By Jack Holland
During the fuss this week about the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Armagh, an upcoming anniversary of some importance — and indeed, of some relevance to what is currently happening — was overlooked. This Dec. 23 will mark the 79th anniversary of the passage of the Government of Ireland Act, the act which created partition and many of the problems that Armagh’s meeting was an attempt to solve. The act was the legal foundation for the setting up of the Northern Ireland statelet, and the Free State, in June 1921 and January 1922, respectively.
Not only was the anniversary of the Government of Ireland Act hardly noticed, the fact that the act has recently ceased to exist was also ignored. It was repealed when the British and Irish governments signed the British-Irish Agreement, which brings into legal force the Good Friday agreement.
So it was that the act which has dominated Irish history for most of this century, with political consequences that provoked so much violence and bloodshed, went soundlessly, without a whimper.
Though the 1920 act was the basis for partition, in what is somewhat of a contradiction, it also provided a mechanism the explicit aim of which was to bring about an all-Ireland government. This was in the form of a Council of Ireland — or, in today’s political parlance, a cross-border body. According to the act, the council was to be created "with a view to the establishment of a parliament for the whole of Ireland." It was to consist of 40 members, representatives from the parliaments of Belfast, Dublin and Westminster, and members of the senates, North and South.
As such, the Council of Ireland was a much more powerful body than either the current North-South Ministerial Council or the similar council envisioned in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973. It was intended, in fact, as a practice run for an all-Ireland government — the idea being that Unionists and Nationalists would learn to work together until such times as power could be transferred from the partition parliaments.
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In the end, the council was never convened. The Unionists refused to accept it, and the Dail, born of the Free State, had no way by itself of bringing it into being. In 1925, it agreed that the council’s powers should be transferred to the parliament in Belfast. Ironically enough, the instrument that was to end partition was usurped by it.
The 1973 Council of Ireland, though far more limited in scope than the 1920 model, suffered a similar fate. Before it could be convened, the Sunningdale Agreement had collapsed, thanks to the loyalist and Unionist opposition which brought down the first power-sharing government. Indeed, the main target of the massive protests organized by the UDA was not the power-sharing government so much as it was the provisions of for the all-Ireland council.
The Government of Ireland Act, of course, was not the only legislation to vanish in the wake of the new dispensation. The Anglo-Ireland Agreement of 1985 was also swept aside, much to the joy of Unionists, who saw it as Dublin interference. Perhaps because of this, and the general mood of celebration, Unionists did not reflect a little more on what the passing of the 1920 statute might mean.
The Government of Ireland Act imposed partition by a sovereign act of the British parliament. No one was asked to vote on it outside of the House of Commons. No member of the Irish electorate, North or South, had a chance to vote for it directly. Their role was limited to voting in elections for legislative bodies that were created as a result of the 1920 act.
The legal situation is now very different and it affects the constitutional status of partition. Thanks to the recent agreements, the power to impose partition has been taken away from the Westminster parliament. Its legal basis now rests on the consent of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland. Without that consent, Britain is legally obligated to bring partition to an end. Consent is to be expressed through referenda and should the majority vote against remaining part of the United Kingdom, then parliament is powerless to do anything about it, unless that is, it revised the current agreements, which is unlikely in the extreme.
This change, which can be seen as a dilution of sovereignty, is the fruit of British government policy that was first given public expression in November 1989. Then, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Brooke, in a direct appeal to the Provisional IRA, stated that Britain no longer had any "selfish," "strategic" or "economic" interest in being in Northern Ireland but remained there simply because of the will of the majority community. If that will changed, Britain would go. He was implying that the republican campaign to remove Britain was misdirected, since Britain did not want to be there in the first place. Shifting the basis of partition from act of parliament to the will of the majority, as does the Good Friday peace agreement, brings political reality into line with political policy.
I am surprised that Unionists have allowed this to pass without protest. It removes the sovereign protection afforded them by the Westminister parliament and replaces it with "consent of the majority," a much weaker safeguard against radical political change. Majorities have a habit of changing, sometimes sooner than expected.
In fact, what the change means is that Unionists no longer have a "right" to remain part of the United Kingdom. The right now resides with the majority, whatever that may happen to be. I once asked Mo Mowlam, when she was secretary of state for Northern Ireland, if a majority meant 50 plus one. Without hesitation she answered, "Yes."
Keeping counting, lads.
Visa denial threat
I see that what the Provisionals used to call "censorship by visa denial" might still in operation. According to reports, the British prime minister Tony Blair has tried to block Marion Price from visiting New York by asking the US to refuse her a visa. The former IRA activist is scheduled to speak at the Michael Flannery Memorial event in Yonkers on Jan. 29.
Some prominent Sinn Fein members will be in the U.S. at around that time among them, Gerry Adams. He suffered the same fate as Ms. Price over many years. I trust he and his fellow Shinners will register their protests at this form of "censorship" if it goes ahead.