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Northern Ireland Towards Equal Citizenship
This essay was published as a pamphlet by the 'Integration Group' in 1984. At several points it suggests that the policy it is advocating was inevitable, simply because no other option was possible. It ceased to be inevitable in the following year, 1985, when the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed. The Anglo Irish Agreement offered no perspective for a possible resolution of the conflict but it did serve, by placing a veto in the hands of the government of the Republic of Ireland, to cut off the Integration option. Since the other options continued to be impossible, the Anglo-Irish Agreement rendered the Northern Ireland problem insoluble. For a brief period, when John Hume and Gerry Adams achieved the remarkable political feat of securing a solid IRA ceasefire, it looked as though another solution might, improbably, have worked. But now (Summer 2003) the overall argument of Towards Equal Citizenship is looking pretty good.
The total integration' of Northern Ireland into the rest of the United Kingdom has been advocated for some years by politicians of the right wing of the Tory Party. It has therefore, understandably, come to be identified as a right wing position.
The Integration Group is a non-party organisation open to all who agree with its aims, whatever their views on other social and economic questions. It so happens, however, that its founding members are mostly of the left or centre-left of politics. We are not supporting total integration because of any a priori commitment to Unionism. We are supporting it on practical grounds. We believe that it is the best of all available ways of governing Northern Ireland. We do not regard a united Ireland, a majority rule devolved government, a power sharing devolved government or an independent Ulster as feasible options and we agree with the dictum of Sherlock Holmes: 'When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'
This pamphlet shows how the present Direct Rule system can be changed to provide a stable, democratic and acceptable system of government for Northern Ireland in which Protestant and Catholic, Nationalist and Unionist, can play a full part without any compromise of their own sense of national identity, and without posing any obstacle to radical change in the future. Far from presenting a victory for hard Unionism, we argue that it would spell the final end of Ulster Unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland, and that this would be a gain for the Unionist people themselves. While making large claims for this policy, we suggest that it would be easy to implement, and even that its implementation in one form or another is inevitable.
For years politicians have dealt with this option by the simple expedient of ignoring it. That is no longer possible. 'Total integration' is, and is now recognised to be, an option that must be taken seriously and discussed by everyone who is involved in the Northern Ireland debate.
Integration Group September 1984
TOWARDS EQUAL CITIZENSHIP
The Parliament of Northern Ireland has now (1984) been suspended for twelve years, or about one fifth of the whole lifetime of Northern Ireland as a distinct political unit. This 'prorogation' was supposed to be temporary and the past twelve years have seen numerous attempts to try to restore some form of devolved legislature and government. So far, all these attempts have failed and 'Direct Rule', the system whereby Northern Ireland is directly governed by Westminster, is beginning to look very permanent.
OBSTACLES TO DEVOLUTION
Why should it be so difficult to establish a devolved legislature and government?
Since 1972, Westminster has taken the view that no devolved legislature should be introduced without the agreement of a majority on each side of the major political division in Northern Ireland - the division between the Unionists, who are mostly Protestant, and the Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic. The Unionists want Northern Ireland to continue as a part of the United Kingdom, separate from the Republic of Ireland; the Nationalists want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland and leave the United Kingdom. Such a disagreement over which state people should be part of is one of the most fundamental political differences that can be imagined and makes any form of coalition between the two sides particularly difficult. The Unionists are opposed in principle to any constitution that gives Nationalists a position in government as of right. The main Nationalist party (the SDLP) is opposed in principle to any constitution that does not confer some form of sovereignty over Northern Ireland on the government of the Republic of Ireland. The deadlock is perfect.
This does not mean that Northern Ireland has been completely unchanged since the introduction of Direct Rule. For those who are opposed to, or cannot identify with, Protestant Unionist dominance there are considerable advantages in the present arrangements. To put it in a nutshell - Catholics are no longer being ruled by Protestants. From 1921 to 1972, Catholics and Nationalists were living under a series of governments composed exclusively of Protestant Unionists. On top of a traditional enmity between the two sides that goes back three hundred years to the arrival of the Protestants in the seventeenth century, it is hardly surprising that this would cause bitterness and frustration.
This is not the place to go into the rights and wrongs of the charges levelled against successive Stormont administrations of bigotry and discrimination. Our point is that even if all the Unionists had been Angels of Light, the system they had to operate was bad. Northern Ireland was divided between a clearcut majority who supported its existence and a clearcut minority who opposed it.
The minority was big enough to hold one third of the seats in a devolved Parliament. This was not enough to overturn the government or even to force the government to attend to Catholic grievances. It was, however, large enough to pose a constant threat should the two thirds majority ever be weakened through the introduction of another element in politics such as, for example, socialism. The majority Unionists had to keep their monolithic party intact or face the danger, not just of losses for themselves, but of putting the very constitution of the country back into the melting pot and reviving the civil war conditions of the early 1920s. A devolved legislature and government for such a deeply divided community proved to be a recipe for political stagnation and a politics of sectarian patronage.
There was one mitigating factor. When Stormont was established, it was originally expected to 'pay its own way'. The government of Northern Ireland was to be maintained by taxes gathered in Northern Ireland. An 'imperial contribution' was to be paid to the United Kingdom Exchequer to cover the expenses of UK wide services such as defence. In the late twenties and early thirties, however, the Unionist government successfully established the principle of 'step by step' development by which social legislation passed in Westminster would be copied by Stormont and, when the cost passed the level of income gained from Northern Ireland taxation, the Treasury footed the bill. In pursuit of this principle the whole range of reforms introduced by the post war Labour government were also introduced by the generally right wing Stormont government. While this was a considerable gain, it meant that Stormont lost much of the effective power that had been given to it under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. It became to a large extent a rubber stamp for Westminster legislation. The existence of a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland was, then, something of an illusion, but an illusion that had the effect of exacerbating and perpetuating sectarian tensions. Why should we want it back?
ARGUMENTS FOR DEVOLUTION
Usually one expects that a demand for a separate legislature is based on a desire for separate laws. However, there is little demand in Northern Ireland for laws that are different from the laws passed at Westminster. The one significant exception may be matters of sexual morality. The laws on abortion and divorce are different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom and local democratically elected bodies such as the local councils or the Northern Ireland Assembly, have indicated that they would like them to stay that way (Westminster has recently equalised the laws on homosexuality though this was under pressure from the European Court at Strasbourg - pressure that could have been applied equally to a devolved Parliament). We have, however, never heard the argument put that a devolved Parliament should be established merely to protect Northern Ireland against British legislation on abortion and divorce.
Only one opinion poll has ever thought to ask people in Northern Ireland if they want the same laws as the rest of the United Kingdom. The result was staggering and should give fresh hope to all those who are seriously trying to find common ground between Protestants and Catholics - 96 per cent of Protestants and 92 per cent of Catholics said they want the same laws as the rest of the United Kingdom (see Appendix). Why then do we need a separate legislature?
Is it a matter of economic development? Scots and Welsh Nationalists argue that independence is necessary to develop natural resources and co-ordinated schemes for industrial growth. Such policies, however, require a high degree of financial independence. There are few people who believe that Northern Ireland can, in the foreseeable future, be independent of the British Treasury. That means that all such plans would have to be submitted to the Treasury for approval and, though our local politicians could certainly propose (as they can at present), Westminster would continue to dispose.
Then there are those who say that we need a devolved legislature because all the main local parties, Unionist and Nationalist, are in favour of it. But why are they in favour of it? The SDLP, the largest and most moderate Nationalist party, is quite open about the fact that it favours a devolved legislature only if it is part of a general strategy that could bring about a united Ireland. The Unionists on the other hand want a devolved legislature because they say that they do not trust Westminster to defend their position within the United Kingdom. They argue for a devolved government as a bulwark against precisely the kind of arrangements demanded by the SDLP. The Unionist and Nationalist reasons for supporting a devolved government are directly opposed to each other and cancel each other out.
That being the case, it is difficult to take seriously the argument that a devolved government is necessary for the sake of stability. The Unionists maintained stability for fifty years by holding a monopoly of power and patronage and implementing a rigorous security policy. We do not want to return to that. At the same time the notion of a government in which power is equally divided between those who support the existence of the state and those who oppose it is hardly a formula for stability. 'Unstable' Direct Rule has now lasted twelve years and all attempts to move to a more stable position have failed. The massive Loyalist opposition to the Direct Rule of 1972/3 has died down. Paisley tried to raise the issue in his 1977 strike against Roy Mason but the demand for the return of Stormont faded into insignificance beside the demand for tougher security. The leadership of the Official Unionists is said to be lukewarm about the return of Stormont. The SDLP concentrates on the 'Irish dimension' and rarely mentions the possibility of any form of provincial administration. Opinion polls consistently show good majorities in each community seeing 'continued Direct Rule' as an 'acceptable' option.
DEMOCRATISING DIRECT RULE
So what is wrong with continued Direct Rule?
The Direct Rule legislation of 1972 was introduced as a temporary measure pending the restoration of a devolved legislature and government for Northern Ireland. It still has to be renewed every year and all the Secretaries of State who have been appointed under it have seen it as their first duty to end it. This state of uncertainty gives hope to the gunman that if he keeps up the pressure long enough, he will influence the final outcome. The temporary nature of the present Direct Rule arrangements is a major factor in prolonging the current IRA campaign. It also tends to freeze politics in a pattern that was appropriate to the days of devolved government. If we accept that there is not going to be a devolved government then we will have to learn to re-organise our politics accordingly. This is a point we will come back to.
Direct rule as at present administered is also undemocratic in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. Much legislation for Northern Ireland for example takes the form of ministerial Orders in Council which are not subject to amendment by Parliament. One of the great gains of the civil rights agitation in the late sixties was to have Northern Ireland's affairs fully debated in the sovereign Parliament in Westminster. This is a gain that could be consolidated by the abolition of the Orders in Council system so that specifically Northern Ireland legislation can be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny as legislation for Scotland and Wales. It is not to the credit of the Labour Party that they have failed to make this demand.
But the most glaring of the purely administrative weaknesses of the present Direct Rule system came about largely as the result of a historical accident. Until 1972, Northern Ireland had ninety six local councils each with the full range of local government powers including responsibility for housing and education. Some of these councils were controlled by Nationalists but the great majority were controlled by Unionists. Most of the allegations of discrimination and gerrymandering referred to local government level. The famous slogan 'One Man One Vote' referred to the fact that the old system of local government elections, repealed in England in 1949, still applied in Northern Ireland. According to this, votes were given to ratepayers on the basis of the properties on which they paid rates so that a man with more than one such property had more than one vote. It had nothing to do with Stormont or Westminster elections and it discriminated on grounds of wealth rather than of religious or political affiliation.
In the sixties the Stormont government had prepared plans to reorganise local government but under pressure from the Civil Rights movement the process had to be speeded up and a thorough reorganisation took place following the recommendations of a committee chaired by Sir Patrick Macrory. This replaced the ninety six old councils with twenty six new ones and took the most important local government powers out of their hands. Education, and Health and Social Services were each given to 'area boards' whose members were appointed by central government, though with a minority representation of local councillors. Housing was given to a province-wide Housing Executive, which took over from the old 'Housing Trust' established after the war by Stormont to counterbalance the tendency of the local councils to discriminate.
The central government, which was to provide a democratic authority for the area boards, the Housing Executive and the local councils, was intended to be Stormont itself. Stormont would combine the functions of a devolved legislature and government with those of a centre to local government along the lines of the Strathclyde regional council. No sooner were the reforms implemented, however, than Stormont was abolished and its place taken by the Secretary of State and his junior ministers, all appointed directly by the Westminster government. Thus the administration of the upper tier of local government is not accountable to democratically elected local representatives. This is referred to as the 'Macrory gap' and Sir Patrick Macrory himself has frequently argued that the local government function of Stormont could be restored without the legislative functions.
Looked at from a purely administrative point of view, the closing of the Macrory gap is the major reform that is necessary to give Northern Ireland a perfectly satisfactory and normal system of government. In contrast to the original Macrory plan, such a devolved administration would be directly accountable to Westminster in the same way as local authorities in the rest of the United Kingdom. Westminster could act as a guarantor against any return to the alleged unfair practices of the previous system. No Northern Ireland party is in principle opposed to the exercise of such local government functions - even Sinn Fein takes its seats in local councils. The largest political party in the province - the Official Unionist Party - advocate this reform (albeit as a step towards legislative devolution) and at this purely administrative level it should be possible to devise means for increasing the power and influence of minority parties. 'Administrative devolution' would be much easier than 'legislative devolution' and, unlike legislative devolution, it would be applying itself simply and directly to a real and practical problem of administration.
An end to the makeshift character of the present Direct Rule system and the introduction of an upper tier of local government to close the Macrory gap are two measures that would go far towards improving the present system of government in Northern Ireland. But there is a third measure, perhaps more important than the other two, which is not directly the business of governments. The political parties that aspire to form governments at Westminster must take members and put up candidates in Northern Ireland.
A VICTORY FOR UNIONISM?
Before ending with a brief discussion of that point, we should deal with a major objection that is likely to be made to this whole line of argument. This is that, by underlining Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom,through consolidating Direct Rule and persuading the British parties to organise here, we are handing victory to Protestant Unionists and defeat to Catholic Nationalists.
First it should be said that any settlement that leaves Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom can be seen as a victory for Unionism and a defeat for Nationalism. Yet all major political parties in the Republic of Ireland and in Great Britain accept the principle that unity can only come about through consent. This principle is also accepted by the SDLP. Since that consent is not forthcoming, Northern Ireland will remain within the United Kingdom and there is little point in pretending otherwise.
That having been said, however, the 'victory' of Protestant Unionism is far from total. Between 1921 and 1972 they controlled almost all power and patronage within Northern Ireland. They controlled the appointment of government employees, they decided where industrial development was to take place, how much money would be available to schools and to which schools. They ran the security forces. To a surprising degree until the late sixties they had a say in the policy of notionally independent bodies such as the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, BBC Northern Ireland and Ulster Television. All this power has been taken away from them and if our proposals are accepted it will never be returned. The centre of power will be Westminster, which may happen to be British but which, if it has strong prejudices either way, tends to sympathise with the minority and to dislike the Ulster Protestant tradition. This is of course especially true of the Labour Party.
The past twelve years have already seen a considerable growth in government support given to the distinctly Catholic Irish tradition in Northern Ireland, as seen in support for traditional music and the coverage given to the Gaelic sports by the media (for Gaelic enthusiasts of course this is not nearly enough, but they have the same complaint to make in the Republic). The area boards have brought many Catholics into important positions in public administration to a degree that would not have been likely under Stormont (there are two factors at work: government's preparedness to employ Catholics, and Catholics' preparedness to be employed by government). The Fair Employment Agency, while still unhappy about Protestant/Catholic job patterns, very rarely attributes them to present day discriminatory practices. Many people have argued that Unionists only support the Union because of the power and the 'marginal privileges' they gain from it. If that is true, the end of Stormont and the power and privilege that went with it should weaken the Unionists enormously, and there is nothing in the total integration proposal that would prevent a united Ireland should the majority wish it in the future.
Public opinion on the border could be tested through referenda, for which legislation already exists. There is also nothing in our proposals that could preclude closer relations between the British and Irish governments, perhaps through a development of the existing 'Anglo-Irish Council'.
Whatever happens, Northern Ireland will continue to be effectively governed by Westminster. That may be stated as a certain fact. Even if there is a devolved government, there is no possibility that it will be given control over security policy. We have already seen that any local economic policy will be, as it was under the old Stormont, entirely dependent on Treasury approval. Most of the advocates of devolved government envisage Westminster as a guarantor of minority rights and fair play. In the event of a breakdown in the devolved arrangements - which is very likely if there is power sharing between groups with diametrically opposed aspirations - power will immediately revert to Westminster. Yet Northern Ireland is excluded from the politics of Westminster. Citizens of Northern Ireland cannot join either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. They can join the SDP but under the SDP's constitution an 'area party' cannot be formed without the permission of the national leadership and Northern Ireland SDP members have been assured on several occasions that the chances of their receiving full area party status are remote. This means that they cannot put up candidates in elections and cannot vote at meetings of the Council for Social Democracy.
Northern Ireland citizens therefore cannot vote for any of the parties that are capable of forming governments at Westminster. They can only vote for local provincial parties. While the main political decisions that effect their lives are decided at Westminster, local politics are organised round only one question - the constitutional status of Northern Ireland - and the division on that question coincides with the sectarian division. There is no possibility of this sectarian/constitutional division being overcome on the basis of politics confined to a provincial level. The Northern Ireland Labour Party tried for fifty years; the Alliance Party has been trying for around fifteen years. We do not guarantee that the national parties can overcome this division. But they can offer one thing which no local party can offer - the chance to participate in the work of the sovereign government, or even of the major opposition. In the unlikely event of a local Northern Ireland party winning all the Northern Ireland seats at Westminster it will have no more than seventeen MPs out of a house of six hundred and thirty five.
Under the present system, Northern Ireland is governed by people who do not have to submit themselves in any way to a Northern Ireland electorate. The people of Northern Ireland have no means of influencing the policies of the parties that aspire to govern them. They are not represented at party conferences when Northern Ireland policy is being discussed. Intolerable as that may be for the people of Northern Ireland, it is also harmful for the parties. It means that they have no continual grassroots contact with Northern Ireland. Every Northern Ireland spokesman, or every Junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, has to start with a feeling not unlike that of the first man on the moon. His own party has no experience or instincts to help him and local politicians have no way of influencing him except that of shouting louder than their neighbours.
The proposal that national parties should organise in Northern Ireland would not end the dispute over the border. There are profound disagreements on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within and between the national parties. But it would transfer the debate to a more realistic plane, since ultimately the decision rests with the sovereign Parliament at Westminster. And so long as Northern Ireland continues to be governed as part of the United Kingdom it would give us the kind of influence we need (and which is our right) over the whole range of economic and social policies that effect our lives. No-one is satisfied with the present shape of our politics. This proposal is the only realistic option that has a chance of changing it.
To sum up. It is proving impossible to return to a devolved legislature and government in Northern Ireland and the arguments in favour of such a devolved legislature are weak. Its sovereignty would be very limited, it would not bring stability and there is no great desire in Northern Ireland for laws that are substantially different from those of the rest of the United Kingdom. Direct Rule is likely to continue for the foreseeable future and successive opinion polls show that it is acceptable to majorities of both Protestants and Catholics - the only clearcut option that fulfils this fundamental requirement of Westminster's policy for the government of Northern Ireland. The present system of Direct Rule is, however, unsatisfactory. The continual attempts to return to a devolved legislature and government are destabilising and perpetuate the old style of politics that was appropriate to the days of Stormont. Much legislation is still applied to Northern Ireland in the autocratic form of the Order in Council and is not properly debated in Westminster. There is no democratic centre to the local government structure. Most seriously of all, people in Northern Ireland are unable to participate fully in the politics of the state in which, like it or not, they live. They are confined to parochial politics which have little effect on the way they are governed and which inevitably perpetuate the sectarian division.
What we are proposing would not end the IRA campaign. In the short term it might exacerbate it. No policy, however, can guarantee the end of the IRA campaign (even the policy of a united Ireland would entail the continuation of the IRA to fight the inevitable civil war). We believe, however, that if Westminster showed the more positive attitude towards Northern Ireland that we are advocating, this would have a demoralising effect on the IRA. They need some sign that they can eventually succeed and they find it in the vacillating and reluctant character of the present Direct Rule administration. At the same time, integration does not rule out any future developments, including a united Ireland, should public opinion in Northern Ireland change (and there are many people prepared to cite demographic evidence to show that this is likely).
Integration is in line with the drift of events; it is democratic; it is even-handed as between Protestants and Catholics; it provides constitutional certainty; it provides for the possibility of radical political change; it is open-ended and flexible; it is widely acceptable to both communities; and it is easy to implement. We believe not just that it is the best option before government but that it is the only possible option. It will either occur sooner in a conscious fashion, or later in a haphazard fashion. We urge the government and the national parties to adopt the former course.
Integration and Continued Direct Rule as acceptable options
Protestants % Catholics % Poll Continued direct rule 51 72 48 79
NOP March 1974 (1)
NOP March 1976 (1)
Integration 78 80 91 81 88 39 55 39 35 45
NOP March 1974 (1)
NOP March 1976 (1)
MORI June 1981 (2)
NOP Nov 1981 (3)
NOP Feb 1982 (3)
Northern Ireland should have the same laws as the rest of the UK 96.6 92.2 NI Attitude Survey1987 (4)
(1) Quoted in Studies in Public Policy No 22, Is there a concurring majority about Northern Ireland? by Richard Rose, Ian McAllister and Peter Mair, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, 1978.
(2) Sunday Times, 18/6/1981. This did not ask about the acceptability of continued Direct Rule.
(3) Polls conducted for UTV. These did not ask about the acceptability of continued Direct Rule.
(4) by E.P. Moxon-Browne and B. Boyle, May 1979.
Figures for the acceptability of 'Integration' to Roman Catholics should be read in the light of the fact that this option is universally talked about as the most extreme Unionist option. If equivalent percentages of Protestants saw a 'united Ireland' as an acceptable option, the figures would be recognised as significantly high.