Irish should control their referendum too

Whitehall has been forced to accept the right of the Scottish people to control their vote on independence. It must not retain a veto over a referendum on Irish unity.
Jim Slaven
13 February 2012

Whitehall has been forced to accept the right of the Scottish people to control their vote on independence. It must not retain a veto over a referendum on Irish unity.

Today Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, will finally sit down with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore to discuss the details of the forthcoming independence referendum. Much of the focus will be on the question of the poll's legality or otherwise but it is clear from recent developments that the terms agreed for the Scottish referendum will have a broader significance throughout these islands.

The dispute over the legality of any referendum organised by the Scottish Government appears close to a resolution, as neither side wants the ambiguous legal position to end up in the courts.

The politics of it all are far clearer. David Cameron failed in his attempt to wrestle control of the independence referendum away from the Scottish Government. He badly misjudged both the reaction to his intervention and the potentially disastrous consequences for unionists of the British Government actually trying to impose its own question, timeframe, rules and oversight of any referendum on the people of Scotland. The result was a sharp u-turn which in effect enshrined the right of the Scottish people to make the key decisions regarding a referendum on their constitutional future, so in Cameron’s words ‘a referendum can be made in Scotland’.

This is significant for other constituent parts of the UK, particularly in Ireland where the right to a constitutional referendum in the North on unity with the South is enshrined in the 1998 Agreement. Addressing the prospect of such a ‘border poll’, as it’s known, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said recently it could take place between 2015-2021, adding "I think, in all probability, the people who have got the power to put that in place won’t even contemplate it this side of the next Assembly elections, which conceivably could be 2015 or 2016."

The ‘people who have got the power to put that in place’ is a reference to the British Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, who under the terms of the 1998 Agreement has sole power to call such a constitutional referendum. Paterson quickly responded telling the Financial Times “For people in the north there is a real worry on the economic front. I think there is less interest in big constitutional issues and there is more interest in day-to-day economic issues.” Before adding that he had no plans to call a referendum as the constitutional question was “settled, subject to the majority” view.

One can only imagine the reaction if Michael Moore were to try and tell Alex Salmond the same at today’s meeting. As the Scottish scenario has demonstrated irrespective of the legal detail, the centre of the British state cannot halt the democratic advances of nations which constitute that state. Despite the somewhat muted response from Irish nationalists and republicans to Paterson’s statement, the principle ceded by Cameron in Scotland must also apply to the people of Ireland (and Wales and England). They and they alone must be able to determine their own constitutional future without outside interference or impediment.

Tony Blair’s ‘devolution all-round’  strategy had at its core an inherent instability. Giving each devolved institution different powers, and England none at all, was always going to lead to demands for further constitutional change and apart from exceptional, specific cases, the direction of travel is one way: out of Westminster and towards Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. Far from ‘killing nationalism stone dead’ as former Secretary of State for Scotland George Robertson said (in an outburst which ranks right up there beside Gordon Brown abolishing boom and bust in the ridiculous Labour party statements competition) it has opened up new vistas and opportunities for nationalists and republicans.

One of the disappointments of devolution so far has been its replication of hierarchical structures and the failure of the new devolved institutions to embrace alternative models such as participatory democracy. However further change is coming to the constitutional framework of these islands. Last year the people of Wales voted to give more powers to the Welsh Assembly and in 2014 the Scottish people will decide whether to go further and break up the British state. It is inconceivable that the people of Ireland will be denied the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to determine their future.

The present economic and political conjuncture presents the Irish people with opportunities as well as challenges. Key is the potential for a radical all Ireland movement for a new democratic Republic fit for the twenty first century. Mechanisms must be put in place to allow the Irish people, via their elected representatives, to determine the timing of any ‘border poll’. Issues around the question to be asked, as well as oversight and who can vote in any re-unification poll must also be decided in Ireland, or to paraphrase David Cameron the referendum must be ‘made in Ireland’. It is not sustainable (and is certainly not democratic) that this can be left in the gift of a British Government Minister in London.

In the words of the nineteenth century Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, “thus far shalt thou go and no further””.

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