Monday, March 27, 2006

Joint Sovereignty in the Here and Now

So, having met up in Brussels, Bertie and Tony will come over to Belfast for a last ditch attempt at getting the whole thing rolling. I’m not so sure they’re going to be successful, at least according to the standard they’ve set themselves: the stable running of an assembly with an executive.

Isn’t it time, though that we recognised the more fundamental fact about Northern Ireland politics? That, functioning Assembly or not, joint sovereignty exists in the here and now.

People – especially across these islands – tend to think sovereignty is a simple question of which flag flies over their public buildings. Sovereignty seems to mean total freedom from outside interference.

But sovereignty is never absolute. Legislative and political decisions cannot be made free from the influence of other institutions or factors. Indeed, we’re not even free from the influence of our own past decisions. Ireland, for example, is not totally sovereign because, through referenda, the Irish people handed a small part of their sovereignty over to the European Union.

In any case, and this is just as analogously important to a discussion of joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland, even if Ireland wasn’t a member of the EU, it wouldn’t be sovereign in a full or absolute sense. Ministers would still be trapped in their decisions by their calculations over the vicissitudes of international markets and Ireland’s place in them. Sovereignty implies autonomy and that is just impossible to have in full.

On the formal level, the Good Friday Agreement, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty before that, saw Westminster handing some portion of sovereignty over to the Irish state. Just as when it joined the EU, the UN and the IMF. So, on a formal level, the implementation of the GFA treaty in Northern Ireland is a matter for the consideration of both the Dublin and London governments.

Moreover, informally, no British government will move in Northern Ireland without some degree of collaboration with Dublin. We shouldn’t mistake a much-vaunted Parliamentary sovereignty either for freedom of action or for a wish for freedom of action.

But let’s not lose the run of ourselves. Joint sovereignty doesn’t mean that decisions are made on some sort of 50:50 basis – that authority is split down the middle. Ireland’s influence over Northern Ireland is probably more akin to Germany’s influence over French policies through the EU. But, on major decisions, Northern Ireland is not best thought of as being solely at the mercy of Westminster. Whether or not there’s an assembly makes no difference to this.

This fact, as it stands, represents better news for Unionists than they may think and worse news for Nationalists than they may think.

Given the Irish state’s general credo that a little of something for free is better than having it all at a price (viz NATO) I suspect that they’re rather happy with the status quo. They are seen to be a strong voice for nationalist interests in London and (given how much higher Northern Ireland is on the Irish agenda than it is on the British one) they can set the Northern Ireland agenda without actually paying much for the place. This is probably deemed much preferable to the hallowed United Ireland. And, given that, the Nationalist’s best friend may very well not share their ultimate goals.

Unionists for their part should actually loudly welcome the Irish role. Instead of harping on about British sovereignty they ought see the Irish role as being a price worth paying for making Northern Ireland habitable for Nationalists in perpetuity. They should think of it as renting out one field so they can keep the farm. Indeed, given the fact that, ultimately, the Irish state is on their side (i.e., it’s interests lie in Northern Ireland remaining in the UK) Unionism should welcome joint sovereignty as a symbol that, on the big questions, they’ve won.

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