Northern Ireland’s precarious place in the molten constitution

Alex Walker
By: Alex Walker

Recent events in Northern Ireland – in particular the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan on 3 February 2022 – have highlighted once more the precarity of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements and the exceptional nature of the constitutional settlement that underpins them. The continued operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was the key reason cited for the resignation, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) looking to display a tough stance on the issue to shore up its traditional support ahead of the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly taking place on 5 May. The DUP has indicated that the party could refuse to return to government after the election unless the Protocol is scrapped. This stands in contrast to the more compromising position adopted by the UK government since Liz Truss took over negotiations with the European Union on the matter and Russia invaded Ukraine. Recent polling suggests that Northern Ireland may be about to elect its first Sinn Fein First Minister. Nevertheless, without a shift in the DUP’s position or significant change to the Protocol, it will likely prove difficult to restore the Executive. Northern Ireland’s place within the Union remains precarious and uncertain. A new paper examining the contested and contingent history of Northern Ireland shows that this has long been the case.  

The Vestigial Union: Northern Ireland’s Precarious Place in the Molten Constitution – written by Dr Seán Bernard Newman and published today by The Constitution Society – takes a long view of the constitutional history of Northern Ireland, charting over several centuries the journey that led its creation and survival in the Union. The paper goes back to the 1707 Acts of Anglo-Scottish Union, which provided the ‘buttress’ for the Anglo-Irish Acts of Union in 1800. It then traces the challenges this Union faced from the Home Rule movements of the nineteenth century to the ‘Orange Agitation’ and the forces that eventually led to partition in 1921. Newman draws out five themes from his historical analysis that continue to be pertinent today – longstanding tendencies that, although they will inevitably manifest in different ways, can help us understand the contemporary situation and what comes next.

The first of these themes is that of English self-interest and nationalism, which Newman identifies as instrumental to both the Anglo-Scots Union (1707) and the Anglo-Irish Union (1800). In both 1707 and 1800, union was preceded by a period of legislative independence for Scotland and Ireland. This was accompanied, again in both instances, by a deterioration in relations with England. Furthermore, national security concerns relating to the increased autonomy and antagonism of its respective neighbours made union an attractive option for England. Throughout the nineteenth century self-interest continued to drive British policy in Ireland, as both Conservative and Liberal governments worked the Irish question to secure parliamentary majorities. When after the First World War it became apparent that the Anglo-Irish Union no longer served British and Imperial interests, formerly outspoken British Unionist politicians fell silent as the establishment looked to extricate itself from Ireland.

Connectedly, Newman highlights a recurring tendency for British – typically English – politicians to politicise Ireland for their own domestic audience and advantage. From 1910 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the ‘Orange Agitation’ took place – where Ulster Unionists mobilised militantly against Irish Home Rule. Despite the fragility of the situation and the threat of widespread violence, Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law sought to ‘play the Orange Card’ and was unwavering in his support for the Ulster Unionists. Newman argues that this was largely a political game for the Conservatives, aimed at bringing down the Liberal government whilst enhancing their imperialist and patriotic image amongst the British electorate.

The events of the Orange Agitation demonstrate clearly another of Newman’s themes – that at times the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community have been willing to resort to extra-constitutional means in the pursuit of their political goals. He calls the extra-constitutionality of the ‘Ulsterians’ the ‘hallmark of the Orange Agitation’, which ‘deeply ingrains Ulster exceptionalism’ and ‘highlights the precarity of the Union in the period’. Despite the irony, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, established in 1911, were prepared to use force against the British Army to maintain the constitutional status-quo in the event of Home Rule for Ireland.

Finally, the paper explores the constitutional exceptionalism of Northern Ireland and the many instances in which British policymakers have experimented constitutionally in the region. This is especially apparent in the period around the Sunningdale Peace Process and Agreement, which was reached in 1973. Sunningdale established power-sharing institutions in the region for the first time, after a variety of innovative options for solving the Ulster Question were considered (including, for instance, condominium in Northern Ireland between Britain and Ireland). This was followed by a period of Loyalist extra-constitutional action reminiscent of the Orange Agitation that led to the collapse of the first power-sharing experiment in 1974. The newly elected Wilson government explored a number of further innovative constitutional options to restore stability to the region, including a European-style ‘cantonal’ option within a Dominion of Northern Ireland and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, full, non-devolved integration into the UK via enhanced local government. Instead, in the end, the UK Secretary of State continued to govern Northern Ireland directly until the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Newman concludes that this constitutional exceptionalism underpins structural precarity in the region as ‘Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is changeable and a feature of its regular political discourse.’

History doesn’t repeat itself. Nevertheless, the historical patterns drawn out in Newman’s paper can aid understanding of contemporary events and challenges in Northern Ireland. The short-term aims of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 continue to have long-term consequences for its constitutional stability in the context of the shifting demographics of the six counties. English nationalism has continued to have in impact – most notably through its intertwinement with Brexit, which has caused significant political upheaval in particular through the Protocol. The politicisation of Northern Ireland by UK politicians on both the left and the right compromises the UK establishment’s neutrality and ability to deal with issues in the region. Finally, given the role of the Anglo-Scottish Union as a justification for the later union between Britain and Ireland, the prospect of Scottish independence poses a potential challenge to what would then remain of the UK. These issues remain very much alive and unsettled as Northern Ireland goes to the polls in May.

Alex Walker is Communications Manager and Researcher at The Constitution Society. He edits and contributes to the blog. You can read Dr Seán Newman’s report in full here.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.