The Irish Question Through An International Relations Perspective

© 2017 Tom Rogers

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In searching for a theoretical framework through which to research and examine the Irish Question, I came up with the following observations (the terminology used is my own). These focus on the Northern Ireland aspect of the Irish Question, but are also pertinent to British-Irish relations as a whole:

1. The Two Major Perspectives

(i). The Sovereigntist Position.

Sovereigntism is influenced by the realist school of international relations. You might call sovereigntism a manifestation of ultra-realism. In the sovereigntist perspective, British rule is permanent and assumed, not provisional. Northern Ireland belongs to Britain, but Northern Ireland is also a 'battlefield' (in different senses of the word: military, social, demographic and psychological) and the combatants are Britain and Ireland, through their various proxies. Britain is entitled to do everything it can to retain sovereignty – up to and including telling lies and involvement in criminality and murder - and Ireland is equally expected to do whatever it can to win sovereignty of the territory, including funding political subversion in Britain and giving tacit support to mass murderers.

(ii). The Determinist Position.

Determinism in this context is influenced by the liberal school of international relations. In the determinist perspective, Northern Ireland itself is a stage in the political evolution of Ireland, British involvement in the territory is to be considered provisional, and the next natural step is Irish unification as a single entity on some basis. This should be seen as a natural process arising from demographic changes and the inevitable development of integration between institutions and communities that are on the same island. Following reunification, there will have to be constitutional protections (probably involving autonomy or devolved institutions within the New Ireland) for Unionists, Loyalists and anybody else who considers themselves primarily or significantly British instead of or as well as Irish.

2. The Shift from Sovereigntism to Determinism

During the post-War period, the British political and social elite came under the influence of neo-liberal and globalist ideas (how and why this happened is not of immediate relevance here). This ideological shift probably began in earnest during the First World War (when mass immigration began into Britain, the first wave of immigrants being black Africans who were sent to work in the docks). It then picked up pace after the Second World War under the influence of the United States, and began to dominate all areas of the Establishment from the late 1960s onwards, assuming a hegemonic position in Britain during the early 1990s.

In consequence of this ideological change, Britain's institutional attitude to Ireland gradually shifted from one dominated by the values of sovereigntism, to one that was essentially liberal and globalist (and thus determinist, as per the definition given above).

3. The Downing Street Declaration 1993

Until the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, all parties (the British and Irish governments respectively, and the paramilitaries) held to the Sovereigntist Position. The Declaration marked the official rejection of sovereigntism in favour of determinism. This change is encapsulated in the first sentence of section 4 of the Declaration, which states:

4. The Prime Minister, on behalf of the British Government, reaffirms that they will uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. On this basis, he reiterates, on behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.

4. Implications for Irish Republicanism: the 'New Provisionalism'

The shift to determinism had implications for Irish Republicans as well. It meant a shift in provisionalism from fighting against British sovereignty to working towards a normalisation of the political situation in Northern Ireland in the hope that the devolved framework and ‘Ulsterisation’ would develop naturally into Irish unification.