The Vestigial Union: Northern Ireland’s Precarious Place in the Molten Constitution by Seán Bernard Newman


This new Constitution Society paper looks at the historically exceptional and precarious place of Northern Ireland in the uncodified and pliable constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

Since 1922 the Acts of Union (1707) and Acts of Union (1800) remain in place despite de facto – and since 1948 de jure – Irish independence, creating a ‘Vestigial Union’ between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The paper’s author Dr Seán Bernard Newman argues that the formation of the Unions through three centuries demonstrate a pattern of themes. Firstly, English self-interest and English nationalism are crucial in forming the Unions. Secondly, British – mainly English – politicians politicise the Unions and periodically demonstrate a willingness to involve themselves in Irish and Northern Irish politics and involve Ireland and Northern Ireland in British politics to appeal to their home constituency. Thirdly, English and British policymakers treat Northern Ireland as a constitutional exception with a willingness to innovate forms of (and suspend) self-government. Fourthly, Northern Ireland’s constitutional exceptionalism causes structural precarity, as Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is changeable and a feature of its regular political discourse. Fifthly, the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community are – despite eponymous professions of loyalism and unionism – willing to resort to the threat – and the actual use – of physical force and extra-constitutional action to secure their political ends.

Dr Newman then looks at how those patterns and themes evolve and apply to the current constitutionally precarious position of Northern Ireland today. Issues such as Brexit, unstable devolution, the politicisation of the Troubles legacy within Northern Ireland, the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence and increased willingness for British politicians to use Northern Ireland as a political tool outside Northern Ireland affect political discourse and, in turn impact on the support for power-sharing institutions and the current constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

Seán Bernard Newman is a Research Fellow at The Constitution Society. He recently completed his AHRC associated funded doctorate at Birkbeck, University of London titled, ‘For God, Ulster and the ‘B’ Men: The Ulsterian Revolution, the Foundation of Northern Ireland and the Creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary, 1910-1927’.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.