Pro-Russia Crimeans celebrating in Sevastopol. Photo: Getty
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The Crimea vote is awkward for the west – but it isn’t unprecedented

Would a free vote have gone in Russia’s favour anyway?

The international community has had to react to dubious referendums before the recent plebiscite in the Crimea on union with Russia. The flaws in the Crimea vote have been well recorded – no option of remaining part of Ukraine, the lack of neutral international observers but the presence of Russian soldiers and militia, the rushed nature of the process without proper campaigns and the transparent ballot boxes. Yet as an autonomous region with strong historic and ethnic connections with Russia many surmise that the Crimea, like Scotland or Catalonia, has the right to hold such a vote and that a free vote would have gone in favour of Russia in any case. There are some precedents for this situation.

The 1921 League of Nations vote in the industrial region of Upper Silesia on whether the area remained with Germany or joined Poland proved awkward for the Allies. Anglo-French-Italian occupation was not enough to prevent German and Polish militias carving up the area. And despite Allied antipathy towards Germany, the area voted 60-40 per cent for Germany. But the pattern was more confused on a district-by-district basis – with 16 voting for Germany, 7 for Poland. What was worse was that in a number of areas the vote was very close. In the end the League of Nations partitioned Upper Silesia, more-or-less along the lines occupied by the respective militias.

The 1935 Saarland plebiscite had 90.8 per cent support for reunion with Germany. The region had been under French occupation as a League of Nations mandate since 1920. The plebiscite had been promised from the beginning but when the time came there were qualms about handing over the territory to the new Nazi regime in Germany. Indeed Hitler and Goebbels made the most of the situation both before and after the vote. Nevertheless, 8.8 per cent (mainly social democrats and communists, many soon to be arrested) voted for the mandate to continue and just over 2,000 residents (0.4 per cent) voted for union with France.

Twenty years later the Saarland again had to choose, this time the industrial region had been a French protectorate since 1947. The 1955 vote was a very different affair with western Europe rebuilding and beginning to co-operate on peaceful lines. Under the Paris Agreements by which the Allies recognised the sovereignty of West Germany the Saarland was offered the choice of independence – this was rejected 32.3 per cent to 67.7 per cent, despite both France and West Germany supporting the move. The “No” votes led to negotiations on the Saar’s union with Federal Republic of Germany on 1 January 1957.

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the nineties brought numerous referendums. A precedent hopefully not followed in Crimea was the 1992 Bosnian independence referendum. The numbers record 99.7 per cent in favour of independence, the result was recognised by the USA and EEC and within two months Bosnia-Hercegovina was a member of the UN. But we know the tragedy that followed. The referendum had been boycotted by the Bosnian-Serbs, turnout was 63.4 per cent, the missing third approximating to the size of the Bosnian-Serb population. Was this a genuine popular reaction by Bosnian-Serb citizens, or were they intimidated by their leaders? We remember the Bosnian-Serbs as the aggressors and the perpetrators of war crimes. The referendum boycott cannot have helped their case, there is no record of how many genuinely opposed independence. Had a third voted “No” their interests may have received international consideration. Instead Republkia Srpska remains a European pariah, whilst Croatia is in the EU and Serbia has candidate status.

Boycotts also featured in the 1962 Algerian Independence referendum. Having killed hundreds of thousands to prove that Algeria was part of Metropolitan France once De Gaulle tired of the pieds-noir they boycotted the 1962 referendum. The absence of their half a million voters only depressed turnout to 91.9 per cent. Again perhaps their votes would have made their case better than the deaths of many more.

In former Soviet territories the breakaway Russian enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, has twice tried to prove its independence through plebiscites. A 1991 effort that gathered 97.7 per cent support was easily dismissed. So they tried again in 2006 with a vote rejecting reunion with Moldova by 96.6 per cent to 3.4 per cent. Prefiguring the Crimea situation, a contemporaneous vote got 98.1 per cent support for integration with Russia. Needless to say the second attempt was no more impressive and with Transnistria (at least for now) cut off from mother Russia the conflict remains frozen.

The international community can behave with realpolitik when it has to with regard to the sovereign status of territories. In 1962 the Netherland’s withdrawal from West Papua was prefaced with the promise in due course of a United Nations referendum on the territory’s future status. However, the de facto transfer of West Papua to Indonesia saw the population denied. In 1969, in an episode called an Act of Free Choice, Indonesia commissioned just over 1,000 male elders to ask for union with Indonesia. At the height of the Cold War the UN merely noted the annexation and this remains the status quo today.

The Crimea vote may be awkward for the West but not unprecedented. Arguably Putin has the bigger problem. After paying so much to improve his image with the Sochi Olympics he has to pay more to integrate Crimea. Had he taken his time and made the case for there to be a free and fair vote in Crimea under proper international observation he would not have rubbished his international status so thoroughly and still got the same end result?

 

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution