With the recent and inevitable collapse of the Stormont Executive, and the resultant debate surrounding political arrangements for the six counties, I wish to weigh in with a suggestion regarding same.
Whilst some ideas publicly presented have smacked of petulant naivety, the idea of placing the six counties at a remove from other jurisdictions has some merit. However, the one certainty for a permanent and just resolution to the divisions in Ireland is that any settlement must be structured within the context of an independent, all-island Republic.
Therefore the suggestion for consideration is based upon the idea of a semi-autonomous Ulster set within an Irish Republic.
Ulster, in this instance, is defined as the nine accepted counties plus County Louth which was traditionally part of the province of Ulster.
Within the new setting, Ulster citizens would have de facto control over their region, with the Dublin government having pseudo-federalist powers that would in effect be minimal or non-existent. The Ulster assembly would be situated in Armagh city, the ancient seat of power for the province, in a further demonstration of the commitment to our shared Ulster identity, that identity which is the common ground upon which any lasting agreement can be built.
Any new provincial governance should be strictly secular, with clear separation between the state and any religious doctrine, but with freedom of religion for all.
I would suggest that such a constitutional agreement be put in place for no less than one generation, with provision being made for a referendum after that time in which the people of Ulster decide upon either retaining their semi-autonomous status or becoming further politically integrated into the Irish Republic.
Although it is true that we must place focus upon our shared Ulster identity, Unionists should remember that Ulster is described as a ‘province’ for a reason, namely that it is but one of the five traditional provinces of Ireland. To be an Ulster person is to be an Irish person.
It must also be accepted by Unionists that demographic trends show that they will inevitably become the minority within the six counties, regardless of any immature claims to the contrary. They should face up to the inevitable rather than employing ostrich politics.
Prudent Unionism, whilst making some concessions, will have become proactive in ensuring a future of peace and equality for their descendants. They will go into the provincial settlement in a position of strength, as opposed to clinging on until their bitter weakened end ensuring nothing but mutual resentment and future uncertainty for their people.
A strong role for any British government would be of paramount import in such a monumental arrangement. A fixed date for withdrawal, and the dissolution of any constitutional claim to any part of Ireland, should be set (10 years?), after which time Unionism must know that the union will be no more. Removing this ‘out’ for Unionism will ensure that they assent to a justifiable future.
This Plan for Ulster is offered for debate in providing an alternative to what has been an unethical partitionist debacle. It is an attempt to focus upon our shared Ulster identity in a manner that would assist with a relatively smooth transition into Ulster’s tomorrow. It should grant us all the breathing space necessary to understand one another anew, not only those of us within the six counties, but all the inhabitants of our island.