Northern Ireland doesn't have to be either British or Irish: it can be both

A majority in Northern Ireland in favour of Irish unity is unlikely to come about as soon as John Lloyd envisages ("Unionists prepare for the endgame", 15 May), if, indeed, it happens at all. But the more important point is that unity achieved on the basis of a "50 per cent plus one" vote would lead to a very unhappy island.

The problem is to find a lasting constitutional settlement that would allow people in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish or both. The Good Friday Agreement recognised this necessity, but made no suggestions as to how it might be achieved. Commentators over the years have assumed it to be logically impossible, in the belief that Northern Ireland must be either British or Irish, so that one side must win and the other lose.

In fact, the problem does have a solution. Northern Ireland could become a largely autonomous province of both the United Kingdom and the Republic, with its citizens having the right to vote and to be represented in both parliaments, and enjoying dual citizenship in other spheres as well.

This settlement would not be a form of joint sovereignty, although it has sometimes been called that. Joint sovereignty is a colonial arrangement which, if applied to Northern Ireland, would guarantee equality of fury, but would have no other merit. The proposed arrangement would be more like independence without its disadvantages. Northern Ireland would be in control of its own affairs, but would retain functional and emotional ties with Britain and the Republic and would be spared all the trappings and expense of an independent state.

Stephen Plowden
London NW1

So John Lloyd now believes that the unity of Ireland is inevitable within ten years. I wonder whether Lloyd and those such as Brian Cowen who think like him have considered what would actually happen if a border poll went narrowly in favour of unity - as seems likely?

The majority Yes vote in such a poll would be overwhelmingly Catholic, and the nearly as large No vote would be overwhelmingly Protestant. At a stroke, the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland would be confirmed and reinforced. That was exactly how the conflict in Bosnia started.

We would be back to the situation in 1918 where Sinn Fein has always claimed there was a majority in favour of a united Ireland. And, once again, the Protestants are likely to take up arms, the result of which, after much killing and destruction, is likely to be Ireland repartitioned into two ethno-religiously pure areas. But before then, to prevent the conflict spilling over into Britain, the multi-national British army would re-enter the scene and impose some order on the warring religious tribes.

Far from endgame, we would return to 1969. That seems a high price to pay for appeasing the Provisional IRA over a cap badge.

Simon Partridge
London N2

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune