assemblies throughout Ireland to debate the best way forward. Whatever side of this question people are on, they owe Professor O’Leary a tremendous debt for raising tough questions and proposing many sensible answers.

John McGarry is a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Disclosure: McGarry and O’Leary have written several books together, though none in the past decade.