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Federalism will not resolve all the UK’s issues

The first Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland Eamon de Valera leaves 10 Downing Street in April 1938 after signing the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement - Credit: Getty Images

In last week’s New European, Andrew Adonis outlined his vision for a federal Britain. Here, DENNIS KENNEDY responds to some of the arguments raised.

Andrew Adonis’s widespread exploration of the history and possible future of the United Kingdom (“What Chance a Federal UK?” TNE #220) made an intriguing and at times puzzling read, particularly for students of Ireland and of the history of Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

They will have been surprised to learn that Clement Attlee granted “complete sovereign independence to southern Ireland” in 1949, or that Lloyd George had to concede self-government in 1922 to a de facto southern Irish state under Eamon de Valera. or that de Valera succeeded 26 years later in taking southern Ireland out of the UK.

What the Attlee government did in 1949 was accept the reality that with the declaration of a republic in 1948 and the repeal of the External Relations Act, Ireland’s de facto independence was formally recognised. The Government of Ireland Act and the settlement of 1922 had left formal ties between Dublin and London.

The link with the Crown was preserved through the office of governor general as the monarch’s representative, with specific constitutional powers, but the importance of the office was progressively diminished by Dublin, and abolished entirely in 1937, as had been the oath of allegiance to the Crown and the role of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords as the final court of appeal for Irish Courts.

(George VI, when he took his Coronation Oath on May 12, 1937, pledged “to govern the people of Ireland” along with those of Great Britain and a large part of the rest of the world at the same time as the Dail in Dublin was passing legislation to complete the formalities for the abolition of the post of governor general, the King’s man in Dublin.)

The Irish Free State was admitted to the League of Nations in 1923, and while it attended imperial conferences it never claimed, or accepted, membership of the British Commonwealth, but it could claim that the 1929 statute of Westminster’s affirmation that British dominions had constitutional independence applied to it. The ultimate assertion of southern Ireland’s independence from, never mind membership of, the United Kingdom, was its neutrality in the Second World War.

Lord Adonis is misleading in saying that Lloyd George conceded self-government in 1922 to an Irish state under de Valera. De Valera was head of that de facto state which opened talks with London but he was not personally involved in the Treaty negotiations, and he refused to accept the agreement made, opposed it in the Dail and was the leader of the faction which fought a bitter civil war against the state.

Having lost the civil war, de Valera and his political faction refused to take their seats in the Dail until 1927, and were in opposition until 1932. It is wrong to say that he eventually succeeded 26 years later in ‘getting southern Ireland out of the UK’ in 1948. He was then leader of the opposition, and the declaration of a republic was made by John A Costello – leader of the party who had emerged from the pro-treaty forces of the civil war.

One might also quibble with Lord Adonis’ employment of the term ‘civil war’ both as applied to the violence in Ireland which forced Lloyd George to negotiate in 1921 and to the northern Troubles of more recent times.

The fighting pre- the Treaty, known in Ireland as the War of Independence, was a war between an insurgent self-styled IRA and the forces of the British state – totally distinct from the real civil war which followed the withdrawal of British forces. The conflict in Northern Ireland was not essentially between the two communities – unionist and nationalist – but between a small but determined section of nationalists committed to a campaign of terrorist violence.

The article’s use of the German Federation as a model for the UK has one serious flaw. The various parts of Germany have differences – political, religious, historic – with strong senses of their own special identities, but they are not divided by the question of nationality; they are all German.

In the UK we constantly hear references to ‘our four nations’. This I suspect was something put in Boris Johnson’s ear, and he repeats it daily. But who are the four nations? Johnson never tells us. I can guess that he means the English, no doubt, the Scots who keep reminding him of their concerns, and, I presume, the Welsh. But what about number four? Who are the fourth nation?

Northern Ireland, you cry. But Northern Ireland is a geographical and political entity, not a nation. Well, you say, the nation is the people who live in it – the Northern Irish. A lot of people in NI would themselves adopt that label, if only to emphasise that they are not English, certainly not Scottish and by no means Welsh, and not to be confused with the Irish south of the border.

But the Belfast Agreement, now given the status of Holy Writ under the title of the Good Friday Agreement, states unequivocally that there are two nations in NI – the Irish and the British – for which designations there is no room in the four nation UK formulation.

The Agreement, rightly or wrongly, deals with the Northern Ireland issue as fundamentally this clash of conflicting national allegiances. The only ultimate solution it provides for is a straight choice between unionism and staying in the UK, and nationalism, opting for joining the Irish state – the decision to be made by the peoples of NI in a simple majority referendum. This is not very different from the solution offered in 1921, giving the new NI parliament the choice of joining an independent Ireland, or remaining in the UK.

More than 70 years later it was clear that a settlement on that basis was a total failure, but the combined wisdom of the governments in London, Dublin, Washington and a majority of politicians and voters in NI came up with something depressingly like the same solution.

The only possible explanation was that the whole context had changed. The UK and Ireland were members of the European Union, a union composed of nation states emerging from the catastrophe of the Second World War which had been the culmination of rivalry and mistrust between nations, and the growth of exaggerated concepts of national supremacy and the right to assert it by force.

It was devised to defuse nationalism, not to merge nation states in one new empire, but to bind them together in an economic, social and political union, promoting the ideal of a common European identity and citizenship; not to replace national identities but to enable people to see how much they had in common and how much they had to gain from such a union. We can see how much EU membership has transformed relations between London and Dublin.

It might, in time have helped unionists and nationalists in NI settle their differences and devise their own modus vivendi. But those differences had spilled over into lethal violence before 1973. Half a century later the Belfast Agreement has proved an efficient armistice in that it has largely stopped the violence. But it is still far from a peace settlement, and extreme varieties of nationalism and unionism have replaced the more moderate politicians who first launched a peace process.

Tragically, the European dimension that promised much has been casually abandoned by a government in London more concerned with preserving party unity than national interest. The Northern Ireland issue and its possible solution, still awaited, has been dealt a fearful blow by Brexit.

The chances of a real solution in Northern Ireland would be greatly enhanced by a reversal of Brexit.

Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of the Irish Times, lecturer in European Studies at Queen’s University Belfast and head of European Commission representation in Northern Ireland (1985-91)

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