Reviewed by Lee P. Ruddin LLB, MRes, PgCert, Roundup Editor, History News Network. Email: leepruddin [at] yahoo.co.uk.
Over the coming months a series of conferences will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Ulster Plantation. The significance of “The Plantation of Ulster, 1609-2009: A Laboratory for Empire” to the shared histories of Ireland and Britain would be difficult to exaggerate.
An equally significant academic project is COUNTDOWN TO UNITY: DEBATING IRISH REUNIFICATION by Richard Humphreys. Despite the fact that the author is not a historian, concentrating on excavating the roots of nationalism and the modest material pertaining to seventeenth-century Elizabethan colonization, eighteenth-century legal questions about how much independence from Westminster the Dublin legislature did and should have, or nineteenth-century political debates in the wider United Kingdom, not to mention twentieth-century events such as World War I and the Easter Rising, the barrister’s book is nothing if not historic.
COUNTDOWN TO UNITY does not argue a case for unity – Humphreys takes this as ‘a self-evident premise’ (p.xx). Rather, this book acts as a vehicle for examining ways in which that desire for unity could be advanced in keeping with legal norms. Accordingly think of it as a practical legal roadmap to bring about the reunification of the island of Ireland. Given that it is a legal treatise, Humphreys fittingly eschews political opinion. Yet that is not to say the title is exclusively for students of law. This reviewer would go as far as to recommend that not only nationalists and unionists purchase a copy but students of Irish politics more generally, since Humphreys analyzes the policy of consent as part of political thought – political thought, no doubt, borne out of his experiences as legal adviser to the Parliamentary Labour Party. You need only refer as far as the introduction to understand the interplay of law and politics within such a debate:
A central question explored by the study is whether the reunification of the island of Ireland is something that should be viewed as entirely a rhetorical political project, insulated from being affected by action or inaction on the legal plane. (xix-xx)However premature and inappropriate it is to some in making a case for a united Ireland, Humphreys, traversing law and politics, provides a most useful text setting out the principles that would require to be satisfied for any future negotiation. To be sure, for all the works in the political science field and legal academic journals over the past decade, COUNTDOWN TO UNITY is the first full-length treatment to tackle the subject [*345] of the legal and constitutional implications of unity in light of the Good Friday Agreement. But most of all it is the challenge to nationalists to accommodate the British identity in an opportunity to exercise self-determination based on an all-island majority that is the mature and appropriate thing to do as outlined in Chapter Seven (“Confidence-building Measures on the Irish Side”). Humphreys is confident from the outset:
The genius of the Good Friday Agreement, it might be contended, is that it permits the “majority” within Northern Ireland effectively to determine which state the Northern Ireland entity will belong to, but permits the “minority” within that entity a very significant share in the public administration of the six counties and a major stake in the orderly government and administration of the entity overall. (p.8)Not forgetting that, ‘This aspect of the agreement is the other side of the coin to the fact that the agreement rejects joint sovereignty, independence, repartition or dual consent of both communities’ (p.110).
Albeit it is a ‘brief historical sketch’ (p.4), Chapter One (“Unity Denied: 1920-1937”) offers an even-handed history spanning the period from Henry VIII to Edward VIII, detailing the uneven scales of justice. Contained within the broader constitutional landscape is an intriguing insight into the current legal status of the 1921 Treaty and 1937 Constitution as well as featuring some of the main protagonists in the way of Éamon de Valera and Michael Collins.
Following on from 1937, Chapter Two (“Towards a Common Understanding of Sharing These Islands”) likewise continues with the ‘abuses and assaults on democracy’ (p.39) until the Sunningdale communiqué of 1974, the fundamentals of which ‘ultimately bore fruit in the Good Friday Agreement’ (p.46).
While in the main presenting an uncomplicated analysis of the complicated provisions of the 1998 agreement, Humphreys, in Chapter Three (“The Good Friday Agreement 1998”), not for the first time touches upon the possibility of obscurity and the continuing existence of obligations when considering ‘whether and to what extent the Good Friday Agreement is legally binding on the Irish government in international law after the achievement of a united Ireland’ (p.84).
Not only does Humphreys prove he has a firm grasp of the issues in Chapter Four (“The Agreement as a Roadmap to Reunification”) when it comes to the history of the models of unity, but rest assured no question concerning the status of pre-existing Northern Irish law goes unasked.
Chapters Five (“Implementing the Bilateral Treaty Contemplated by the Agreement”) and Six (“Uniting Peoples as well as Territory”) both compliment the thinking of earlier instalments, although recent – indeed post-publication – events are of interest to note. First, Humphreys would have approved of the latest attempt to reform the 308-year-old law which bars the monarch from marrying a Catholic (pp.168-9). And despite the fact that it was blocked, he will no doubt see this [*346] attempt as a catalyst to ‘remove some of the more offensive pieces of sectarian anti-Catholicism that still have the force of English law’ (p.138). Second, for all his talk about a vote for unity ‘kicking the sleeping dog of unionist/loyalist paramilitary violence,’ it was dissident republicans (both Real and Continuity IRA) that attacked, murdering two soldiers and a police officer (p.153).
The full texts (or even shortened versions) of both the 1937 Constitution and 1998 Good Friday Agreement would have been more than worthy inclusions in the appendices, especially when considering the book is intended for the general reader. That said, the reference notes at the close of each individual chapter, as opposed to being located at the book’s end, enhance the reader experience. This is to say nothing of the fluid thesis spanning seven equally-weighted chapters on the matters of legal obligation and political judgment in the debate on Irish reunification.
Rarely is a book as unbiased and urgent as COUNTDOWN TO UNITY undoubtedly is. But despite the inference of the title that there is a timetable for a countdown to unity, the most Humphreys proffers is a solitary paragraph in the conclusion where he talks about a 30-year-period of joint authority to reduce tensions, ‘commencing under the aegis of British sovereignty and gradually moving towards a transition to Irish sovereignty’ (p.205). And yet this is no bad thing. For the simple reason that, with the publication of this book, people will be encouraged to engage in the process of addressing the issue, in all its complexities, and help bring about reunification in a rational manner.
Notwithstanding predictions that a united Ireland could be achieved by the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016 appearing increasingly premature, no matter how rational the reunification process is, you can be certain that by the time of the series of conferences to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Ulster Plantation, Ulster would have been firmly uprooted from British rule.
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Lee P. Ruddin.