Not a deal with the devil exactly – but what if a united Ireland meant closer ties with Britain
How much do you want a united Ireland? What if I had the power to offer you such an arrangement, but it was to come with a twist in the tail?
The original Faustian pact concerned a deal with the devil made by a 15th Century German scholar, believed to be Johannes Georg Faust.
Depressed and bored with his academic life, Faust wanted access to untold earthly knowledge and power. This the devil provided, but at a cost. In return, Faust’s soul was to be the devil’s possession, for eternity.
I wouldn’t demand your soul in exchange for a united Ireland, but what if the cost was to be a renewal of our relationship with Britain, in a formal sense?
Would it be too Faustian to consider?
Of course, your response is most likely dependent on what type of relationship I am proposing to re-establish with our nearest neighbours.
Such a renewed association could take several forms.
The first would be for Ireland to rejoin the United Kingdom, re-establishing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as was formed after the 1800 Act of Union.
This would end partition on the island, but at the cost of being brought back into the British jurisdiction.
Given the lost sovereignty and independence such a model would entail, it is unlikely that few south of the border would favour a restoration of this type of United Kingdom.
So, how about the second option, an “Ausgleich”?
This was a form of dual monarchy between Austria and Hungary, as constituted in 1867. Under this compromise, Hungary, which had previously been subsumed under the Austrian Habsburg Empire, had its kingdom and independence formally restored.
The Hungarian parliament and legal system were re-established. There was no common citizenship, with the new entity of Austria-Hungary having no jurisdictional or legislative power.
While many republicans may raise snorts of derision over such a proposal, it may come as a surprise that the “Ausgleich” was promoted in a 1905 pamphlet as the Sinn Fein Policy.
It was the brainchild of Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, who believed that the “Hungarian policy”, as he originally called this approach, was a favourable halfway-house option between constitutional nationalism and physical force republicanism.
The document outlining this policy, titled the Resurrection of Hungary, sold a remarkable 5,000 copies within 24 hours of publication.
But there is no mention today of Arthur Griffith on the Sinn Fein website, or of his dual monarchy proposal, which has long since been airbrushed from the party’s history.
Instead, Sinn Fein’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has recently been talking about a third option, that of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth.
Last year, McDonald said, “there are some people who think that rejoining the Commonwealth is a worthy proposition. I think those that hold that view need to put that view forward, and I think it needs to be looked at, and debated, and it needs to be discussed”.
Last week McDonald was at it again, stating that the Commonwealth was not her preferred option, but that she welcomed debate in this area:
“I am not a supporter or an advancer of the proposition of re-entering the Commonwealth. I don’t see any value in it – but I do respect that there are others who have that view and in the context of the discussion about a new Ireland and a reunified Ireland, I think every voice has to be heard.”
McDonald’s comments followed on from those of Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP, who addressed Fine Gael’s party conference last week.
Fine Gael, or to use its secondary title, the United Ireland party, has been in a pretty inclusive mood these past few months.
Already, it has undermined Fianna Fail’s alliance with the SDLP by selecting the latter’s former leader, Mark Durkan, as a candidate for the forthcoming European elections.
The party then chose to reach across the divide by inviting Donaldson to its conference to get, in his words, “talking to our friends in Fine Gael about all kinds of things, including future relations”.
The suggested relations that attracted the most attention, and for which Donaldson received a warm round of applause from the Fine Gael faithful, concerned the Commonwealth.
He said: “I do hope we can come to a day when the Republic will join with many other [nations] in the Commonwealth, recognising that we have overcome a lot of adversity, and it would be good”.
It is not the first time we have heard discussions within Fine Gael about rejoining the Commonwealth of Nations, as this voluntary association of 53 member states is formally called.
As before, comments such as Donaldson’s tend to provoke the usual cacophony of voices bemoaning a jaded imperialistic and colonial relic. But this is an association of which Ireland was a member for the first several decades of the State’s existence, when it had little practical impact on our independence.
Nevertheless, mention of the Commonwealth is still like a red rag to a bull for some. It is a wonder such individuals are not equally as vociferous when it comes to the European Union.
After all, today’s Commonwealth is a relatively benign organisation, membership of which does not undermine or erode national sovereignty. In contrast, this is exactly one of the consequences of EU membership. And yet, had Jeffrey Donaldson called for his Irish friends to join him in an all-island Brexit, it would undoubtedly have attracted a greater negative reaction than his remarks on the Commonwealth.
To be fair to Mary Lou McDonald, her reaction to this proposal has been quite measured. She recognises that any future all-island solution needs to reconcile unionists.
And the only solution that will appease the unionist community is some kind of institutional relationship with the United Kingdom.
For now, though, any kind of arrangement that re-establishes ties with Britain is for those wearing the green jersey an outcome not worth considering, regardless of its consequences for unification.
However, just as many within the nationalist community have convinced themselves that a bad Brexit will make unionists the champions of a different form of union – one on this island – so too they must accept that the unionist community might have a converse interpretation of a good Brexit.
In other words, if Brexit works for the United Kingdom, and its economy takes off as the EU slumbers, some might feel that we, south of the border, are in the wrong union.
Just as those in green think that those in orange can have their colours changed by economic circumstances, are those in orange not entitled to think the same about those in green?
Indeed, what if Brexit proves the catalyst for the demise of the EU? The core EU members might attempt to shore up their losses by ignoring their smaller, fringe co-members who prove a drag on their fortunes. Some Mediterranean and east European states might be tossed to the wolves to fend for themselves.
We cannot assume that Ireland will be sheltered from the same fate. During the depths of the recent economic recession, the EU was more than happy for us to go under if our fiscal woes threatened to undermine the European project.
So little consideration has been given to this potential outcome. If Brexit proves positive for the UK, but not so for the EU, to where will Ireland look?
And more importantly, what kind of Faustian pacts will be on offer? In such a doomsday scenario, rejoining the Commonwealth may be the least that we will have to look for.
Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in Government & Politics at University College Cork