Belfast Telegraph

Don Anderson: Is Federalism the political idea whose time has finally come?

Westminster will never again countenance a 'Protestant parliament for a Protestant people' sitting in Belfast. But might Dublin, asks Don Anderson

Sir Edward Carson making a speech
Sir Edward Carson making a speech
Conor Cruise O’Brien
John Hume
PM Boris Johnson

By Don Anderson

So, Boris Johnson has made his big move on the political chessboard, making a hard Brexit more probability than possibility. Johnson's opponents have reacted with predictable fury to the announced suspension of Parliament and the curtailment of time to thwart a no-deal departure from the EU. This all could affect Northern Ireland profoundly.

It is a political threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom like no other. We need look no further than the noises coming out of Scotland.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is enraged and says the PM is "acting like a tin-pot dictator". By vivid contrast, the DUP have welcomed the move, but most other political parties in Northern Ireland have voiced critical judgments more in line with those of the SNP leader.

The prospect of a break-up of the United Kingdom looms larger if the calls now for a new referendum on independence in Scotland become insistent. Inevitably, that will impact on the prospects for a border poll in Northern Ireland.

English nationalism is elevating both Scottish and Irish nationalism among those who hitherto never thought seriously of breaking away.

In the 1990s I was sitting on a bench in Donegal on a beautiful summer evening overlooking a glistening Atlantic, passing time with John Hume. Hume is arguably one of the most important political figures of recent times.

A founder member of the SDLP, he was its leader from 1979 until 2001; that is, for most of the Troubles. He was one of the main architects of the peace process and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in respect of his efforts.

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We were talking about the Troubles - what else? - when he turned to me and said: "You know, if unionists ever tasted sovereignty, they would never look back again."

I thought at the time, as so many in this community still do: "That may one day be true, but not in my lifetime."

Well, now I think differently. The pro-Brexit vote by the UK, running counter to the vote in Northern Ireland and Scotland, has shaken the image of the UK lasting forever and a day.

Scottish separatism doesn't feature for the moment in EU thinking, but the delicate situation in Northern Ireland emphatically does.

To illustrate: the French leader, Emmanuel Macron, told Boris Johnson publicly on the steps of the Elysee Palace some days ago: "There are still families whose children, brothers and sisters died in this conflict. To think of reviving that, because it suits us, would be irresponsible. I consider that Irish peace is European peace. We must not allow it to be threatened by a political and institutional crisis in Britain."

It was a very blunt warning, but it is likely to be ignored by a hard Brexit Prime Minster, who must be aware that recent polling among his supporters uncovered that the break-up of the UK would be a price worth paying for leaving the EU.

Macron went on to declare that Irish reunification and integration of the entire island in the EU "would solve all the problems".

There may be many in Britain - and, crucially, in the Westminster village - among all main parties, not just in the hard-Right of the Conservative Party, who quietly agree with Macron.

Combine that with a Democrat Congress in Washington (which must ratify any post-Brexit trade deal) whose thinking seems to lie along a parallel track and you begin to see dark clouds on the horizon for Ulster unionism.

It is becoming a political impediment in the minds of powerful blocks in Great Britain, the European Union and North America. A most uncomfortable perch for unionism.

For the moment the linkage between the Conservative Party and the DUP will shore up the unionist position, but that coherence is fragile and may not survive a general election, which looks ever more likely.

In a column in this paper by Malachi O'Doherty ('Nationalists and unionists have more in common now than they ever have before', August 27), he correctly raises the issue as to whether the Republic is ready to absorb a partly hostile Northern Ireland if the Union with Britain was lost in a border poll.

He argued - and many would passionately concur - that the only way for each community to get what it wants is to integrate, or to rise above animosity.

But how? A trip into thoroughly republican and deeply loyalist areas with their flags and murals is enough to convince beyond doubt that profound mutual suspicion is ingrained. A silent Stormont chamber is hardly needed to drive that point home. So, is there any new thinking?

Maybe so. Another political thinker who has, to some degree, been lost in the wilderness is Conor Cruise O'Brien, who died in 2008.

He was an Irish maverick, a talented intellectual, who was variously an Irish civil servant, an historian, an academic, a Labour member of the Irish Cabinet, columnist for the Irish Independent newspaper, editor-in-chief of The Observer newspaper and, believe it or not, ultimately a unionist - a full member of the United Kingdom Unionist Party, led by Robert McCartney. O'Brien was always a bitter opponent of militant republicanism.

Ever the free thinker, the "Cruiser", as he was known, split with unionism when, in the late 1990s, he advocated a federal Ireland; in effect, Stormont within a united Ireland.

He postulated that the interests of unionism were ultimately more threatened by being a very small minority in an uninterested UK than by being a significant player, even kingmakers, in a united Ireland ruled often by coalitions.

In my history of the UWC loyalist general strike of 1974 I concluded that unionism might, in the end, have to choose between protecting a Protestant way of life, however defined, and Union with a Britain which might be antagonistic, or at best indifferent, to unionist ideology.

The people in Ireland, who once created for themselves a Catholic parliament for a Catholic people, are much more capable of understanding the demand for a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.

That will never, ever again be granted by Westminster. But by Dublin? Worth a thought.

Don Anderson is a writer and broadcaster. He is the author of 14 May Days: The Inside Story Of The Loyalist Strike Of 1974 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1994)

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