How do you solve a problem like Stormont?
I’m not referring to the current impasse that has mothballed Parliament Buildings since last February. That will resolve itself when the British government cuts a deal with the EU over the Protocol and bounces the DUP back into the executive in coming weeks.
No, I am talking about the longer-term, more permanent arrangement. What do we do with Stormont and the current Good Friday Agreement institutions, in a united Ireland?
The issue has come to a head in the past few days courtesy of an opinion poll commissioned by the Arins project (Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South) at the Royal Irish Academy and published in the Irish Times.
The latest instalment, published over this last weekend, (and, fair play to them, they have wrung every last bit of coverage out of a single poll – albeit, one that is no more accurate or valid than any other on the subject) tested voter appetite for two models for a post-referendum Irish state.
The first, an ‘integrated’ option – which would mean Northern Ireland ‘did not exist as a political unit, and decisions would be made by an all-island parliament and government in Dublin.’
The second, a ‘devolved’ model, would see Northern Ireland ‘continue to exist as a political unit,’ but as a devolved region within new 32-county Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement institutions – the assembly and executive – would be retained, along with power over policy areas ‘such as health, education and policing.’
The responses were a mixed bag – underlining how confusing some of this detail can be – however, broadly, Catholic respondents in either the north or south preferred an integrated approach, which 70% of northern Protestants rejected. Instead, 37% of them supported the devolved option.
There was greater unanimity when voters were asked whether the type of united Ireland should be ironed out ‘before or after’ a border poll takes place. 72% of Catholics and 71% of Protestants in the north chose ‘before,’ as did a majority of southern voters, as well as those who do not define as either Catholic or Protestant.
Now, I have a problem with this line of inquiry. There is no provision in the Good Friday Agreement for a ‘devolved’ Ireland. Less still Northern Ireland ‘continu[ing] to exist.’ The text of the agreement is quite clear. Throughout, there is only ever reference to a ‘united Ireland.’
It is not caveated to include inheriting and maintaining key parts of Northern Ireland. My own humble view is that, in politics, you either make rational decisions or symbolic ones – and you try to keep a clear ratio in favour of the former. It is quite clear that there is no evidential basis – none whatsoever – for keeping a second parliament on an island with just seven million people.
It’s a loopy suggestion – an entire layer of un-needed government – but I guess the idea of a ‘devolved’ model presupposes that it is important for Unionist voters to have familiar institutions to help acclimatise them to change, regardless of whether they have any utility or affect the smooth running of this new state. Yet for those willing to vote for constitutional change it is surely perverse to retain flawed institutions that have provided the fillip for a unity vote in the first place?
So, why hobble the public debate by polling a devolved, ‘let’s keep Stormont’ model? Rather than helping Unionists over the line in accepting constitutional change they were disappointed about, might it become an excuse by some never to cross it?
The Unionist commentator, Alex Kane, once made the perceptive point that there is an inherent inequality to the Good Friday Agreement. There is a mechanism for changing the constitutional firmament towards Irish unity, but no equivalent measure to allow a vote to come back into the UK.
He is right. A border poll backing Irish unity – on whatever margin – is a full and final settlement. There is no reverse gear, second tilt or best of three. To pretend otherwise, to hold out false hope that it is reversable, or to somehow minimise the finality of the situation by retaining Northern Ireland’s institutions, is a dangerous delusion.
Rather than lumbering this new 32-county Ireland with Stormont, would it not be better to explore what a more effective devolution offer might look like?
This is where the conversation suddenly becomes interesting. Ireland suffers the same malady as Britain: too much power and, therefore, opportunity, horded at the centre. A self-regarding capital. A national economy trying to fly on one engine. Dublin, like London, is over-mighty and impeding the growth and potential of the entire country.
In part, the response should be to incorporate the British model. Not to say this is delivering the goods, per se, but the direction of travel is worth emulating. The creation of a series of ‘metro mayors’ across many of the England’s major conurbations in recent years is providing new political agency to places like Birmingham, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.
And while government promises of ‘levelling-up’ in terms or reallocating public money is slow and uneven, there is no reason Ireland cannot improve on the model. A new university for Derry? Train connections for Donegal? A metro mayor for Belfast – or even Antrim? And the same for Cork and Galway while we are at it.
As management consultants say, form should follow function. Give Ireland’s great cities and provincial centres real political power and the levers to generate economic growth.
This is what Unionists can aspire to in a new Ireland: Meaningful local control and greater prosperity. Let’s forget about symbolism for once and provide a real, hard-headed offer. Forget about Stormont and instead look at what is needed to make this new Ireland work – and work well.
Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it will Come About’