A referendum every seven years in Northern Ireland?by Derek Coombs / August 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Power-sharing in Northern Ireland seems to have proved illusory; it can only be achieved over time when trust between the communities has become more ingrained in everyday life. But we cannot close the door because one peace treaty has faltered. Too many lives are at stake.
We need a new approach which can answer both the unionist fear that the British will push the province into a united Ireland against the majority’s will, and yet at the same time hold out hope to the nationalists. How can this be done? Britain should guarantee a referendum every seven years in Northern Ireland on whether to remain in the UK or join the Irish Republic. Such a move would also make it clear to the world that Britain is interested in solutions, not in sovereignty. This is vital to win the support of the US and Irish governments who must underwrite the idea.
Many unionists will see the rolling referendum as a smoking gun. But others will see the benefit of no secret deals to push them out of the UK. Nationalists will hope to vote their way to a united Ireland with demography on their side. A majority of school-children are now catholic, but demography is not so simple. For one thing, not all catholics are nationalists, a fact of which the more progressive unionists are well aware. Second, the birth rate is falling sharply among catholics. Finally, more protestants than catholics have left in recent years, and a settled Northern Ireland might bring them back.
The unionists would have to keep earning their connection to the UK and that is how it should be. On the other hand the nationalists would have a long-term hope of integration with the Republic.
The three governments would have to stand together with a new determination to combat the terrorism that will undoubtedly linger on. Both the Irish and American governments would have to deny sanctuary and funds to the IRA and any other terrorist organisation. There will, of course, be inflammatory rhetor…