Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dual Sovereignty over the North - How it might look

Below is a piece we received from Sean Swan. It arose out of a discussion around the passing of Thomas MacGiolla .

Sean raised the issue of the failure of republicanism to deal with, what he sees as the realities of Unionist Identity. He proposed some form of dual sovereignty for the North. He was asked to put some meat on his idea of how such a system would operate in the North and as a result he sent in the piece below as a comment.

However, I felt it would be interesting to post this in its own right and allow people to discuss it.

His ideas are below.


The heart of it (dual sovereignty) would have to be an NI parliament which is internally sovereign over NI, which can set the tax rate, make laws etc. BUT this parliament would exist as only a devolved, not a federal, parliament – its existence, sovereignty and powers would only be devolved from Dublin and London. Its acts would have to be signed into law by both Dublin and London to have legal effect. In the vast majority of cases that would be a mere technicality, but it would be an important reserved power in cases of any potential discrimination. All taxation raised in NI would stay in NI plus it would continue to receive a subvention from Dublin and London in proportion to the GDP of both states. As to foreign policy, it wouldn’t have one. NI would absolutely not be a sovereign state for any external purposes. That would be the province of the national governments. It would make sense to maintain NI as a demilitarized zone in relation to either the British or Irish army except in the case of invasion by a foreign power (not a likely event for the foreseeable future). ‘Designation’ would be dropped, but the D’Hondt formula for allocating seats in the executive would stay. NI would become part of the Republic while remaining part of the UK, but the relevant tax rate, currency, laws, etc would be decided by the NI parliament. NI would continue to send MPs to London but would also return TDs to Dublin – though in both cases a good argument could be made for reduced representation for NI TDs and MPs compared to what exist for southern constituencies in the Dail or English constituencies in the House of Commons.

Ending ‘designation’ and granting the NI parliament the right to raise taxes, make all laws pertaining to NI, etc, would make the emergence of left/right politics more likely. Here’s the bit nationalist won’t like – no future referendums on the constitutional status of NI. That’s the only way unionists would agree to joint sovereignty which they currently see as simply a staging post on the way to a united Ireland. That does not mean there could never be a united Ireland. That could still evolve out of the situation. Britain’s actual sovereignty over NI could fade over time if it was never exercised, whatever the technical status. This is what happened in Canada where the British North America Act remained on the statute, but despite this actual British control over Canada faded to nothing. Of course this lacks the appeal of an ‘instant karma’ situation where tomorrow the British government says they are kicking NI out of the UK (which is what ‘Brits out’ would amount to) or a referendum in which there’s a 50.1% vote in favour of a united Ireland. But the trouble with the ‘instant karma’ situation – apart from anything else – is how the unionists might react to this ‘doomsday’ scenario. How does UDI or repartition, a rerun of 1912 (remember that unionists were happy to let 3 counties go when it became clear that they couldn’t run a 9 county Ulster) sound? Like a nightmare. Nora will argue that a smaller ‘rump’ NI would not be economically feasible. I think that’s possibly wishful thinking. Firstly NI is not economically feasible now – though it goes on existing. Secondly there’s no minimum size for economic feasibility (particularly in the context of the EU) and it’s a mistake to imagine that economics trumps everything. North Korea is, compared to South Korea, an economic disaster – but there’s still no united Korea. The Republic was an economic disaster in the 1950s, but it didn’t lead it back to the UK.

Sean Swan


  1. would dublin and london have the right to refuse to sign acts into law, what happens if one refuses and the other dosen't if they do have the obligation how can sovernty fade?

    fair play to you though for putting your thinking cap on but i find it hard to accepect that the natural conclusion of SF engageing in a meaningful way with unionists is droping the demand for a united ireland. there are different possibilities the how, i think SF have moved past the idea of a nation with a homogonous outlook to a nation of different parts making up the one but putting nuts and bolts on that how would a united ireland gaurntee miniority rights cultural expression etc. there are also other parties on the island that support the concept of a united ireland the larger parties in the south but use the principle of concent as if its a weeding band and just wait for unionists to 'change there mind' as opposed to do some chaseing ... pardon the bad sexist analogy but do you know what i mean, its not just about SF. the other republican groups as well, i respect there right to disagree with the GFA but there thinking seems to be to out provo the provos rather than recogniseing the huge possibilities of trying to build support out side traditional areas, its not all down to SF.

    on weiter the north would be repartitioned or what if. 30 years shows no one has a monopoly on violence. it could happen but you can't let what ifs rule your life. if someone puts a gun to your head unless your prepared to let them pull the trigger then they own you. i think thats the real politic that runs through politics in the north now and the consequence is we have people attempting to sort through disagreements with negotiations.


  2. This strikes me as very much the present scenario with a few extra add ons. Saying that dont think I am against the present scenario. I think this transitional phase is of deep importance if there is to be a UI. Being cheeky i'd call this a process of normalisation for unionists - the biggest border is the one in peoples' heads. The current dispensation (not solution) tackles that.
    I think what you are suggesting is the next step for the current phase. A deepening of the position of the north into southern society, economy etc.
    But the proposal is not a sustainable reform. Its a transitory step, a process of acclimatisation for unionists if i could put it that way (and i recognise thats not the best way of putting it).

    I think the whole process we are now in (and it is a process) is about stopping unionists thinking about the doomsday option. Has that worked? Well considering they are being governed by a Republican first minister then yeah its getting there.

    There will be no rump or repartioned north of ireland. It would not be able to support itself and would trigger conflict. And it wont be economically feasible nor sustainable in the long run.

    Would the 3 counties be in the same position as the 6. slowly over time the areas bordering the south would end up being chipped off. Its not a sustainable solution and therefore will not happen at this stage of play. And of course Nora is right. Its not economically feasible and that will preclude it. North Korea is a bit different considering the poor old north koreans are starved, oppressed and brutalised by an insane regime. It the 3 counties of the north go that way then again how will it last.

    I am glad you posted this. Its an interesting look forward but to my mind it represents the work in progress we now have.

  3. I've always considered myself a non-nationalist Republican. I'm more interested in getting rid of outside influence and procurring a just and functioning society, or series of just and functioning communities. You need some form of second tier governance to take care of large public projects, and a geneneral code of conduct or rules for society. But rules do not necessarily serve fairness or justice. Practice does.

    The proposals presented are interesting to say the least. Why bother with reps to Dublin and London. A few more EU reps would be more productive. This plan would also need a few large cash injections; something like Dublin got from the EEC in the 1990's. There is a need to rebuild water-sewerage; to create a sustainable transportation infrastructure; to create a world class telecommunications service; and to create sustainable energy options including wind,solar and wave power. (The Isle of Man has its own phone company which has/had cheaper rates than the so-called free market carriers.) A militarily non-aligned society (ie no army of any sort) with total seperation of civil and religious institutions, and strong local and a stream-lined meta government would be a good start.

    The thought of Tory, Fianna Fail, New Labour or Fine Gael governance for anyone in the north can't be too appetising. Everyone of these parties have been failures in any measurable sense, or at least leading contributors to economic and social failure. Yet, in fact, these parties either directly control the purse strings or have influence on financial allocations. Until financial control is wrestled from these idiots little or only sporadic progess can be made.

    Anon 00

  4. Thanks all for the above.

    I'm not particularly passionate about joint sovereignty, it's just a possible scenarion - and one that actually arises if you take the 'two nations' (I'm using the term crudely here) claim - which is a traditional unionist claim - seriously. The claim that there are 'two nations' in Ireland may be true, but it's not specific enough. If it is true, then it's true of NI specifically rather than of all Ireland. You won't find the border between the 'two nations' running along the Irish border but running along the 'Peace Lines'. 'Two nations' justifies joint sovereignty more than it does partition - though only if you accept that nations should have some form of state-constitutional expression. And if you don't accept that, then 'two nations' is irrelevant in discussing the constitutional/national question.

    Personally I'm having doubts about the whole concept of 'nation' anyway. There isn't even an agreed definition of the term though 'imagined community' seems to carry most weight - and maybe that should tell us something.

    Sean Swan

  5. Anon 00

    I think the whole nature of what is a nation is very much up for grabs at the moment in relation to the growth of power and influence of the EU.

    Neither republicanism or unionism seems to have really atttempted to deal with this issue.