Deepening The Unionist Veto

In a comprehensive and detailed piece Mike Burke closely scrutinises the unionist veto.

Consent or Veto

The consent principle in the Good Friday Agreement recognizes “the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its  status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland”.  And it acknowledges “that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.[1]  In effect, the GFA confirms that unionists have a veto over constitutional change so long as they remain a majority in the north.

Of all the constructive ambiguity, lying, fudging and manipulation that characterizes the Irish peace process, none is more deceptive than is the unionist veto wearing the disguise of the principle of consent.

Substituting the “consent principle” for the “unionist veto” is not just a euphemism, in which a gentle form of words takes the place of a harsher expression. Rather, it’s pure sophism, something far more insidious than mere euphemism: the alternative label for the unionist veto became a central part of a false and egregiously misleading narrative.[2]

The connotations of “principle of consent” are overwhelmingly positive. The term “principle” implies something worthy or ennobling that cannot and should not ever be compromised. “Consent” suggests a form of democratic agreement, some embodiment of the popular will to which governments are properly held accountable.[3]

It was precisely this benign meaning that the Conservative Party invoked in its confidence and supply deal with the DUP in June to prop up the Theresa May government: 

We will always uphold the consent principle and the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party will never countenance any constitutional arrangements that are incompatible with the consent principle.[4]

The consent principle is not just any ordinary decent principle.  It’s a first principle, a sort of principal principle to which every other policy and principle must adhere.  Commentators have variously described consent as “fundamental to all political initiatives” of the past few decades, “at the core of so much recent intergovernmental policy,” “central in the documents constructing the peace-process discourse,” the “overarching principle” of the GFA, and “the cornerstone of a new dispensation.”[5]

Consent is a sham, for at least two reasons.  First, referring to the unionist veto as the principle of consent puts a democratic façade on the anti-democratic ethos of partition.  That is, it hides--and is usually meant to hide--the sectarian, seditious and coercive origins of the northern regime.  Second, it disguises a fundamental inequality central to unionism even today: that unionists are and should be treated as superior to nationalists.

The term “unionist veto” unmasks both those pretensions of the “consent principle” by highlighting a negative and illegitimate power of blocking.  The veto was used to partition the country by thwarting the movement towards unified self-government that had indisputable democratic support on the island.  And the veto privileged unionism over nationalism by giving a unionist minority the power to frustrate the express wishes of the nationalist majority.[6]  

I prefer the term “unionist veto” to “consent principle.” But I’ll continue to use “consent” as that is the language of the documents and developments I’m examining.  I’ll remind readers throughout that consent really means veto.

Out of the turmoil of Brexit, multiple elections in the north and the breakdown of devolution, have come a number of recent attempts to redefine the principle of consent in ways that deepen the unionist veto over constitutional change.  Before discussing those attempts, I’ll examine the evolution of the doctrine of consent and other related background matters.

Consent: From Partition to Parliament to People 

For many of the participants in the peace process, the sweet-sounding term “principle of consent” helps to separate consent from its seedy origins in partition.  But, historically, consent emerged with partition.  In practice, the consent doctrine appeared at the time Ulster unionists began mobilizing in support of exclusion from Irish Home Rule.[7]  In the ensuing controversy over the implementation of partition, Britain established a six-county northern parliament, and gave it the right to opt out the Irish Free State at the very moment of the State’s creation.  And opt out the northern parliament did, in one day.  That is, unionists in the truncated province of Ulster exercised a veto over Irish unity.

Formally, the British government first recognized consent—using the term consent—in the Ireland Act, 1949: 

It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be part of His Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland.[8] 

On the surface, Britain was giving a knee-jerk reaction to Ireland’s declaration as a “Republic” the year before.  More importantly, though, Britain was moving to reassure northern unionists of their constitutional future inside the Union by explicitly granting a veto to the Stormont parliament.  Unionists were concerned about a general and persistent “republicanisation of Irish society,” which began with the election of the de Valera government in 1932 and included the 1937 constitution’s irredentist claim on the six counties.[9] 

Since it was inconceivable in 1949 that unionists could at any time lose control of the northern parliament, granting parliament a veto over constitutional change was tantamount to granting unionists a veto. Each iteration and restatement of the consent doctrine should be seen in that light: as a British constitutional “guarantee” to unionists ever anxious about their place in the UK and determined to maintain their hold on the north by stifling any step towards Irish unity.[10]

The British government’s Downing Street Declaration of 1969 slightly altered the language on consent, requiring not simply the consent of the northern parliament but also “the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.” The Northern Ireland Constitution Act, 1973, formally abolished the northern parliament, which had been suspended since the introduction of British direct rule in 1972, and deleted the reference to parliamentary consent for constitutional change.  Instead, the Act required  the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland” voting in a poll on the constitutional future of the north.[11]  

The definition of consent as “majority of the people of Northern Ireland” remained in all subsequent documents related to the constitutional status of the north, from the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 to the GFA in 1998.[12]  As the north was gerrymandered for the clear purpose of creating a strong unionist majority, the formula of “majority consent” was code for “unionist consent.”[13]  This code is no longer as unassailable as it was once thought to be, with consequences I’ll explore later.

Muddying the Waters: Consent in the Irish Peace Process

Two other elaborations of the consent doctrine are worth mentioning as both became notable parts of the Irish peace process and both were incorporated into the GFA in 1998.  In the Sunningdale Agreement, 1973, Dublin officially recognized that northern majority consent was necessary for Irish unity, although the south had, in practice, accepted the unionist veto much earlier.[14]  In the 1993 Joint (Downing Street) Declaration, the British government—drawing on both the Reid-Adams and Hume-Adams peace initiatives—recognized the Irish people’s right to self-determination.

Paddy McGrory, a lawyer who had represented numerous republicans on many occasions, including Gerry Adams, referred to Britain’s 1993 acknowledgement of Irish self-determination as “the greatest achievement of the modern republican movement.”  Justice Richard Humphreys, in his influential 2009 book Countdown to Unity, similarly highlighted Britain’s “striking” and “most startling new language” on the Irish right of self-determination.[15]  This right was, however, highly qualified and entirely consistent with earlier developments.  In their references to Irish self-determination in the Joint (Downing Street) Declaration, both governments left the unionist veto intact. Britain declared that the right of self-determination must be exercised by agreement of the people of Ireland based on the concurrent consent of the north and the south.  The Irish government too recognized that the achievement of Irish self-determination was conditional on the consent of a northern majority.

The new language on self-determination was neither a republican achievement, as McGrory asserts, nor a positive development, as Humphreys suggests.[16]  Reformulating consent as an essential part of the Irish right to self-determination further embedded the veto in a flawed and false discourse.

Two points should be stressed here.  First, cloaking the unionist veto in the garb of democracy—as the principle of consent—was a fundamental prerequisite that enabled both governments to make these kinds of declarations.  The anti-democratic essence of the unionist veto was transformed into an expression of democratic consent.  And crucially, unionist consent was represented as equal in value to the democratic right of the Irish people as a whole to self-determination.[17]

Second, presenting this so-called democratic equivalency as some form of compromise, reconciliation or balance between two contending constitutional positions became an important element of the peace process narrative, especially among nationalists.  Fr Alec Reid, for instance, believed that unionist consent could be made compatible with republican strategies, policies and principles.  John Hume saw a people divided over how to exercise the right of Irish self-determination.  He thought nationalist acceptance of the unionist veto was part of the search for a fair and just settlement that could bridge popular divisions.  Sean Farren presented co-determination —requiring that Irish unity gain the acceptance of both main communities in the north and the people of the south—as an equitable expansion of and improvement on self-determination.  Key peace player Martin Mansergh believed that the peace process was even-handed in its delicate balancing of the two principles of Irish self-determination and concurrent consent to constitutional change.   Former Irish Attorney General Rory Brady argued that requiring both northern and southern consent harmonized the right to self-determination with the realpolitik of a fragmented island.[18]

This narrative is deeply deficient.  The whole point and purpose of the principle of consent was to subvert the Irish people’s right to self-determination by entrenching the unionist veto.  There is no balance or reconciliation or compromise involved.  An anti-democratic veto, however democratically it’s clothed, is still an anti-democratic veto. 

Renovating and repackaging the veto as part of Irish self-determination has value as democratic propaganda but little effect on the concrete mechanics of constitutional change. The British government’s limited and qualified recognition of self-determination in 1993 and 1998 did not meaningfully alter the actual steps needed to implement Irish unity.  Before recognition as after, Britain was in control of the process in the north, and some form of concurrent popular consent to constitutional change by the north and the south was going to be necessary.[19]  The references to self-determination were in this sense superfluous, an exercise in public relations to put a smiling democratic face on a reinvigorated unionist veto.  

Propaganda and public relations did nevertheless have important political consequences.  The conception of a balanced settlement, buttressed by this purported democratic reconciliation of Irish self-determination with unionist consent, smoothed the way to acceptance of the GFA among some sceptics in the nationalist and republican camps.[20]   In helping to sell the GFA, the democratic guise of the principle of consent helped to institutionalize partition.

The academic literature on constructive ambiguity in the Irish peace process has for the most part missed entirely the deceptive character of the principle of consent.  Discussions of the place of the GFA in international law pay insufficient attention to the historical and contemporary political contexts of the contention over consent and the right to self-determination.  Even those that note the tension between the two and that consent overrides   self-determination fail to appreciate the political import of one-sided veto power.[21]

Much of this literature is dominated by unionist concerns.  Generally, these accounts examine growing unionist disillusionment with the peace settlement and explore the conditions that might allay unionist fears. Some are so tied to examining unionist grievance that they do not even notice that linking consent to a limited concept of self-determination undermines the case for Irish unity.[22]  Others are mystified that fully responding to unionist demands is not everyone’s sole preoccupation.[23]  Still others examine how the peace process deceived unionists on such issues as decommissioning, police reform and the conditions for the expulsion of political parties from Executive office.[24] This literature is hampered by some shockingly careless and misleading interpretations of the GFA language on decommissioning.[25]  And it’s plagued by an inability to distinguish between the provisions of the GFA on the one hand and the positions of the British government or unionist parties on the other.  Some authors, for instance, seem perturbed that Tony Blair or Peter Mandelson or David Trimble could not unilaterally alter the terms of the Agreement to the advantage of unionists.[26]

There is little here to aid an understanding of the insidious role of consent in subverting Irish unity, at a time when renewed public interest is focused on the prospects of constitutional change in Ireland.

Leaving Europe. Uniting Ireland?

The notion of unionist consent has become part of daily public discussion for the first time since the beginnings of the peace process some 30 years ago.  It was Brexit, of course, that sparked  renewed interest in the conditions of Irish unity and therefore heightened concern with the role of majority consent in the process of constitutional change.

It’s ironic that the flood of commentary on a united Ireland was provoked by the “accident” of Brexit.  It had nothing to do with the so-called dynamic elements of the GFA, which, according to Sinn Féin, were transitional to Irish unity. 

I don’t think that a united Ireland is around the corner.  Too many nationalists and pro-Agreement republicans in the north still need to be convinced of the case for impending unity.  Many participants in the discussion, but especially Sinn Féin, grossly overestimate the number of unionist Remainers who are available to be persuaded of the merits of a united Ireland.  Convincing public opinion in the south is another matter altogether.

In any event, I don’t expect that Britain will willingly honour its GFA obligations regarding a united Ireland. Those obligations were never meant to be realized, just as Britain’s commitment to an Irish Language Act in the St Andrews Agreement was not meant to be fulfilled.[27]  The history of Irish agreements with Britain—including very recent history—shows that London routinely ignores, alters, sets aside or misinterprets those agreements.  Now, it’s possible that a conjunction of political forces may well move Britain to pressure the DUP to support an Irish Language Act should devolution be restored.  But it’s difficult to conceive of any political alignment that could induce Britain to implement Irish unity under the conditions prescribed by the GFA, if a substantial section of unionism remains opposed to constitutional change.[28]  

However unlikely Irish unity may be, unionists and their supporters are agitated about all the talk of a united Ireland.  They became especially concerned in the immediate aftermath of the Assembly election in March, in which unionism lost its majority at Stormont for the first time since partition.  This anxiety was tempered somewhat by the better outcome for unionism in the Westminster election in June. But long-term demographic shifts, electoral trends, and the vagaries of voting turnout remain worrying to unionists determined to stave off Irish unity and maintain dominance in the north.  Many commentators in the south are equally anxious about a united Ireland looming on the horizon.  Both groups recognize the loosening of the bond that once so tightly secured “northern majority” to “unionist majority.”

Guaranteeing Failure: Union, not Unity

One manifestation of this concern is a series of attempts to alter the meaning of majority consent in a manner that reinvigorates the unionist veto over constitutional change in the north.

The GFA is, of course, the document of record laying out how majority consent is to be exercised.  In one of its multiple references to the consent principle, the Agreement recognizes:  

that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland[29]

The GFA, and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act implementing the Agreement, provide for the holding of a constitutional poll to assess if a majority of people support a united Ireland.

The recent proposals to redefine majority consent, then, can be seen as attempts to undercut the Irish unity provisions of the GFA and accompanying legislation. 

The common understanding of the term “majority” is simple majority or numerical majority, that is, 50 percent + 1 of the people voting in a poll. Humphreys confirms that this 50 percent + 1 formula is “legally enshrined” in the GFA and consistent with earlier constitutional pronouncements.[30]  This formula came under relentless attack in the past few months, as soon as it appeared that the number of nationalist voters in the north may be moving towards the number of unionist voters.

The verbal barrage against the 50 percent +  1 threshold was overwhelming.  Commentator Andy Pollak scorned the logic of a “demographic arithmetic” that “creeps over the fateful 50 per cent mark,” warning that it was “old, ugly nationalism by numbers.”  Sean Donlon, former Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, agreed with Pollak and said “reunification by numbers is neither desirable nor achievable.”  He rejected the prospect of “unity by numbers and without consent.”  Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said any GFA-mandated poll “was not for some kind of a sectarian vote or a day that the nationalists and republicans could outvote the unionists and loyalists.”  Fintan O’Toole mocked the 50 percent + 1 rule as “crude, tribal majoritarianism.”[31]

This outbreak of acute but selective arithmophobia is breathtaking in its hypocrisy.  Ever since partition, and explicitly since 1973, majority support of the people in the north was sufficient to keep the north within the UK. The 50 percent + 1 rule was acceptable when it served the interests of Union, as it does even today.  That a majority in the north continue to support the Union is seen by many as the democratic mainspring of the northern regime.  But the moment majority support is meaningfully applied to the prospects of Irish unity, the beauty of democracy becomes the horror of the old, the ugly, the undesirable, the sectarian, the crude and the tribal. 

If a northern majority, understood as 50 percent + 1, is not enough to win a poll for Irish unity, then what kind of majority do these proposals require?   Pollak wants a majority to include “some significant element of unionist consent.”  Ahern suggests that a border poll is meant for a time when people in the north—“of all traditions”—would consent to a united Ireland.  O’Toole says a united Ireland is dependent on a united north: “Forcing a million unionists into a new Irish state without their consent is in nobody’s interest.” Similarly, Tom Kelly states: “The principle of consent cannot be set aside. Nearly one million hearts and minds within the unionist community are not convinced about the benefits of a united Ireland.”[32]  

Two crucial shifts are evident in these proposals. First, support of the people in the north for Irish unity becomes support of the unionist people in the north.  That is, with the connection between northern majority and unionist majority breaking down, the veto is affixed explicitly to the unionist community.  Second, the precise numerical threshold of 50 percent + 1 becomes the imprecise notion of “significant” unionist support.  Just what level of support from “all traditions” in the north is required to secure a victory for Irish unity in a constitutional poll? Exactly how many of those nearly one million unionist hearts and minds need to be won over to the cause of a united Ireland?  

Taking into account all this imprecision, and assuming that the same level of support might be required from non-unionists as unionists, the arithmetical formula for winning a unity poll can be expressed as follows: some unspecified percentage that is greater than 50 percent + 1 and less than or equal to 100 percent. This range of outcomes is so large that any given outcome in the range, save the endpoint of 100 percent, could still be deemed insufficient to indicate a victory for Irish unity. If 55 percent of people support a united Ireland in a poll, why not require 65 or 75 percent.

This arithmetical formula for winning a vote on Irish unity is admittedly nonsensical.  It takes this character because it’s derived from the absurdity of the proposals for changing the consent doctrine.  The formula is, even so, useful in demonstrating an important practical and political point: constructing vague conditions for Irish unity makes it next to impossible to determine when those conditions have been met.  What does “significant” unionist support mean in terms of poll results?  In effect, the uncertain threshold of victory means that any unity poll will be unlikely ever to succeed. And that, I fear, is precisely the point.

Let’s take the most generous and “precise” reading of these ill-defined attempts to strengthen the unionist veto and assume that the consent of a majority of northern unionists is needed for the success of a poll on Irish unity.  This variant is related to what Sean Bresnahan calls “the Unionist Veto in its fuller sense.”[33]  As Humphreys notes, this threshold guarantees failure because it’s unimaginable that a majority of unionists would ever support Irish unity.[34] Once again, the conditions placed on winning the poll ensure that it will be lost. 

Perhaps a final, idiosyncratic example of recent attempts to guarantee the failure of Irish unity is worth examining briefly.  Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan proposes that: “Any talk of unity is dependent on a unity of hearts and minds and the express consent of the unionist minority on this island to a debate on a United Ireland”.  This proposal is perhaps the unionist veto in its fullest sense: granting unionists in Ireland the power to block everyone from ever having any discussion of Irish unity.  Given that Mervyn Gibson, the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, finds it insulting and offensive when people try to persuade him to support a united Ireland, and that well-known unionist economist Graham Gudgin views talk of a united Ireland as a form of political harassment, the chances of satisfying the conditions of the Flanagan veto are remote.[35]

There is a direct relationship between unionist insecurity about its majority status in the north and proposals to strengthen the unionist veto over constitutional change, which is not limited just to this latest flurry of activity.  The 1991 and 2001 censuses were eagerly and anxiously awaited for information on the changing demographic balance between the census categories of Protestant and Catholic.  Both censuses demonstrated that the gap between the number of Protestants and Catholics was narrowing, with the 1991 result showing especially dramatic Catholic increases and Protestant decreases.  Each census was the occasion of proposals to change the definition of the principle of consent.

The 1993 Opsahl Inquiry was an independent citizens’ initiative to explore ways forward in the north in the wake of changing demography and repeated stumbles in the inter-party talks of the early 1990s.  The Inquiry Report gave an important new definition of the principle of “majority consent” to constitutional change.  Its definition is similar to what I described above as the most “precise” of the recent proposals to rework the consent principle.  The Opsahl Report’s position is also representative of contemporaneous proposals from the Cadogan Group, a unionist think tank, and from unionist academic Adrian Guelke.  And it resembles Frank Millar’s 2002 call for strengthening the unionist veto, which emerged from unionist anxiety about the impending 2001 census results, increasing unionist alienation from the Agreement and wider popular discontent about the suspension of Stormont’s institutions.  

In redefining consent, the Opshal Report noted: “it only makes sense to require the consent of a majority of the majority (the unionist community) as being a necessary precondition for giving significant expression to the consent of a majority of the community as a whole.”[36]  Here, unionist majority consent is framed as a necessary element of the very definition of majority consent.  As noted above, this kind of reformulation of the consent principle guarantees that Irish unity will never be realized.

There is a fundamental flaw in all these old and new attempts to reforge consent in order to create a specifically unionist veto over constitutional change.  Political scientist Jennifer Todd’s critique of the Opsahl proposal could be fairly applied to all the proposals considered here: “unionist constitutional preferences are so much prioritized over nationalist ones that the unionist community’s right to refuse to enter a united Ireland is affirmed even were a nationalist numerical majority to emerge within Northern Ireland.”[37] 

Such proposals, then, are rooted in a fundamental inequality that privileges unionist constitutional rights over nationalist ones.  And this inequality is reinforced by a glaring lack of reciprocity that I sketched out in the earlier discussion of hypocrisy.  In rejecting the case for an explicitly unionist veto over constitutional change, Humphreys points to this underlying asymmetry and unfairness:  

. . . the really fundamental reason . . . why a minority or dual consent requirement could never act to prevent the reunification of the island of Ireland if a majority so wished, is that there is no corresponding provision at present permitting the nationalist and republican ‘minority’ to prevent Northern Ireland from remaining part of the United Kingdom.[38]

What Price Reconciliation?

It could be that proposals for redefining consent are not actually trying to establish what Martin Mansergh calls “a new and indefensible form of unionist veto.”  Perhaps I should adopt his “charitable assumption” and view the proposals as simply underlining the importance of promoting reconciliation and building the kind of consensus vital to the ushering in of a united Ireland.[39]  I’m not sure that many recent proposals warrant such a sympathetic understanding.

It’s difficult to see how Andy Pollak’s derision aids reconciliation. The shrill and overheated voices from the south seem inconsistent with any form of reconciliation or consensus-building on the way to Irish unity.  Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians, like unionists, have strong vested interests in keeping a united Ireland at bay.  Fintan O’Toole is explicitly neo-unionist on the question of reunification and, in the face of the upheaval of Brexit, is furtively searching for solutions that will allow the north to remain in the UK.[40]  

For the purposes of argument, I might grant that several veto proposals are in some proportion motivated by the desire both to fend off Irish unity and promote reconciliation in the event that reunification should approach. That’s about as charitable as I can get.  

There are real dangers in trying to encourage reconciliation by assuring unionists their constitutional future is protected by some kind of revitalized veto that undermines the rights of an anticipated nationalist majority. 

This kind of reasoning gives little incentive to unionists to engage the process of reconciliation. Granting them the power to impede constitutional change will encourage unionists to remain steadfast in support of the constitutional status quo.  They will have no reason even to consider any reconciled constitutional alternatives.

There is another danger, more pertinent to my purpose here, to promoting a reconciliation founded on enhancing unionism’s veto.  As Todd and Humphreys note, proposals for a specifically unionist veto are based on a hierarchy of constitutional rights that subordinates nationalism to unionism.  That is, such proposals tend to reinforce unionists’ sense of superiority, which is itself one of the primary obstacles to reconciliation.

Many unionists, supported by their illuminati, will never be reconciled to nationalism as it actually exists.  They simply do not accept nationalist as nationalists.  Instead, they demand that nationalists give up even the peaceful pursuit of Irish unity.  Arthur Aughey, for instance, suggests that reconciliation with unionists requires that a united Ireland be removed from the political agenda.[41] 

Sometimes this demand is couched in language that barely masks its real political implications.  Dennis Kennedy and Arthur Green urge nationalists to rethink and revise their nationalism.  In this new dispensation, no doubt seen as generous by its authors, nationalists may keep their aspiration to unity, on the condition that they never act on it politically. Kennedy and Green relegate a united Ireland to an aspirational or ethereal plane forever separate from the concrete world of politics.  This view is, I suppose, slightly more generous than Kennedy’s earlier and later unsoftened arguments that Irish unity as an aspiration or objective must be abandoned altogether.[42] 

Brian Walker, in a benevolent mood, says that Irish unity is a legitimate goal, but the time may never be ripe to pursue that goal.  It was not propitious to promote a united Ireland during the Anti-Partition League mobilization some 70 years ago, and it is not propitious to do so today.  For him, the proper circumstances in which nationalists should activate their support for a united Ireland are defined as unionist indifference to a campaign for Irish unity.  In other words, the proper circumstances may not and probably will not ever arise.[43]

What kind of nationalism remains after unionists denude it of its fundamental political dimension?  Dennis Kennedy is especially insightful here, being able to see through the thick veil of his utter contempt for nationalist voters to discern their real interests and inner emotional needs.  For him and other unionist writers, once nationalists come to realize that Union is morally and politically superior to unity, and once they accept the permanence of partition, “a non-political Irishness can flourish.”  There could develop, in Patrick Roche’s view, “a sense of Irishness based on recreational and cultural conviviality”.[44]

Unionists propose to reconcile the division over the status of the north by remaking constitutional nationalists into constitutional unionists.  The unmitigated arrogance that allows unionists to appropriate the right to define the character of nationalism and limit the democratic behaviour of nationalists stems from a comprehensive sense of unionist supremacy.  This belief in privileged entitlement is also related to the unionist rejection of any meaningful conception of parity of esteem.

Subordination is a high price for nationalists to pay in the interests of “reconciliation.”  Redefining majority consent fortifies unionist supremacy and puts the veto firmly in the hands of those who demand the price be paid.  


[1] Constitutional Issues, secs. 1(i) and 1(iii).  Discussions of consent in the Irish peace process can be slippery, and this elusiveness is abetted by flexible and imprecise terminology.  There are at least two related but distinctive renderings of the dual-consent doctrine.  The first addresses the relations between the consent principle/unionist veto and Ireland’s right to self-determination. This notion specifies dual consent as the requirement that both the north and south must agree to constitutional change leading to Irish unity.  This meaning is what I explore here, especially the requirement of northern consent and how it is variously understood.  The second rendering addresses relations between unionists and nationalists within the north.  Dual consent is seen as an interplay between the consent of the unionist majority to constitutional change and the consent of the nationalist minority to the institutions of governance. Numerous terms are applied to these variants of dual consent, including concurrent consent, concurrent or parallel self-determination, parallel consent, two-way consent, two-fold consent, mutual consent, double consent and sufficient consensus. And the same terms can be used to refer to one or the other variant or to both of them.  

[2] In 1996, Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty said that consent was becoming “a euphemism for the old unionist veto”. Pat Doherty quoted in Liam O Coileain, “Forum’s Final Curtain,” An Phoblacht/Republican News, 8 February 1996, 9

[3] I disagree with Adrian Guelke, who emphasizes both the positive and negative connotations of consent.  I argue that “consent” is strongly positive and “veto” strongly negative, although not necessarily so.  The connotations of veto can also be partially determined by context.  When addressing his party during the peace talks, UUP leader David Trimble often used veto in a positive sense to underline his ability to block the agenda of pan-nationalism.  See Adrian Guelke, “Consenting to Consent,” Fortnight no. 353 (September 1996): 14-15; David Trimble, “Ulster’s Voice—Ulster’s Future,” speech to the UUP annual conference, 25 October 1997. 

[4] It’s telling that this reference to the principle of consent is included in the Tory-DUP pact.  It suggests that both the Conservative government and the DUP interpret majority consent as a constitutional guarantee specifically to unionists.  For the full text of the Tory-DUP agreement, see the online version of the Belfast Telegraph, 26 June 2017, available at

[5] My emphases.  The quotations are from Martin Mansergh, “Real Stumbling Blocks: Decommissioning and the Principle of Consent,” Études irlandaises 22:2 (1997): 33; Paul Bew, “The Belfast Agreement of 1998: From Ethnic Democracy to a Multicultural Consociational Settlement?”  in A Farewell to Arms? From ‘Long War’ to Long Peace in Northern Ireland, ed. Michael Cox, Adrian Guelke and Fiona Stephen (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 43; Jyrki Ruohomäki, “Parity of Esteem: A Conceptual Approach to the Northern Ireland Conflict.” Alternatives 35:2 (April-June 2010): 174; Peter Shirlow, Jonathan Tonge, James McAuley and Catherine McGlynn, Abandoning Historical Conflict? Former Political Prisoners and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2010), 116; and Colin Knox and Paul Carmichael, “Devolution—the Northern Ireland Way: An Exercise in ‘Creative Ambiguity’,” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 23:1 (February 2005): 66.

[6] In effect, the unionist veto was used both prior to 1918, when self-government was defined as Home Rule, and after 1918, when it was defined as independence.  Of all the academic treatments of consent, Power is unusual in embedding the discussion in the anti-democratic context of partition and in underlining the irreconcilable tension between consent and self-determination as traditionally understood.  Mansergh dates consent from the 1920s.  “Dissident republicans” have continued to oppose the GFA’s rendition of the unionist veto, but Irish and British commentators too often ignore, discount or marginalize the political positions of anti-Agreement republicanism.  See Paul F.  Power’s writings: “Violence, Consent, and the Northern Problem” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 14:2 (July 1976): 19-140; “The Sunningdale Strategy and the Northern Majority Consent Doctrine in Anglo-Irish Relations,” Eire-Ireland 12:1 (Spring 1977): 35-67; “Revisionist ‘Consent,’ Hillsborough, and the Decline of Constitutional Republicanism,” Eire-Ireland 25:1 (1990): 20-39; and “Revisionist Nationalism’s Consolidation, Republicanism’s Marginalization, and the Peace Process,” Eire-Ireland 31 (1996): 89-122.  See also Mansergh, “Real Stumbling Blocks,” 1997, 24-25.  

[7] At first, Ulster unionists wanted to defeat Home Rule in all of Ireland.  Later, and after repeated attempts to delimit the territorial boundaries of the north, they focused their campaign on excluding the six north-eastern counties from Home Rule.

[8] Ireland Act 1949, sec. 1(2).

[9] Power, “Violence and Consent,” 1976, 131-32. See also Brian Girvin, “The Republicanisation of Irish Society, 1932-48,” in A New History of Ireland: VII: Ireland, 1921-84, ed. J.R. Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 127-160.  This republicanisation process was, nevertheless, highly selective: it privileged Catholic over secular republicanism, 26-county sovereignty over 32-county unity, and included coercive measures against the IRA. 

[10] The principle of consent is sometimes referred to as the “guarantee” or in Austen Morgan’s phrase the “so-called constitutional guarantee.” This terminology seems to have fallen out of favour in deference to the more genial “principle of consent.” See Bernard Crick, “Northern Ireland and the Concept of Consent,” in Public Law and Politics, ed. Carol Harlow (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1986), 39-56; and Austen Morgan, “The Belfast Agreement and the Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland,” in The Northern Ireland Question: The Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement, ed. Brian Barton and Patrick J. Roche (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 88-89.

[11] Downing Street Declaration, August 1969, sec. 1; Northern Ireland Constitution Act, July 1973, sec. 1.  The 1973 Act also dealt with the conditions and details of possible devolution to the new Northern Ireland Assembly elected a few months earlier.  There were a series of steps relevant to the evolution of consent between the 1969 Declaration and the 1973 Act, notably Prime Minister Heath’s speech in November 1971 that said the British government would not stand in the way if a northern majority want unification, the British government’s 1972 proposals The Future of Northern Ireland: A Paper for Discussion, the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act, 1973, and London’s 1973 white paper Northern Ireland Constitutional Proposals.  The Border Poll was held in March 1993, with 98.9 percent of voters choosing the constitutional status quo as opposed to joining the south outside the UK.  Nationalists and republicans boycotted the poll.

[12] There were other important developments regarding consent that included some minor variations in language—“greater number” instead of majority, and “a” majority instead of “the” majority—but they proved of no consequence.  See Humphreys, Countdown to Unity, 41-42, 60-66.

[13] Christine Bell and Kathleen Cavanaugh, “’Constructive Ambiguity’ or Internal Self-Determination? Self-Determination, Group Accommodation, and the Belfast Agreement.” Fordham International Law Journal 22:4 (April 1999): 1360 fn 50.

[14] John Regan and Tom Garvin, with very different arguments, link southern acceptance of consent (partition) to the revolutionary period and the founding of the Free State.  John Regan, Myth and the Irish State: Historical Problems and Other Essays (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013), chap. 4; Tom Garvin, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996), 27, 194-96, 217-18. 

[15] See McGrory in Eamonn Mallie and David McKittrick, The Fight for Peace: The Secret Story Behind the Irish Peace Process (London: Heinemann, 1996), 293; and Humphreys, Countdown to Unity, 60-61.  Humphreys was appointed to the High Court in Ireland in 2015. His book was extensively quoted in the recent report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the implementation of the GFA, Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity, 32/JCIGFA/02, August 2017.

[16] I disagree with McGrory’s argument that the character of the constitutional guarantee to unionists is determined entirely by the source of that guarantee.  He suggests, incorrectly, that as the guarantor moves from London to Dublin, the British-imposed unionist veto becomes a generous Irish nationalist concession to a section of the nation.  McGrory misunderstands the character of the unionist veto: it remains a British imposition to which Ireland acquiesced because it had no real choice in the matter and because it served Ireland’s interests to do so.  Accepting the unionist veto was no generous concession to unionists that Ireland made entirely of its own volition.  See the long excerpt from McGrory’s 1994 paper in Mallie and McKittrick, Fight for Peace, 292-94. I also disagree with Humphrey’s presentation, on two counts.  As mentioned in the text, he overstates the novelty of Britain’s commitment in the Declaration, thus minimizing its consistency with earlier manifestations of the unionist veto. And I don’t accept his contention that the new language in the Declaration “redefined the issue into one of the manner in which the Irish people would exercise their now unquestioned right to self-determination” (p. 61).  The Declaration was not simply a matter of redefining the issue into one of how to implement a right.  The British government (and Irish government too) did not leave open the manner in which the right to self-determination would be exercised.  Rather, it was asserting a definite position on how self-determination was to take place.  In other words, Britain took Hume’s and Reid’s side (or they took Britain’s side) over the position that Adams was voicing publicly at the time.  Nevertheless, Humphreys is correct in pointing out the new wording.  In the body of the posting, I examine how this insertion of the language of “self-determination” into the peace process contributed to a specious narrative of balanced constitutional change.

[17] Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA, 2d ed. (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 272.

[18] See Reid in Moloney, Secret History of the IRA, 369; John Hume’s letter to Gerry Adams, 17 March 1988, cited as SDLP document no. 1 in The Sinn Féin/SDLP Talks: January-September 1988, available online at; Sean Farren and Bob Mulvihill, “Beyond Self-Determination Towards Co-Determination in Ireland” Etudes irlandaises 21:1 (1996): 188; Martin Mansergh, “The Peace Process in Historical Perspective,” Études irlandaises 21:1 (1996): 208-09 and his “The Background to the Irish Peace Process” in A Farewell to Arms?, 19-23; and Rory Brady, “Forward,” in Humphreys, Countdown to Unity, xi, and Humphreys chap. 4.

[19] Arguably, the necessity of northern and southern popular consent had been a practical reality since the British government issued The Future of Northern Ireland: A Paper for Discussion in October 1972.  It can be read more directly from Article 1 of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. It’s necessary to note that Britain did not relinquish control of constitutional change in the north when it acknowledged Irish self-determination.  The GFA says that the right to self-determination is to be exercised by “the people of the island of Ireland alone” and “without external impediment,” which is also the language of the 1993 Joint (Downing Street) Declaration and 1995 Framework Document.  But another section of the GFA, and the Northern Ireland Act, 1998, make a mockery of this pledge by introducing a second actor—in addition to the people of Ireland “alone”—who becomes quite a large external impediment to the exercise of Irish self-determination.  They vest a great deal of discretion in the hands of the British Secretary of State regarding when to initiate the process of self-determination in the north by ordering a constitutional poll.  To order a poll, the Secretary must be satisfied that “it appears likely . . . that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland” (Schedule 1(2)).  If it does not appear likely to the Secretary that majority support is forthcoming, there will be no poll.  That is, the Secretary has a powerful veto over Ireland’s right to self-determination in that she/he controls if the northern part of the exercise can even begin. Humphreys acknowledges this discretion exists but says it’s unlikely that Britain would refuse to meet its commitments.  He notes the following protocol: “it is clear that if it can be demonstrated to the secretary of state that it is likely that a majority would vote to change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, then the holding of the poll becomes a mandatory obligation on the secretary of state . . . and he is required by the agreement to make an order [for the poll to be held]” (p. 122, see also 166).  This protocol is not at all clear to me.  Humphreys is simply restating the language of the Agreement; he makes no argument as to why or how the Secretary would be compelled to order a poll.  Two issues of language concern me.  First, the Agreement is silent on what kind of evidence is sufficient to “demonstrate” to the Secretary the likelihood that a majority would vote for Irish unity.  Second, the Agreement does not define the term “majority.”  Would the Secretary continue to use the definition of “numerical majority” (50 percent + 1)?  Or would the Secretary be swayed by arguments, such as the one used in the Opsahl Report, that the very definition of majority consent must be changed to require also the consent of a majority of unionists?  In subsequent sections, I examine many such recommendations to alter the definition of majority, including that of the Opsahl Report.  In sum, the uncertainty of the Agreement’s language with respect to the nature of evidence and the meaning of “majority” magnify greatly the discretionary power of the Secretary of State.  But my concern is not just linguistic.  As I argue in the text, politically, it’s highly unlikely that the Secretary of State would, in the face of substantial unionist opposition, fulfill Britain’s GFA obligations on Irish unity. 

[20] Moloney, Secret History of the IRA, chap 9. Throughout the peace process, Sinn Féin was aware of the problematic relations of consent and veto to the traditional republican view of Irish self-determination.  This concern, with much dissembling, was folded into the party’s all-Ireland, transitional interpretation of the GFA. See O Coileain, “Forum’s Final Curtain,” and Meadbh Gallagher, “It’s the Veto, Stupid!,” both in An Phoblacht/Republican News, 8 February 1996, 9; Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin/SDLP Talks 1988; Northern Ireland Office, British Response to Sinn Fein Request for Clarification [of the Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration] 19 May 1994, available online at; and Gerard Murray and Jonathan Tonge, Sinn Fein and the SDLP: From Alienation to Participation (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2005), chap 12.

[21] For examples of the three scholarly trends mentioned in the paragraph, see David Mitchell, “Cooking the Fudge: Constructive Ambiguity and the Implementation of the Northern Ireland Agreement, 1998-2007,” Irish Political Studies 24:3 (September 2009): 321-36; Paul R. Williams and Sabrineh Ardalan, “The Northern Ireland Peace Agreement: Evolving the Principle of Self-Determination,” Leiden Journal of International Law 12:1 (January 1999): 155-71; and Bell and Cavanaugh, “Constructive Ambiguity or Internal Self-Determination?” 1345-71.

[22] Christopher Farrington, “Unionism and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland,” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 8:2 (May 2006): 287-89; and Paul Dixon, “Performing the Northern Ireland Peace Process on the World Stage” Political Science Quarterly 121:1 (Spring 2006): 61-91.

[23] Arthur Aughey, “The Art and Effect of Political Lying in Northern Ireland,” Irish Political Studies 17:2 (December 2002): 1-16; and James Dingley, “Constructive Ambiguity and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement 13:1 (Spring 2005): 1-23.

[24] James Dingley, “Peace in our Time? The Stresses and Strains on the Northern Ireland Peace Process,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 25:6 (November 2002): 357-382; Noel Anderson, “The ‘Art of the Fudge’: Merits of Constructive Ambiguity in the Good Friday Agreement,” Attaché Journal of International Affairs (2009): 57-79; and Knox and Carmichael, “An Exercise in Creative Ambiguity,” 63-83.

[25] The language on decommissioning in the Agreement does not sustain Kennedy and Green’s assertion that there was a “commitment to ‘decommissioning’ within two years.”  See Dennis Kennedy and Arthur Green, Beyond Belfast: Where Now in Northern Ireland (Belfast: Cadogan Group, October 2005), available on online at  Knox and Carmichael conjoin two different sentences of the Agreement’s decommissioning language and use inappropriate textual emphasis to produce, like Kennedy and Green, the blatant misrepresentation that participants had given a commitment to total disarmament within two years.  It’s necessary to look closely at the Agreement’s language to clarify this needless confusion over meaning. In the GFA, the parties “reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations,” but there is no deadline attached to this statement.  The Agreement also says that the parties “confirm their intention . . . to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years” (Decommissioning, sec.3).  Contrary to what Kennedy and Green, Knox and Carmichael and others suggest, the two-year deadline refers not to some hard-and-fast commitment to disarmament, but to a much softer statement of intent about using influence. Knox and Carmichael also reproduce in full Robin Wilson’s glaring error in interpreting the language on decommissioning.  Wilson claims republicans were wrong to keep “asserting (in contradiction to the text) that the Agreement renders decommissioning a `collective responsibility', rather than one for the paramilitary-linked parties to address”.  Even a superficial glance at the Agreement’s language under “Decommissioning,” particularly sec. 3, shows that republicans are right and that Wilson, and Knox and Carmichael, are wrong.  That section clearly says that “all participants” are tasked with working towards decommissioning.  Paramilitary-linked parties would, of course, play the major role, but not the only role.  Knox and Carmichael’s treatment of the Agreement’s language on decommissioning is particularly troubling: it’s as if they want the GFA to say, not what it actually says, but what they want it to say for the purposes of their article.  See Knox and Carmichael, “An Exercise in Creative Ambiguity,” 68 fn.9, and 72.  Williams and Ardalan also misinterpret the Agreement when they say that it required the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000.  See their “Northern Ireland Peace Agreement,” 162.  Ironically, ardent unionist James Dingley, who gets most everything wrong, gives the correct interpretation of the GFA’s language on decommissioning. See his “Constructive Ambiguity,” 3, 11. 

[26] Paul Dixon, “An Honourable Deception? The Labour Government, the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Peace Process,” British Politics 8:2 (June 2013): 108-137; Knox and Carmichael, “An Exercise in Creative Ambiguity.”

[27] Former First Minster Peter Robinson claims that Britain conned Sinn Féin on the Irish language provisions of the St Andrews Agreement and that the DUP never agreed to an Irish Language Act .  Robinson is certainly correct that the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, unlike the St Andrews Agreement, makes no mention of an Irish Language Act.  Peter Robinson, “Now SF’s Turn to Step up to Plate for the Greater Good and Do a Deal on Stormont,” Belfast Telegraph, 28 June 2017.  This article and all the newspaper articles cited below were retrieved electronically from the Factiva database.

[28] Humphreys believes that the British government is unlikely to breach its GFA commitments on Irish unity, although he does examine judicial remedies should a breach occur.  I think Humphreys is too optimistic.  See the discussion in footnote 19.

[29] GFA, Constitutional Issues, sec. 1(ii).  The phrases “people of Ireland . . . alone” and “without external impediment” are meaningless given the discretionary power that the British Secretary of State has over the initiation of the process of constitutional change.  Again, see the discussion in footnote 19. 

[30] Humphreys, Countdown to Unity, 109 and also 42, 46.  In the event of a vote in favour of a united Ireland, Humphreys calls for a lengthy transition period of joint authority rather than the abrupt change of sovereignty envisaged in the Agreement (109, 205).  In its response to Sinn Féin’s request for clarification of the 1993 Joint (Downing Street) Declaration, the British government clarified that majority means a “numerical majority”.  See Northern Ireland Office, British Response to Sinn Fein Request for Clarification.

[31] The quotations are from: Andy Pollak’s blog, 2 Irelands Together, “Are There Really 150,00 Unionists who are Persuadable for a United Ireland?” 25 April 2017 available online at; Andy Pollak, “Nationalism by Numbers,” Irish Times, Letter to the Editor, 9 June 2017; Sean Donlon, “Sinn Féin Missing a Lifetime Opportunity to Set the Agenda,” Irish Times, 1 August 2017; Bertie Ahern quoted in John Manley, “Border Poll Calls are Dangerous Says Ahern,” Irish News, 1 May 2017; and Fintan O’Toole, “United Ireland Will Not Be Based on ’50 Per Cent plus One’,” Irish Times, 15 August 2017.

[32] See: Pollak, “Nationalism by Numbers”; Ahern quoted in Manley, “Border Poll Calls”; Fintan O’Toole, “EU Backing for Irish Unity after Brexit is a Big Deal—But it’s not a Solution,” Guardian, 4 May 2017; and Tom Kelly, “Minority Coalition Better than DUP and Tories in Charge,” Irish News, 4 September 2017.  An article in Irish Republican News alerted me to the interventions by Donlon and O’Toole,  “Hostility to Sinn Féin Unity Effort emerges in Dublin,” 19 August 2017, available online at

[33] This form of the veto posits “that Unionism, even when no longer able to carry its majority, should retain the ability to frustrate a full all-Ireland republic.”  In this article, Bresnahan is, rightly, critical of Sinn Féin’s acceptance of this fulsome version of the veto. See Sean Bresnahan, “’Two States-One System’ Does Not a Republic Make,” The Pensive Quill, 12 August 2017, available online at

[34] Humphreys, Countdown to Unity, 42.  I am focusing on the political logic of this proposal and not addressing the considerable measurement problem of how to count “unionist votes” under the conditions of a secret ballot.

[35] See Flanagan quoted in Judy Corcoran, “Flanagan Warns ‘Premature’ United Ireland Talk ‘Dangerous’,” Sunday Independent 27 August 2017.  Flanagan’s position was brought to my attention by the profile entitled “Fintan O’Toole,” The Phoenix, 8 September 2017.  Thanks to Niall Meehan for sending me a copy of this articles.  For the other quotations in this paragraph see: Gibson cited in “Minister Brands Attempts to Persuade Unionists about a United Ireland ‘Offensive’,” Irish News, 11 September 2017; Graham Gudgin, “Why the Burning Question is not Whether a United Ireland is Desirable, but if it is Affordable,” Belfast Telegraph, 24 April 2017 and his “Stop Harassing Unionists about a United Ireland,” Irish Times, 25 August 2017. 

[36] Andy Pollak, ed., A Citizens’ Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland (Dublin: Lilliput Press for Initiative ‘92, 1993), 19, emphasis in original.  See also The Cadogan Group, Northern Limits: The Boundaries of the Attainable in Northern Ireland Politics (Belfast: Cadogan Group, November 1992); Adrian Guelke, "Consenting to Agreement," Fortnight no. 366 (November 1997): 12-13; and Frank Millar, “NI Accord – Back to the Drawing Board?” Irish Times, 25 October 2002.  Millar’s article provoked responses from Danny Morrison and Martin Mansergh; see Morrison’s blog, “The Next ‘D’ Word,” no date [late October or early November 2002], available online at; and Mansergh, “Is Consent Sufficient for a United Ireland?” Sunday Business Post, 9 November 2002.

[37] Jennifer Todd, “Equality, Plurality and Democracy: Justifications of Proposed Constitutional Settlements of the Northern Ireland Conflict,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 18 (October 1995): 825.

[38] Humphreys, Countdown to Unity, xxi, and also xx, 7-8, and 41.  Mansergh makes a similar point in “Is Consent Sufficient?” The Democratic Dialogue document Making Consent Mutual – A Discussion Paper, October 1997, circumvents some of the one-sided privileging and unfairness mentioned by Todd and Humphreys.  It also recognizes that nationalists are dissatisfied with how the “honeyed words” of the principle of consent have masked the reality of the unionist veto.  Democratic Dialogue proposes that sufficient consensus—or the dual consent of nationalists and unionists—apply in the constitutional here and now.  In effect, this scheme would give nationalists a veto over current constitutional arrangements and unionists a veto over future arrangements.  This recommendation is no doubt an improvement on the proposals examined here. But many of the details of the Democratic Dialogue scheme have not been fully examined, such as what would happen if a vote on constitutional status failed to gain sufficient consensus from both communities.  Would the north resort to the constitutional status quo?  In addition, the probable if not certain effect of the scheme would be to prevent a united Ireland from emerging.  As nationalists see their preferred constitutional option of Irish unity becoming a real possibility, Democratic Dialogue would change the rules in a way that would in all likelihood move nationalists away from their constitutional first preference.

[39] Recall that Mansergh was responding to Frank Millar’s 2002 reworking of the unionist veto.  See Mansergh, “Is Consent Sufficient?”

[40] O’Toole, “EU Backing for Irish unity.”

[41] Arthur Aughey, “Obstacles to Reconciliation in the South,” in Building Trust in Ireland, Studies Commissioned by the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation (Belfast: Blackstaff Press in association with by the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, 1996), 47-49. For a critique of this brand of unionism, see Liam O’Dowd, “’New Unionism’, British Nationalism and the Prospects for a Negotiated Settlement in Northern Ireland, ” in Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism, ed. David Miller (London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998 ), 70-93; and Feargal Cochrane, Unionist Politics and the Politics of Unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement (Cork: Cork University Press, 1997), chap. 9.  I explored some of these themes in my critique of Richard English’s contribution to Sinn Féin’s Uncomfortable Conversations series, Mike Burke, “A Hierarchy of Comfort: The Asymmetries of Richard English,” The Pensive Quill, 17 August 2015, available online at

[42] Kennedy and Green, Beyond Belfast; Dennis Kennedy, “The Realism of the Union,” in The Idea of the Union: Statements and Critiques in Support of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, ed. John Wilson Foster (Vancouver: Belcouver Press, 1995), 33-34; and his “The Case against the Belfast Agreement,” in The Northern Ireland Question, 259.

[43] Brian Walker, “Playing Party Politics over Irish Unity Always Backfires,” Irish Times, 28 August 2017.

[44] The quotations are from Kennedy, “Realism of the Union,” 36; and Patrick J. Roche, “Northern Ireland and Irish Nationalism,” in The Idea of the Union, 134. See also Kennedy and Green, Beyond Belfast; Dennis Kennedy, “Nationalists Must Now Abandon Unity Aspiration,” Irish Times, 31 October 2005; and Aughey, “Obstacles to Reconciliation,” 35, 40, 47-48.

Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.


  1. An excellent article. It's all in the wording and of course interpretation. That's the insidious nature of parliamentary democracy. There is nothing human about it. I liked that term "neo-unionist" that could be applied to a lot more people than Fintan O Toole. Shame on them.

  2. Presented in a context devoid of the usual laborious oratorical language of Republicanism and makes a case of the unyielding veto of British Unionism. The false narrative of parity of esteem and all the other GFA gunk that comes with it is just pandering to Unionism. Britain's cultural hegemony has won the day and the ever shifting of the goal posts is par for the course.
    They have played us well.

  3. An excellent and indeed a timely article.

  4. Was there a point to this article? It seems to be a verbose review of the state of current affairs, at least through the Societies glasses. Good to see the admission that no matter what, those with half a brain in the South recognise that playing a simple sectarian numbers game and being landed with a million unhappy prods is a recipe for disaster!

  5. Steve R,
    I think you miss the point. Those in the South don't fear a million unhappy prods, they fear almost a million unhappy Nationalists more! They are using the Prod game to retain their own dominion....without it there is every chance that they will loose all.

  6. "Unionists" i.e people identifying or voting for unionist parties make up less than 50% of the population. The union is maintained by middle class catholics and Alliance party types who do not identify or vote for unionist parties, therefore can it really be called a "unionist veto"?

  7. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned Ireland in order to placate recalcitrant Unionists who predominated particularly in the north east of the island. The Parliament of Northern Ireland, which that act allowed for, sat for the first time on June 7th 1921. The following day Lloyd George sent an invitation to the Irish Rebels to engage in negotiations.

    Within weeks, on July 11th, the War of Independence ended with a truce and
    days after that, de Valera met Lloyd George in London four times in the week starting 14 July.
    These are the events that were eventually to lead to a sovereign Irish state.
    The partition of Ireland was a necessary prerequisite for such an outcome ... a prerequisite, I'd proffer, that has now come to have been broadly accepted by a majority on the island.

    Alas the stories that some still tell themselves about the unfairness of such political pragmatism achieves little save but to cause and sustain their ongoing frustrations.

  8. Niall,

    Now you made a much more concise point and made sense!

  9. well perhaps the same old republican rhetoric has to be said over again. In 1918 there was an election which saw sinn fein and a few other pro independence parties take the over whelming majority, therefore, giving sinn fein a mandate to obtain an independent all ireland republic. Britain refused this and the war of independence went on. the democratic vote didnt work so war it was. war didnt work and we got partition, the oath and still remained under british rule. good old divide and conquer. The republic was hijacked. there has never been a third dail. never been a republic of ireland. never been a independent ireland free from british rule north or south. This is why we had a civil war, the stickies the provos the troubles the armalite the gfa and the whole mess we see today. we wanted the earth below our feet but the brits denied us that, through the ballet box and the gun we lost.