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18 October 2021

From the NS archive: Bridge over the troubles

19 February 1993: A European identity for Northern Ireland would offer a way out of the stagnant politics of the past decades.

By Richard Kearney and Robin Wilson

This piece, written by the philosopher and intellectual Richard Kearney and the mathematician (and son of Harold Wilson) Robin Wilson, is an abridged version of a submission to an independent commission of inquiry into ways forward for Northern Ireland, established by Initiative ’92, a citizens’ initiative chaired by the human rights lawyer Torkel Opsahl. In it, Kearney and Wilson set out a plan for a Northern Ireland with a European identity. They compare the conflict in Northern Ireland to those in the former Yugoslavia and in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the “double minority” structures complicated the issue. While notions of national sovereignty in Ireland had entailed either colonial dependence or nationalist independence, the idea of European interdependence could transcend both. Such a context would present closer relations between north and south as desirable in a single-market Europe without frontiers, wrote Kearney and Wilson, but would require a new constitution, which they outlined.


It is widely believed that the Northern Ireland Troubles are a unique hangover from 17th-century religious quarrels that the rest of Europe has long left behind. Events since the fall of the Wall have demolished that rather trite assessment.

Indeed, in the most intense, and intractable, ethnic/nationalist conflicts in the “new Europe”, such as in the former Yugoslavia and in Nagorno-Karabakh, parallels with Northern Ireland are now everywhere evident. It is the “double minority” structure of all three conflicts that makes the clash so bitter.

Such double-minority problems throw into question the applicability of the Westminster convention of “majority rule”, on which Ulster unionists rely, and, indeed, the international convention of “the right of nations to self-determination”, rehearsed by Irish nationalists. As to the former, it is striking that no emerging East European democracy has sought to emulate the British “first past the post” electoral system. As for the latter, as Nora Beloff has put it in the context of the former Yugoslavia, what does “self determination” mean when there are many different “selves”?

The metamorphosis of Europe raises fundamental questions about the very nature of sovereignty, about the meaning of words such as nationalism and unionism. Each is premised on the “winner takes all” concept of sovereignty, residing in a centralised state which dictates a zero-sum game over its seizure or abandonment. These conventional notions of “national sovereignty” in Ireland have historically entailed either colonial dependence or nationalist independence. The idea of European interdependence combined with the application of the principle of subsidiarity, can, however, for Northern Ireland transcend both.

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Traditional borders have become too large and too small: too large to cater for the growing sense of regional difference in Europe and too small to respond to the movement towards European integration. As Neal Ascherson has argued, “European integration means that the nation state is leaking power both upwards and downwards to the regional level. Within the new outer shell of the integrated community, the tough skin of the old nation states will swiftly grow permeable and porous.”

The manifesto of the European Regionalist Network (of which we are respectively representatives in Northern Ireland and the Republic) envisages for Europe “a decentralised, federal structure which would bring substantial power closer to its people”. Within such a context, it says, while border changes might occur between the relatively equal, interdependent communities involved, these could only be achieved non-violently, preferably by negotiation. In turn, any of the constituent regions would have to respect the human rights of any minorities they contained.

This dual approach – respecting existing borders while addressing minority rights – reflects a wider, evolving practice on the part of pan-European institutions, notably the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, faced as the CSCE has been since 1989 with the many conflicts, especially in the east, where “ethnic” and state boundaries do not coincide. It captures both aspects of the “double-minority” dilemma by reducing tensions and grievances affecting both parties.

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Asking himself what should be the characteristic of the new European region, Ascherson replied: “One is the cluster of a sense of home and place, a sense of common purpose and of common tradition, in a community which is confident enough about itself to accept cultural pluralism as something less than a threat to identity.”

In the year after the fall of the Wall, a CSCE meeting in Copenhagen endorsed this concept of cultural diversity: “The persons belonging to national minorities have the right to freely express, preserve and develop their own ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity and to maintain and develop their own culture in all its aspects protected from all attempts of assimilation against their will.”

Since such minorities may feel affinity with an external group – as applicable to many Northern Ireland Catholics as to Hungarians in Romania or Slovakia – the Copenhagen meeting itemised, among other considerations, the right “to establish and maintain free contacts between their own country as well as across borders with citizens of other states with which they have a common national or ethnic origin, a cultural network or religious convictions”.

The 1991 CSCE expert meeting on national minorities emphasised the centrality of human rights, the rule of law and judicial independence, and affirmed that “appropriate democratic participation of persons belonging to national minorities or their representatives in decision-making or consultative bodies constitutes an important element of effective participation in public affairs”.

These various affirmations reposition the traditional questions of “power-sharing”, “civil rights” and an “Irish dimension” for Northern Ireland in the context of accepted European conventions, defusing without loss of principle the charged character they have acquired in purely domestic negotiations.

The idea of a “Europe of the regions” holds out the prospect of a new, more modern Northern Ireland, in which pluralist and democratic institutions could acquire legitimacy, traditionally withheld by nationalists because of its association with the “unionist aspiration”, through pragmatic acceptance of its status as the Northern Irish region of the evolving Europe.

A European identity for Northern Ireland could help propel it out of its position – the product of so many decades of unionist conservatism – as a continental backwater into the mainstream of European debate. There would be notable practical advantages for a disadvantaged region like Northern Ireland having a direct voice in European institutions, rather than being dependent on the UK permanent representation.

Similarly, the process of European integration has the potential to make the “nationalist aspiration” less unpalatable to unionists. For it becomes possible, in this context, to present closer relations between north and south as pragmatically desirable in a single-market Europe without frontiers, where people, goods and capital move freely across former barriers.

Such a focus could help modernise nationalist politics on the island in the process, away from the traditional emphasis on border change and territorial unity towards a stress on the unity of peoples, of “heart and mind”. The popular Irish president, Mary Robinson, had developed the idea of “extending the hand of friendship” to the people of Northern Ireland to great effect.

Above all, a “Europe of the regions” represents the only way forward on the crunch issue of sovereignty over Northern Ireland. As the European Commission president, Jacques Delors, said at the opening of the Northern Ireland Centre in Europe in Brussels in 1991, the EC could help ensure that Northern Ireland’s problems were not seen as a zero-sum game. “Adding a wider dimension means that one person’s gain is not necessarily another person’s loss,” he said.

A new constitution is required for Northern Ireland, to address its democratic deficit in a modernising, egalitarian and participatory way. The aim would be to reconstitute it as a region exercising maximum “subsidiarity” within the UK and thereby able both to develop to the full the “special relationship” with the Irish Republic and play its wider part in the new Europe.

The legitimacy of the new arrangement would be internationally cured through endorsement by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament, and by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and/or the Council of Europe. The Irish government would have a right to appeal against continued endorsement.

Key features of new democratic structures for Northern Ireland would be:

• An assembly elected by proportional representation, with a high degree of autonomy within the UK, enshrined in power similar to those sought for Scotland by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, with the ability to represent Northern Ireland directly to the institutions of the European Community.

• Removal of all barriers occasioned by the border to the closest possible relationships in Ireland between north and south – through “people-to-people” contacts and cooperation across a range of policy areas – as part of a wider framework of EC inter-regional cooperation, supported by the European Commission and the new Committee of the Regions.

• In-built guarantee of pluralism in government in Northern Ireland – such as the requirement that an executive sustain weighted-majority support in a new assembly or through a PR election of that executive from the assembly – with the requirement regularly to report to, and with a right of appeal (including by the Irish government) to, the European Parliament.

• A commitment to embrace cultural diversity within the region, including in such areas as support for the Irish language in the context of EC policy on lesser-spoken languages.

• Entrenchment of individual and minority rights, through a bill of rights for Northern Ireland and supervision by the new CSCE High Commissioner for Minorities, and with effective rights of intercession conferred upon the Republic’s government.

In an open letter to Mr Delors some years ago, one of us remarked that the Ulster poet John Hewitt “… had no difficulty in resolving his own dual identity at national level (Irish-British) by declaring allegiance to Ulster at regional level and to Europe at international level. Europe regionalism offers the best solution for both communities of a divided Ulster. It points a way beyond the nationalist/unionist endgame of exclusive sovereignty.”

It is the last, best hope for an end to more than two decades of euphemistically entitled “troubles”.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).