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The Good Friday Agreement and a united Ireland

Rory Montgomery on the Good Friday Agreement as a central point of reference in the debate about a possible united Ireland.

In the debate about a possible united Ireland the Good Friday Agreement is a central point of reference.

It recognised the right of the Irish people to self-determination, but also that this right to bring about a united Ireland could be exercised only on the basis of consent of majorities north and south. As inheritors of the republican doctrine that the 1918 general election remained the sole legitimate act of national self-determination, Sinn Féin never clearly endorsed the new approach, but did not make it a deal-breaker.

Nor did the Ulster Unionist Party contest the existence of a ‘people of Ireland as a whole’ with the right to self-determination. Instead they stressed the achievement of changes to the Irish Constitution and the copper-fastening of the principle of consent—which is arguably no more robust than in the Sunningdale or Anglo-Irish Agreements. However, the Good Friday Agreement went further and accepted that Northern Ireland was now, on the basis of the consent principle as currently applied, legitimately a part of the UK. This did not require any adjudication on the original legitimacy of partition.

The Agreement contained the draft wording of the Irish Constitution’s new Articles 2 and 3, which defined Irish unity in terms of a peaceful and agreed coming together of its people. On the British side, a new Northern Ireland Act implemented a commitment to require a poll to be held on a united Ireland if it appeared likely to win a majority.

These constitutional elements were mostly based on earlier agreements between the governments, notably the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and the Framework Documents of 1995. There was some hasty drafting to tie up some, but not all, loose ends. There was very little probing or discussion of the texts.

The final week of negotiations did not involve an orderly process of textual consolidation. The closer to an endpoint they came, and the higher the level at which they were conducted, the thicker the fog of war. Several other more urgent and concrete issues absorbed the attention of the negotiators.

In any event, it was, correctly, assumed that a vote on a united Ireland was a distant prospect.

Therefore it is not surprising that, other than on the trigger for a Northern Ireland poll, the Agreement is silent about many more issues than it covers. In most instances, this makes sense. It would have been presumptuous and pointless to try to settle matters which it was clear would not need to be addressed for many years.

A far from exhaustive list includes how the Secretary of State would make a determination of a likely majority for unity; what kind of process of negotiation on creating a united Ireland would follow; and how a final package would be politically agreed and then ratified.

There are, however, two points where greater clarity would have been desirable.

Neither in British legislation nor anywhere else was a role given to the Irish Government in the decision to hold a referendum. A Northern vote for a united Ireland would have seismic consequences for the south. The Irish government would be a central player in the subsequent process. Irrespective of the legal situation, politically the decision would have to be one for the two governments together. It would have been very desirable had this been spelled out.

The other major lacuna relates to southern consent to unity. There is no explicit reference to a referendum in the south; however, it is surely politically impossible that one would not be held, and changes to the Constitution would anyway require a referendum in due course. The Agreement does not say when the ‘concurrent’ consent of a majority in the south would need to be obtained. It was approved in simultaneous referendums north and south. However, some see room for flexibility. Others have suggested that an eventual referendum on constitutional change would suffice.

The fundamental issue is how to maximise the chances of a stable and peaceful united Ireland, one which the largest possible number felt to be their ‘shared home’. In the shorter term, what would best achieve unionist engagement before and after a referendum?

The Good Friday Agreement opened the way to a new era. It set out the fundamental principles of how a united Ireland could be achieved, but other than in establishing the legal framework for a Northern Ireland referendum it left major practical questions for another day. This was mostly inevitable and appropriate. However, it would have been very helpful had it better joined up the northern and southern halves of the equation. This is not to take away from the magnitude of the Agreement. But it is far from being a complete guide to future decisions.

Read the full article, ‘The Good Friday Agreement and a United Ireland ‘, as it appears in our journal Irish Studies in International Affairs.