'Community of the British Isles' by Ulster Vanguard (n.d.)
[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
The following pamphlet was originally published by Ulster Vanguard. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. If anyone knows who currently holds copyright for this pamphlet please contact the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
Community of the British Isles
CAIN is attempting to establish contact with the copyright holder(s) of this booklet. If anyone knows who currently holds copyright for this booklet please contact the CAIN Project.
A COMMUNITY OF THE BRITISH ISLES
A COMMUNITY OF THE BRITISH ISLES
Part I The Common Good
The common good of the British Isles is an operational concept. Lord Windleshamís perceptive analysis, recently delivered to the Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University, rested on unassailable fact. "The British Isles as a whole are off-shore islands of Europe; the two islands are separated by no more than 13 miles of water; each is committed by geographical and economic imperatives to a close and inescapable relationship with each other". The rationality in such a situation surely demands that the policies of their governments must reckon with the concept of a common good.
In so far as this factor is neglected, then, as effect follows cause, the inevitable consequence is the recurring of what is fundamentally the same difficulty, whatever new form it may assume. This is surely the lesson of the common history of these islands. Lord Windlesham confirms that the Cabinet papers and other records of the period 1918ó1925 reveal the same intractible problem then as now. The harmonising of the policies of governments with the ever-operating factor of a common good is, and must always be, the inescapable challenge to British and Irish statesmanship.
The purpose of this Paper is to declare the idea of a Community of the British Isles and to analyse the elements inherent in the idea. The members of any community, whether of individuals or of states, cannot escape the gravitational pull of their common good, respect for which best serves their several distinct and peculiar interests. In the long run they will promote their objects with greater success in common than by any other way. The idea of community rests on a principal of respect by each member for each member. This mutality of respect entails that each must be accorded equal status, that none must be treated as the mere instrument of any other, and that none must be subordinate to the will or purpose of any other. Only respect for such a principle is compatible with the idea of a community of freely-willing partners capable of pursuing their common good.
It is credible that the ultimate end of all governments and parties in the British Isles is, each in different ways, to achieve a harmony among all the peoples that live in them. Why then is it that the realisation of the end always eludes their good intentions? It is submitted that the existing political framework itself, within which their policies are devised and pursued, frustrates and defeats them. What is described as the Ulster problem today is so designated by the present political framework. Yet the stresses and strains that manifest themselves most dramatically in Ulster may be discerned as symptoms of the condition of the body politic of the British Isles. Ulster happens to be the theatre of troubles whose sources are not confined within Ulster but are to be sought in present political structures.
To speak in regional terms, there is a triangle of inter-related interests involving Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and Southern Ireland. Expressed in the same terms, the problem is to create a framework within which good relations have the best chance of developing under conditions that satisfy the aspirations of all three and offend the susceptibilities of none. A framework has to be created for the reconciling of regional interests that appear to be conflicting only when considered separately, but which, like all regional interests, are subordinate to a common good. If force is ruled out and imposed solutions are rejected in principle, as is said to be the case, then for the realisation of ends that are for the common good the application of intelligence, informed with insight, is the necessary and sufficient condition out of which will flow goodwill and voluntary consent by all parties.
Part II Historical Retrospect
Ulster people are said to be prisoners of their history, but the truth would seem to be that they are badly informed about the facts of their history. Nowhere is this more evident than in their understanding of how they came to have the measure of self-government they have had since 1920. Before that time the thrust of progressive opinion that had been gaining ground in Great Britain was in favour of repeal of the Union of 1800 for an Ireland ruled from Dublin by a parliament subordinate to Westminster. Despite Ulster opposition to this trend the British government at last passed the necessary legislation at Westminster in 1914. A British government was so wedded to Home Rule on these terms that it was prepared to risk civil war and armed rebellion in Ulster to achieve it.
The Great War intervened before that legislation could be put into effect. After the war British politicians were agreed that coercion of Ulster was unthinkable and that safeguards would have to be devised within any Home Rule arrangements that were made. The Coalition government of Liberals and Conservatives under Lloyd George produced the solution that was given statutory form in the 1920 Act.
Under it was preserved the strand of political thought that favoured unscrambling the Union of 1800. Home Rule was given to Ireland in a new form. Subordinate parliaments were to be set up in Dublin and Belfast together with a Council of Ireland with limited powers initially, but with the intention that the Dublin and Belfast parliaments should eventually by consent transfer all their powers to a Parliament of Ireland. The Council would in that event have been replaced by a Home Rule parliament for the whole of Ireland, subordinate to Westminster in matters of Imperial concern. These arrangements preserved the Home Rule idea but recognised the separate and equal rights of both parts of Ireland to a measure of self-determination.
The Conservative party had thus turned from its former stance of preserving the Union in its old form at all costs, while the Coalition Liberals had swung away from the cause of Gladstone and Asquith and abandoned the policy of establishing a Home Rule parliament for Ireland in one instalment. Both parties in the Coalition government were looking eventually to one parliament for Ireland, subordinate to Westminster, as the solution to the Irish problem that would best promote the interests of each and all regions in the British Isles.
Ulster set up its parliament and government under the 1920 Act but Southern Ireland refused. Within weeks of the ceremonial opening of the Ulster parliament the British government made a Truce with the Sinn Feinó IRA and negotiated a Treaty for Ireland with them. Ulster was merely a part of the subject-matter of the bargain. Dominion status was given to Ireland. Article I ó "Ireland" (and this included Ulster) "shall have the same constitutional status" as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa "with a Parliament with powers to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of Ireland and an Executive responsible to that Parliament, and shall be styled and known as the Irish Free State".
Ulster was given a month within which to opt out of that arrangement, subject to rectification of the border fixed by the 1920 Act a short time before. What Ulster took as a settled bargain in 1920 was by 1921 not so regarded by Westminster. What has also to be borne in mind is that Ulster never had the option of complete integration with Great Britain under a parliament at Westminster. Indeed, it was expressly refused. An amendment to the 1920 Bill to let Ulster remain in all respects a part of the United Kingdom was defeated. 129 HC Deb 1283. Ulster had only the choice of opting out of immediate integration within an Ireland dominated by the Sinn Fein-IRA and not subordinate to Westminster. Ulsterís position was then half-way between a full 1800óstyle Union with Great Britain under Westminster on the one hand and integration within an Irish state with full Dominion status under a sovereign parliament in Dublin on the other.
Ulster people have assumed that under Stormont they were an integral part of the United Kingdom. In a sense they were, for they had all the obligations to the Crown and the sovereign parliament at Westminster that the people in Great Britain had, with some ó but by no means all ó of the benefits that the people in Great Britain had. While it was intended that Ulster should pay an Imperial Contribution for the services that Westminster kept in its own hands, it was equally intended that Ulster should live on the balance of the proceeds of its own taxation without any help from Westminster. Under the system of Home Rule given by the 1920 Act there was no provision for keeping social or other services at the same level as in Great Britain. Section 21 of the 1920 Act expressly said that all grants or contributions out of the United Kingdom Exchequer for services run by the Ulster government should cease.
The intention was clearly that Ulster should live on its own income, but the British government retained the taxing powers that determined the income the Ulster government should have. The intention was also that the British government should shed all financial liability towards Ulster. It was only after pressure from the Ulster government that gradually the principle of equality of services for all citizens in the United Kingdom made headway. Even today that principle is by no means fully applied, but it has been conceded in the realm of certain social services.
Yet in another deeper sense Ulster people were not regarded by the British government as an integral part of the British community. The Ulster people had been given no say in the Treaty that affected them. That Treaty was made between Great Britain and Ireland. This mode of proceeding emphasised the separateness of Ulster in British eyes from Great Britain, even within the United Kingdom. It recognised, even then, what Westminster has since reiterated as the Irish Dimension. And it indicated that Westminster saw Ulster people more as Irish than as British people.
In the intervening years since then the two different outlooks on the relationship between Ulster and Great Britain never had to be tested until recently. Ulster people continued to regard themselves as fully an integral part of the British community as the English, Scottish, and Welsh. Now they have been confronted with the reality that they are not so regarded by the British government and, indeed, by many people in Great Britain. The troops do not know for what they fight and die. They are not sustained by patriotic sentiment towards a land they regard as theirs.
When Mr Heath said on the 20 July that "the British government and people" have the right to ask "the people of Northern Ireland" to assert themselves against violence ó although the proposition was a convertible one ó he was, consciously or unconsciously, making a distinction between Ulster people and British people and conveying that Ulster people are not seen as fully British as other people in Great Britain. When in December 1971 the Home Secretary, Mr Maudling declared that "the whole British people would warmly welcome a United Ireland", he was excluding Ulster people from the category of British people. When the people of Great Britain are told that the Irish are fighting each other in Ulster they are being conditioned to regard all Ulster people as Irish and as not really British at all.
But it is not only ordinary speech habits that reveal an attitude that denies full British status to Ulster. The explicit language of the Green Paper leaves no room for doubt. While it describes the peoples of Ulster and Great Britain as fellow-citizens, still those in Ulster are subject to an Irish Dimension; and they are given the plainest of hints that if they were no longer fellow-citizens no tears would be shed in Great Britain or in Westminster. This kind of attachment by one of the parties to a common citizenship is incompatible with any true and genuine feeling of oneness. In Great Britain Irish unity has now a higher priority than the integrity of the United Kingdom.
While Ulster people may be shocked by this discovery, still it is better they should no longer be under any illusion how things are. The truth is that they deluded themselves that they were unexpendible British citizens within the United Kingdom like the people in Great Britain, and that in more than a merely legal sense Ulster was an integral part of one Kingdom belonging to one people. They have been told on what conditions they may remain in the United Kingdom, as if the United Kingdom belonged to Great Britain and could have an existence independent of Ulster. The logic of the case is, however, that the British government have laid down the conditions for the continued existence of the United Kingdom.
British ambivalence has undoubtedly contributed to the comfortable illusion that Ulster people had about their place in the United Kingdom. Take, for example, the official Reports on the Imperial Conferences in London in 1926 and 1930, (Cmd. 2768 and 3717). In one the home delegation was listed as representing Great Britain and in the other as representing the United Kingdom. Such lapses into constitutional forgetfulness of Ulster were once regarded as amusing gaffes. In retrospect they are seen to stem from an attitude fatal to Ulsterís fond belief in a reciprocal integration of Great Britain and Ulster. In war with Germany Great Britain would have fought to the last British-integrated Ulsterman. The ties that bound the people of Ulster and Great Britain together, Winston Churchill declared, were unbreakable. But it has since been disclosed that for the use of the Republicís ports and harbours Great Britain would have reopened the Irish Question after the war to make Ireland a Nation once again. And now under latter-day stress from the IRA a British government is equally willing to take another political initiative in the same direction.
Over the same period of just over fifty years British attitudes towards Southern Ireland have also undergone a sea change. During the passage of the 1920 Act the setting up of a Republic in Ireland was regarded as incompatible with British interests. The Prime Minister said he would fight to the last gasp against the separation of Ireland from Great Britain. The government view was that that was "a British question and not purely an Irish one". The Lord Chancellor said that if a Republican parliament were set up it "would be brought to an end by any means. .. It might involve, conceivably, the conquest of the South of Ireland". 42 HL DEB 437. And on the same occasion, in response to Asquithís prediction that a Southern Ireland government would never deny "free access to Irish ports and harbours" to the British navy, he said that "under no conceivable circumstances" would the British government allow control to be in the hands of an Irish parliament.
By the end of the next year the Irish Free State was given Dominion status by Treaty; in 1937 she declared Ireland an independent sovereign state under a new Constitution; and in 1938 British use of these ports and harbours was surrendered voluntarily on the eve of war. A neutral Eire did deny access to them. She did set up a Republic in 1948; and she left the Commonwealth without consultation with the British government.
All this was done in breach of the Treaty that set up the Irish Free State. This Treaty was regarded by the Free State government as so solemn and binding that they had it registered with the League of Nations. In 1925 it was confirmed (with modifications) by the parliaments in Dublin and London.
The existing boundaries of Northern Ireland were then recognised as settled by both. And the powers of the Council of Ireland under the 1920 Act were transferred to the parliament of Northern Ireland. The British, Northern Ireland, and Free State governments were signatories to these arrangements. The British and Free State governments declared they were united in amity with the government of Northern Ireland and were resolved mutually to aid one another in a spirit of neighbourly comradeship.
British reaction to the setting up of the Republic and the challenge to British sovereignty in Ulster took the form of a political initiative. British nationality laws were altered; and although the Republic had left the Commonwealth and her citizens were no longer British, they were not classed as foreigners. As Herbert Morrison humourously assured Parliament: "Indeed the Republic of Ireland does not want to be in the Commonwealth but it does not want to be foreign. It is, as far as I know, quite sincere on both points". As a result, Republican citizens with an allegiance to the Republic that claims jurisdiction over Ulster, are today in the British army in Ulster on impartial peacekeeping.
Although the United Kingdom government affirmed in the Downing Street Declaration of August 1969 that responsibility for affairs in Northern Ireland was "entirely a matter of domestic jurisdiction" and that they undertook to assert this principle "in all international relationships", yet an exception has since been made for the Republic. The Green Paper discovered that Ulster was part of the geographical entity of Ireland, that some of the minority identified with "the wider Irish community", and that they were subject to powerful influences manifest in the Irish Constitution of 1937. For these reasons what were entirely domestic arrangements in 1969 have taken on another character in 1972. They have to be "acceptable to and accepted by" the Republic ó especially as it was about to share the rights and obligations of EEC membership. (What the EEC has to do with it has not been explained.) Accordingly the British government is not despairing of the possibility of securing a subsequent change in the status of Northern Ireland with consent, meaning a merger of some kind with the Republic.
This accommodating attitude of the British government has won approval in the Republic. Its government in response has declared that its policy now is to secure Irish unification only through the free consent of Ulster and in no other way. No open agreement has been announced between London and Dublin. Yet they have split their domestic differences: an entirely domestic British jurisdiction has suddenly assumed a duality denied in 1969.
The British Isles is now a menage a trois in which the lady, Ireland, having divorced the husband of an unwelcome marriage on grounds of incompatibility, although it had been blessed by the Holy See, lives on; while the ex-husband, Great Britain, in an endeavour to remain good friends accords her the privileges of mistress, subject to a proviso that he will not divorce his faithful spouse, Northern Ireland, without her consent; but in a Green Paper gives her grounds for divorce in the hope of re-negotiating the broken marriage within the EEC.
It is important that these should be honestly stated without wishful thinking. The problem that has to be solved is one of truth in the stating of it. Further, in this matter each region must speak for itself; no one can speak for the other. Each region speaks most honestly through its actions, but it is necessary also to bear in mind what its government and representative spokesmen say on its behalf. It has also to be borne in mind that over a period regional interests may change; but it should be possible to discern the trend and direction of change.
From the starting point in Part II British interests and attitudes towards Ireland, North and South, throughout the period have not constituted an unchanging datum. Yet despite conflicting strands certain features have persisted through the flux of events. Social and political developments are not an affair of logic but of life. At the point of time at which we now stand it is unavailing to complain against British inconsistencies ó and they have been many. To complain about facts is childish. What has to be done is to try charitably to understand the British point of view and then to reconcile it with that of other regions.
Great Britainís interest, as stated in the Green Paper, is that Ulster should be internally at peace, for otherwise the whole United Kingdom is disturbed. It is also that Ulster should not become a base for external threat to her security. Great Britain has the same interest in Ireland as a whole. It is believed in Great Britain that a politically united Ireland, if that could be achieved by consent, would best secure her interest. To recognise that her objective is reasonable involves no commitment or agreement as to the feasibility of the means Great Britain chooses to adopt to achieve her ends.
Out of a conflict of wills between Great Britain and a section of the people in Ireland Great Britain abandoned all prospect of formal political union with Ireland. The process of separation that begun with Home Rule cannot in British eyes be stayed indefinitely. Persuaded by an inevitable logic, Great Britain has become its ardent supporter. "Great Britain has no essential strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland; indeed it is a costly burden". So St John Stevas wrote in an article in The Times of 28 July 1972. No doubt he expressed a widely held view, and he has since become a member of the Conservative government. The obvious inconsistency between this view and the statement of British interest in the Green Paper is no bar to belief in both in Great Britain, so strong is the desire to escape Irish entanglements and despite the inescapable relationship to which Lord Windhesham referred as unassailable fact.
In justification of its Irish policy Great Britain has succumbed to the case for Irish nationalism although Lord Windlesham (not to mention others) intellectually admits the fallacy of its geographical and historical premises. The accident of sea level which makes Ireland a visible geographical entity, combined with the vehemence of Irish insistence of its claim to a national identity, has proved stronger than intellectual considerations. When emotion, not reason, is arbiter, men accept what they want to accept. On her record in Ireland Great Britain believes that international opinion is unalterably unsympathetic to her continued presence there. Only her entanglement with Ulster has delayed her withdrawal.
To Ulster she is committed by pledges that she cannot openly break without loss of national honour. Yet performance of them she conceives to be contrary to her other interests. Her dilemma is deserving of sympathy, which Ulster people have not yet been able to give her. This circumstance has tended further to alienate her from that section of the Ulster people that love her best. To justify her Irish policy she has been induced to accept charges of systematic and widespread misgovernment in Ulster over the last fifty years, committed under her nose without her knowledge. Unless perfection is the criterion, the charges are ridiculous. Yet she professes to believe a caricature of the truth and has convinced herself of its similitude to truth.
Accusations tend to be self-accusations; the Ulster government was no more guilty of such misgovernment of Ulster than was Great Britain herself. Irish allegations of electoral gerrymandering were invented before Stormont was invented. The Restoration of Order in Ireland Act was a Westminster invention before it was copied in the Special Powers Act. The necessity that was "a complete justification" for the one was surely equally so for the other. An armed RUC was the successor of an armed RIC.
And what does Ulster conceive to be her regional interest? Her interest now conflicts with Great Britainís. Ulster passionately wants close integration with Great Britain, or rather her image of Great Britain. Ties of history and kinship make the majority cleave close to the embarrassed larger partner, whose feelings are distinctly less intense in those respects. At the same time Ulster has become aware that her sentiments towards Great Britain are not reciprocated; and thus she would decline to be Great Britainís for the giving away. In this situation the majority in Ulster for self-protection feel they require a larger measure of self-government than Great Britain at present feels disposed to give. What Great Britain would withhold in pursuit of her interest, Ulster wants in order to protect hers.
The pledge in the Ireland Act 1949 was given as an assurance that Ulsterís place in the United Kingdom was secure. It was not to be changed without the consent of Ulsterís parliament. There were no other terms or conditions; the pledge was absolute. Since then other terms seem to have been liberally added in the Green Paper. To Ulster people the suspension of the Ulster parliament, whose continuance the pledge presupposed, seems at variance with the pledge itself. The varieties of successor assemblies, canvassed as open possibilities in the Green Paper, suggest that in British eyes the parliament of the pledge now means whatever expediency requires it to mean; whereas to Ulster people it means a parliament as defined by the 1920 Act.
With direct rule Great Britain has sowed mistrust of its sincerity towards Ulster. For the first time civil government in Ulster no longer has the consent of the majority and can thus no longer be termed democratic. Westminster rule in one part of the United Kingdom on principles that do not apply in the
other part, and would not be tolerated in it, is injurious not only to Ulster, but also to the United Kingdom as well. Ironically, Ulster that tried to work the 1920 Act ended up with the Crown Colony government ó Mr Faulkner throws in a coconut as well ó that Southern Ireland was to get if she refused to work it, as she did.
What Southern Ireland conceives to be in her interest may be briefly stated. She believes that by natural right Ireland should be ruled as one from Dublin and that the British should commit themselves openly to withdrawal from Ulster. At the same time the Republican government is committed now to Irish political union only on the basis of consent by Ulster. Given that that should come about, the conditions would then exist for friendly relations with Great Britain. Her position is thus practically identical with Great Britain's; Ulster is the odd man out.
Out of these statements of regional interest one common factor emerges. All regions subscribe to the principle of free consent on which their relations with each other should be governed and upon which their political structures should be founded. Great Britain claims her own right to consent to union with Ulster within a United Kingdom when she lays down the terms on which Ulster may remain within it. But she recognises that Ulster has a similar right of her own. Clement Attlee, presenting the Ireland Bill, said: "We recognise equally the right of the Parliament of Northern Ireland to decide on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland to stay in or leave the United Kingdom and Commonwealth". Southern Ireland, too, having established her own right to self-determination, recognises that Irish unity depends on the free consent of Ulster. Ulster herself has always claimed and exerted the right to government by consent. Although it tends to be forgotten and misconstrued, the old slogan, "Not an Inch", was the first portion of the phrase, "Not an inch without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland".
The political structure, within which Great Britain and Ulster are now joined, was accepted by Ulster although it was never sought by her. No Ulster Member voted for the principle of Home Rule in the 1920 Act. Indeed the whole conception was a British one and it was a failure. It could not be implemented in Southern Ireland. The Council of Ireland, "the germinal principle" on which the British government set such store for achieving Irish unity, was abandoned within a few years of the passing of the 1920 Act. Ulster appointed representatives to the Council in June 1921, but the Irish Free State never did.
For fifty years Ulster tackled the problem of government within that half-discarded structure. That she had not fully succeeded in that time in solving the legacy of inherited difficulties, created by British rule over a long span of time, has to be admitted. Yet it ill becomes those to criticise, who themselves failed over centuries. For whatever the shortcomings, Ulster government achieved more in half a century than British government over centuries. Ulster enjoyed better government over fifty years than ever before in her history, and certainly better than what has succeeded it.
The weakness in the political arrangements of 1920 was that one party understood that it was to be master in its own house, whereas (as it has since turned out) the other party conceived that its formal legal sovereignty required it to intervene, when it thought fit, in those internal affairs it had transferred. Its ignorance of those internal problems, which its confessed blindness to the supposed misgovernment of fifty years necessarily presupposes, hardly equips it for tackling them successfully. On the record of its recent intervention it can be objectively asserted that its well-intentioned efforts have been disastrous. They have not brought peace. They have polarised communities, not reconciled them. And they have set up new tensions between Ulster and Great Britain. Westminster set out to smash the Unionist political monolith to which was attributed the cause of Ulsterís troubles. In that it has succeeded to an extent, but it has put nothing constructive in its place. Regrettably, it must be said that its constructive intentions have had remarkably destructive results.
Well might Great Britain recall Edmund Spencerís dictum that "it is the fatall desteny of that land, that noe purposes, whatsoever are meant for her good, will prosper or take good effect". It may also be equally apposite to recall Laskiís dictum in relation to Ulster that good government is no substitute for self-government. Because the anti-Unionist minority in Stormont were opposed to the fundamental purpose of the majority, as it was known they would be when passing the 1920 Act, Westminster "prorogued" it and thereby introduced a dangerous precedent. "It is most dangerous", said Sir David Maxwell Fyffe in 1949, "when a Parliament does not contain a majority of people accepting oneís own views, to attack the institution of Parliament. It has been the first step in the downfall of Parliamentary government in more countries than one would like to think about".
These observations are set down, not to indulge in reproach but to indulge in reality. British statesmen are, it must be supposed, well supplied with factual information about Ulster. But better informed people might say they would know as little as the British government about Ulster if they had read as much. What is it that they lack? They lack direct acquaintance, they lack understanding ó none of which good intentions alone can supply. It would be unkind to quote the many statesmanlike utterances in Westminster since 1969 in debates that were exercises in unreality. Either events were wrong or they were wrong; but events have a way of being right. By calculated miscalculation the British government has come to believe in the unpredictability of Ulster affairs that to Ulster people were the predictible and the predicted consequences of British action. The British government lent an ear only to voices that told them what they wanted to hear; and the more exasperated they became with their lack of success, the more they blamed the victims of their mistakes. The course of action they chose led them against their will and their interest into a course of last resort, direct rule ó an historic blunder.
The feature of the political structure that led to intervention was the claim to sovereignty in regard to Ulsterís internal affairs. It had been supposed that this was reserved as a constitutional formality that was consistent with Ulsterís understanding that she was to be master in her own house. The Marquess of Dufferin and Ava expressed the prevailing view on the 1920 Bill. Once Ulster had her own Parliament, "that Parliament can only be done away with by the vote of the Ulster Parliament itself". 42 HL Deb 811. In regard to Ulster (and to Southern Ireland) the reservation of sovereign power was expressed in Section 75 of the 1920 Act. But the exercise of legal power was supposed to be subject to public opinion and political realities in Ulster, as in Southern Ireland. In theory Westminster is legally omnipotent, as Lord Hailsham has put it. Sic volo sic jubeo. But theorists admit that Parliamentary sovereignty or omnipotence is in practice circumscribed by political realities, that is, by public opinion. Good law may sometimes be bad statesmanship.
The exercise of legal omnipotence in Ulsterís internal affairs to overthrow an elected Parliament has brought Westminster into conflict with a sacred canon of British democracy ó the consent of the governed. Even if the abrupt exercise of the sovereign power can be said to have had the backing of public opinion in Great Britain, still its exercise alienated Westminster government from majority opinion in Ulster. No doubt a political judgment was made in favour of a consensus among the parties in Westminster against the disadvantage of unfavourable Ulster opinion. The point is that the 1920 structure contained the potentiality for serious disagreement and for constitutional crisis over Ulster.
We are thus face to face with a feature of the structure that (according to Westminsterís interventionist interpretation) has saddled Westminster with responsibilities for internal affairs in a part of Ireland. Yet her statesmen had hoped to be rid of these by the 1920 solution. They had tried to give away that part of the powers they had under the Union that they did not wish to retain. In 1972 it was apparent they had failed to do so.
Under the present political structure, while an interventionist sovereignty over Ulsterís internal affairs resides in Westminster where Ulsterís representatives are outnumbered by fifty to one, Ulsterís consent is a devalued notion. Ulsterís consent cannot legally prevail against Westminsterís dissent. Ultimately, it is Westminsterís consent, not Ulsterís, that counts. Ulsterís consent only counts if Westminster agrees. On top of that, the nature of Westminster sovereignty is such that she may legally consent one day and legally dissent the next.
But the necessary condition for free consent is capacity to dissent. In Ulsterís case Westminster sovereignty is incompatible with free consent by Ulster. Within that relationship Ulster may not lawfully dissent against a sovereign powerís consent; nor lawfully consent against its dissent. Westminster claims responsibility for final decisions. Westminster has exercised, is exercising, and will exercise its power ó directly or indirectly, it does not matter. Particular exercises may not conflict with Ulsterís conception of its regional interest, but inherent in the power is a claim that Ulster is in all things, including those she holds most dear, subordinate to Westminsterís will; and may be overborne by it at will.
Since Westminster does not regard Ulster people as British, but as Irish, her sovereign power in Ulster is, on her own terms, wielded over a people who do not "belong" in her eyes. The power is at root, then, exercised by one people over another, an "alien" domination of the weak by the strong.
Given that Westminster and Ulster are at variance fundamentally on the matter of internal government in Ulster and on Westminsterís posture towards the Republic, the United Kingdom is a house divided. A house divided cannot stand. Westminster sovereignty may drive, and is driving, Westminster along a course destructive of inter-regional harmony within the British Isles. It is that sovereignty that is therefore hostile to the idea of a Community of the British Isles, conceived as a partnership of freely willing and freely consenting parts.
The nature of the present political structure of the British Isles is that free consents of equal value are not possible in all regions. The three regions are not of equal bargaining stature. The unalloyed doctrine of Westminster sovereignty means that Ulster can never act as a principal in her own right. Sovereignty imposes on Westminster the responsibility for giving Ulsterís consent. This is a responsibility she cannot discharge.
Proof was provided by the 1921 Treaty and the 1925 Confirmation of it. The 1921 Treaty purported to bind Ulster without the consent of her parliament. By the Treaty Great Britain surrendered her sovereignty over Ireland. By opting out Ulster prevented the Irish Free State acquiring sovereignty in relation to Ulster. The interventionist sovereignty Great Britain now claims in Ulster she owes to Ulster. By the Treaty representatives of Great Britain, exclusive of Ulster, had without consultation with the Ulster government agreed to set up a Border Commission to revise the line of the border. Ulster felt no obligation to appoint a representative on the Commission when she was not a party to the Treaty; and she refused a formal request to do so.
The Privy Council advised the British government that they could not by the terms of the Treaty appoint Ulsterís representative. There was "no constitutional method under existing statute law" by which they could do so. Thereupon the British government made another supplemental treaty with the Free State in 1924 by which it was agreed that the British government should appoint a representative for Ulster on the Commission; and this treaty was confirmed in the parliament at Westminster. But the British government seem to have realised that for the "final" settlement in 1925 of what was begun by the 1921 Treaty Ulster had to become a consenting party. At any rate the Ulster government was a signatory with the other two governments to the 1925 settlement.
Since the present political arrangements, as operated by Westminster, are incompatible with achieving agreements pertaining to the whole British Isles by the free consent of all three parts, the only solution in principle to this difficulty is modification of the present doctrine of sovereignty, as applied to Ulster.
"They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live". Art. 3, Atlantic Charter.
Let us now consider a new model for the British Isles in which the three regions are politically independent in the sense that all relationships derived from this position will be seen to have been freely negotiated and to bear the stamp of free consent. From such an initial position Great Britain would have shed her "colonial" past, freed from the international embarrassments that that has caused her. She would also throw off the trammels of the residual sovereignty she exercises unwillingly in Ireland as a legacy of that past; and she would thereby disarm her critics in and out of Ireland. At the same time Lord Windleshamís geographical and economic imperatives would compel all three regions to seek a modus vivendi with each other.
The conditions would then exist for the first time for the healthy development of the idea of a Community of the British Isles based on mutuality of respect between the regions. The essential condition for consents to be freely given would exist, namely that the consenting parties would be free to consent on their own behalf. Regional interests would find their own proper expression within any relationships negotiated under such conditions and none would be under domination by another. Out of the free play of regional interests interacting upon one another a common good would emerge. For in what does a common good consist? It consists in the maximisation of separate interests that are subject to automatic check imposed by all upon each. Each regional interest could only be pursued to the lengths permitted by the corresponding regional interests of the others.
The foregoing assumes that the separate regions have ruled out the use of force in pursuit of their interests and that they are committed to free consent as the principle that is to govern their relationships. Both the government of the United Kingdom and of the Republic are already committed to these by their public statements.
No single region is required under the conditions postulated to surrender any present aspiration. The Republic aspires to a united Ireland. She need not give up that aspiration; she need merely pursue it under the conditions stated. She must therefore woo Ulster, at present unwilling; but who can say that she would forever reject her suitor under all possible conditions. Great Britain wants peace and prosperity in Ireland for stability in the British Isles. The peace and prosperity of both parts of Ireland is thus a regional interest of Great Britain. In such a regional interest the common good of the British Isles is plainly visible. It is not too much to say that in time the contours of the common good will be visible in every regional interest where they lie concealed today. For as we have seen, regional interests may change in the course of time under the influence of circumstance. It is not too optimistic to expect that the three regions, exercising the new kind of responsibility in the New Model, would find that the dimension of the common good would loom large in every formulation of regional interest in every subject-matter.
It is not contended that the New Model could be brought to life overnight. Transitional problems would have to be faced. But it is contended that a statement of intent by all three regions through their governments to move towards the New Model would hasten its realisation.
The New Model would give rise to four sets of problems ó Ulsterís relations with Great Britain, with the Republic, her internal relations between her two communities, and Great Britainís relations with the Republic. It is not proposed to do more here than suggest how these would be transformed in the New Model.
The link that the Ulster majority wish to retain with Great Britain could be accommodated within a new set of relationships worked out between them. As much of the present links as both agreed they wished to keep, they could mutually agree to keep. Foreign affairs, defence, even a common citizenship . . . all are possible by consent. Great Britainís interest is that Ulster should not become a base to threaten her security; that would be the wish of Ulster too. Whatever facilities Great Britain needed, Ulster would be willing, aye eager, to give her. The free movement of people between Ulster and Great Britain would undoubtedly be the wish of both. Ulster would want to preserve the advantages of the financial relationship she now enjoys. Undoubtedly Great Britain would wish to treat her generously. Belfastís motto, pro tanto quid retribuimus, aptly describes the principle connecting giving and receiving. With goodwill, it should not be beyond the wit of statesmen to devise arrangements that would comprehend the interests of both in close friendship based on respect. Although there would be a new beginning, there need be no abrupt change. A peaceful constitutional revolution, or rather evolution, need not make a rent in the seamless web of history.
Ulsterís relations with the Republic could be transformed for the better. The New Model would in itself remove a basic cause of friction. Even under the old arrangements there was less coldness between the peoples themselves than is popularly made out. It would now obviously be in their interest to cooperate regionally for their advantage in ways that were not possible before and on a different scale. In the New Model such coming together in friendship and respect would in a short time smooth the sharp edges of past differences. The only limit to fruitful co-operation need be the limits of originality in devising ways to promote it. At the same time all three regions could consciously create relationships together to advance the good of all and give practical expression to the idea of a Community of the whole British Isles.
And what of the internal relations within Northern Ireland itself? The absence of British sovereignty would remove one of the causes of friction and help confront both communities with the realities of the situation. The reality is that they have got to live together. That problem, it would be apparent, could not be solved by fighting each other. The competing claims of sovereignty by Great Britain and the Republic over Northern Ireland, which is a major irritant in the present political structure, being transformed into an invitation to both communities to develop as close relations as they chose with those two regions, the conditions would exist for Ulsterís two communities to do just that.
Their rivalries would find expression, if they chose, in political action. For politics in Ulster would be about two things: relations with other regions and internal affairs, the one affecting the other. If Unionist and Nationalist party politics continued, the differences between the parties would be about the ties they proposed Ulster should have with the other two regions. But that question could in the New Model not be isolated from the content of policies with regard to internal affairs. Between the extremes of policies advocating complete linkage with one or other region would be an intermediate point around which policies would tend to cluster across old dividing lines. For Ulster is not so completely polarised between two extremes that within the New Model there would be no common ground on economic and social matters.
The Unionist and Nationalist parties, if they wished to remain viable, would have to reckon with such issues. Competition between them on these matters would transform them. Resistence to change along these lines by one or other would be an invitation to other political groups to arise. Whether the old parties liked it or not, they would have to face other political challenges, for Ulster people would not be likely to confine themselves to a choice between the two old parties. The New Model would give birth to new politics of a healthy kind. Neither the land border nor the Irish Sea would be the only issues in the new politics.
The germ of the idea of a New Model for the British Isles was planted by Vanguard in Ulster a Nation published a year ago. The view was then expressed that the fundamental condition for inter-regional co-operation within the British Isles for the good of all regions was mutuality of respect. The present Paper pursues the analysis still further. Vanguard had then an open mind as to the institutional framework within which policies of cooperation should be pursued; and even now the content of the relationships which are possible within the New Model are not stated dogmatically; for their content must be left to the democratic processes to discover.
No doubt Vanguardís critics may see in the present proposals a UDI in disguise instead of a constructive set of proposals aiming at the common good. True, it is radical enough to advocate a kind of separation, but separation without estrangement with any region. It recognises that the regions of the British Isles are joined by what separates them, and separated by what in the past has joined them.
One objection that is insisted upon, even by the British government, is that no form of independence for Ulster is viable economically. This is an echo of the opinion that wishful-thinking British Liberals once held about Ireland as a whole. "I do not believe an Irish Republic is a practical possibility" (Asquith). Ulster people have been conditioned to accept an inferiority that practically determines their political decisions for them. Let it be said that this view is challenged, and not merely by Vanguard. The Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Conflict, University College, London states that this belief in Ulsterís non-viability "is now known to be false". And he states: "The smallest of areas can be viable as a state, e.g. Tonga, provided they are part of a wider economic system. Northern Ireland, as part of the Common Market, or merely as a unit within the internation trading system, would be as viable as any other state". Indeed reputable economists would argue that freedom of manoeuvre would do much to rid Ulster of some of the structural unemployment and under-employment from which she suffers.
Before ending, some attempt must be made to face the question put by the Right Hon. William Craig in a recent speech that aroused widespread attention. Recognising that within the present political structure Ulsterís two communities have conflicting loyalties, Mr Craig asked whether these loyalties were incompatible with a common loyalty to Ulster herself. A simple but seminal question. The answer is undoubtedly NO. This obvious answer embarrasses only those who have already pinned their political colours to one or other of two masts.
Both communities love Ulster, their small but dearest land. Mr Craig touched a reconciling emotion that all Ulstermen share, an emotion that may be correctly called patriotic. Community differences arise over the political structure within which Ulster is to be set. Ulster people have not, as has been shown, been asked to choose for Ulster alone, but rather between two structural alternatives, each of which divides them. Because they disagree on these, hands are thrown up in despair about their irreconcilable differences. The one alternative on which they could unite has never been offered them ó probably because no modern statesman has thought about it. Mr Craig has made an original contribution that may well have significant consequences when it enters the consciousness of Ulster people. The media are unfortunately unperceptive and the idea has to make headway against a deal of prejudice and ignorance. So far it has been mis-translated as "going it alone" in the face of economic sanctions by Great Britain.
There are those whose acquaintance with Irish history leads them to regard it as nothing but a divisive influence on the Ulster community. This has led them to advocate the blockheaded political precept that Ulster people must forget the past. A condition of forgetting is that there should first be a remembering. Those who do not remember the past cannot forget it. Forgiving depends on remembering, not on forgetting; otherwise there is no virtue in forgiving. Selective forgetting is certainly a novel political precept, even if it could be cultivated as a conscious discipline. The advocates of historical amnesia take virtuous pride in advancing a self-contradicting notion; yet suppression of historical truth is not only immoral, it is a cultural crime. A people that forget their past have to invent it; they cannot do without it. No people would willingly tear up their historical birth certificate.
A longer perspective of Ulster contains elements that do not divide but unite the communities in a way that escapes the barbarian advocates of historial amnesia. The symbols of Ulsterís mighty past ó the Ulster Cycle of heroic legends, the sagas of Fionn and Ossian, Ulsterís heraldic Red Hand, St Patrick ó enrich the heritage of Western civilisation. The distant past reminds all that Ulsterís history did not begin with the Plantation. The Great Wall of Ulster, sometimes called the Black Pigís Dyke, partitioned Ireland before the Norman Invasion. Ulsterís pre-history is a subject that all Ulstermen of whatever political affiliations can explore together. Its visible monuments are scattered over Ulster to excite and enthrall all men.
The history of Ulster and Scotland intertwine. "No Scot ever set foot on British soil save from a vessel from Ireland". Migrating Ulstermen were the Scotti who gave modern Scotland its name. The royal line of Scottish kings descended from Fergus Mor from Dunseverick in Dalriada; as indeed Queen Elizabeth II herself. From Dunseverick the Stone of Destiny found its way to Scone and thereafter to Westminster. On it British monarchs sit to be crowned to this day.
When Robert Bruce invited the Irish to join the Scots against the English in the 14th century he was able to remind them that they shared a common origin, customs and language. The Scots who came to Ulster with the Plantation were returning to the land their ancestors had left long before. The words of the refrain, Lillibullero, bullen a la, in the famous song were a loyalist pass-word in Gaelic; and the song lampoons General Talbot, King Jamesí Lord Lieutenant, who had "recommended himself to his bigoted master by an arbitrary treatment of the Protestants". And recently an Orange Lodge has been formed with a Gaelic motto on its banner.
The events of later times are divisive ó but only in certain circumstances. The communities have a subtle understanding of each other. They can laugh at their differences; the Auld Orange Flute gives pleasure to nationalist audiences. No wonder they say the Protestants have all the best tunes. For each community has curiously a respect amounting to pride in the tenacity with which the other preserves the integrity of its point of view. Indeed they would think less of each other as Ulstermen if it were otherwise. In a way that is not given to outsiders to understand they are not irreconcilably divided. Outside Ulster their fellow-feeling as Ulstermen overcomes their differences. In Ulster it is political structure that divides them. Give them a structure of their own and their animosities will give way to healthy rivalry.
Not unnaturally, Ulstermen resent interference from outside in their affairs, even from well-intentioned friends. Eddie MíAteer, the Nationalist leader said on the fall of Stormont that he would rather be ruled by fellowUlstermen than from the smoke-rooms of Westminster. If the British wish to see a united Ireland, their interference will be fatal to its realisation. The Irish do not wish it to be brought about by anybody but themselves. For Westminster to be seen as match-maker, as she now is, can only spoil the match. If Westminster is as disinterested as she says she is, Ulstermen would wish her to lay down her "white manís burden" and cease being a busybody. She will be sufficiently exercised in making her own peace with the Irish without assuming responsibility for acting the honest broker in Ulster.
Long ago it was admitted that Irishmen were by intuition, knowledge and temperament best fitted for solving their own problems. It was an Englishman who found that in Irish affairs, if you wish to see straight, you must look round the corner. That is how it appears to Englishmen but Irish affairs are only complicated by an Anglo-dimension, just as internal English affairs would be complicated in reverse. The Nationalist MP, T. P. OíConnor, referring to negotiation between Nationalists and Orangemen, once said about Westminster politicians: "I wish to goodness they would leave us alone. We could make a deal among ourselves if we had not these gentlemen honouring our island with occasional visits . . . Am I asked at this date to defend the principle that men must be free to choose their own government ?"
It was a Chief Secretary in Ireland who advised Westminster that if they wished to change attitudes in Ireland they must begin by changing their own. This is what the New Model entails, so that enlightened self-interest may develop naturally in all three regions. Is there any other possible way except by imposed or manipulated solutions. With malice towards none and charity towards all Vanguard invites men of goodwill to grasp the idea of a Community of the British Isles based on inter-regional co-operation and inter-regional respect.
Despite the turmoil of recent times there is latent within Ulster and, indeed, Ireland, what will respond to a generous and imaginative gesture. Through a nobler conquest of the regions within the embrace of a Community of the British Isles the New Model could achieve liberty, equality, and fraternity. For Ireland, "the island of incomparable beauty", with a people "so individual in its genius, so tenancious in its love or hate, so captivating in its nobler moods", then
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
Last modified :