Dreary Option of Joint Authority Emerges Once Again






In April 1994 the Cadogan Group published a pamphlet JOINT AUTHORITY AND THE NORTHERN IRELAND PROBLEM.

It was written to challenge an idea which was being touted as the logical ‘solution’ to the ‘Northern Ireland problem’. It has re-emerged not as a ‘solution’ but as another of the present Irish Government’s – unhelpful – ‘non-negotiable demands’.

It is worth revisiting the conclusions of that 1994 pamphlet:

In summary our reservations over joint authority stem from six main considerations:

  • It is impracticable. There is no modern precedent for it, and most schemes put forward for Northern Ireland look unworkably complex.
  • It is impermanent. Many proposals are either explicitly or implicitly put forward as transitional stages towards a greater degree of Irish unity.
  • It is unbalanced. Fundamental to the concept is the supposition that the British government has the same relationship with unionists as Dublin has with nationalists. This is not so.
  • It is undemocratic. It tends to isolate the governors from the governed, leaving the administration remote from and unrepresentative of the people of Northern Ireland.
  • It is almost impossible to finance on a permanent basis. All schemes assume that the very high costs involved would be paid by Britain or by external sources. No proposal suggests that British financial support would necessarily prove permanent.

Overall we have the general reservation that joint authority is a solution addressing a problem which is not, in fact, the problem in Northern Ireland. We do not accept that conflicting claims from London and Dublin are central to the issue, nor do we fully accept that a conflict of national identities within the province is the whole story. Assuming it is, as the advocates of joint authority seem to do, is more likely to promote deeper division than it is to help reconciliation.

Ironically, the ambiguity at the heart of British government policy in Northern Ireland both encourages and makes impossible the use of joint authority. The insistence that the unionist and nationalist traditions – the defence of the Union and the determination to break it – must be afforded equal esteem would seem to point clearly in the direction of joint-authority. On the other hand, the insistence that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without majority consent makes such a policy initiative impossible to achieve. The attempt to avoid facing up to that contradiction has ensured continued instability in Northern Ireland and has made a settlement more difficult to achieve.

The reality is that unionists are a majority in Northern Ireland and it is, in fact, unionist consent that is needed for any constitutional change. That is the only basis on which political discussion about the future of Northern Ireland should proceed. This is a reality which must be accepted by nationalists, including the Dublin government. This is not to give the unionists a veto – they already have one. Their majority strength in Northern Ireland gives it to them in practice, and the consent principle endorses it.

This is even more true today since the removal of Articles 2 & 3 of the Republic’s Constitution as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement. Something Mr Coveney, and the Irish Government, seems to have forgotten, with the notion that “There can be no British-only direct rule. That is the Irish Government’s position.”

Back to the pamphlet:

If the principle is fully accepted, then the refusal of consent must also be fully accepted and become the basis of policy. There is no consent inside Northern Ireland to constitutional change, therefore it is perverse for anyone subscribing to the consent principle to put forward proposals which do require such change, without at the very least putting forward substantive arguments as to why such consent might be obtained.

All those arguments remain valid. There is no evidence of a likely outcome to a border poll that would beckon a United Ireland. As with the present debate around an Irish Language Act, there is no agreed position within nationalism, never mind more widely, as to what would be an acceptable framework around which everyone might coalesce.

The pamphlet also went on to make the following point:

Recognition of the realities of these limitations would open up the potential for those constructive developments in relationships which all intelligent Irish people, north and south of the border, would like to see. And it would also help to dissolve the rigid mental borders between unionist and nationalist which continue to diminish us.

That judgement also remains as true today as it did 23 years ago.

Thankfully, the present UK Government has made its position unequivocal, stating that it holds responsibility for “good governance in Northern Ireland”:

“…in the absence of devolved government, it is ultimately for the United Kingdom Government to provide the certainty over delivery of public services and good governance in Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom. This is consistent with our obligations under the Belfast Agreement.”

“We will never countenance any arrangement, such as Joint Authority, inconsistent with the principle of consent in the Agreement.”