Joint sovereignty best solution for Northern Ireland

October 09, 1997|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The writer Sean O'Faolain, who fought alongside Eamon de Valera in 1921, and belonged to the Irish Republican Army for six years, wrote a quarter-century ago that "Our Nationalism has for far too long been our Egoism" -- which no longer can really be said of the Irish Republic, but remains a sinister truth in Northern Ireland.

Yet even in the North, where to paraphrase O'Faolain, nationalism long ago bloated into xenophobia and chauvinism, it today is imaginable that history might have taken a positive turn.

With talks on Northern Ireland's future tentatively set to resume this week, it may be useful once again to float a proposal that could remove the fundamental obstacle to agreement, that of disputed sovereignty.

The problem is wearisomely familiar to nearly all but those overseas Irish who still romanticize the IRA.

The Protestant majority in the North insists that the northern counties must remain British. The nationalists demand union with the Irish Republic.

These are not irreconcilable demands. They both could be met if the North became a political condominium, with sovereignty shared by Britain and the Republic.

This is a solution proposed some time ago by a London-based Irish-American international lawyer John Whitbeck. His model for this solution is the Franco-British condominium which governed what then were known as the New Hebrides Islands in the Pacific, between New Zealand and Fiji, from 1906 to 1980. The New Hebrides now are the independent nation of Vanuatu.

They were administered by French and British resident commissioners, who acted jointly on matters of common or local concern, and separately in affairs affecting their own national groups. The flags of Britain and France were flown together.

The interests of British, French, and Hebrides Islanders were each constitutionally protected, with a justice system in which there were three national courts, applying to the respective national groups the laws of their own overseas governments, or the customary law of the Hebrides,

Education was conducted in two parallel and separate school systems run by the national education authorities of the two ruling countries, or by volunteer agency or subsidized mission schools.

The two governing countries also supported separate health systems, with both British and French hospitals run by the national health systems of the home countries.

This was of course a colonial regime, but it was a form of government with creative implications for a new Northern Ireland that would be simultaneously a part of the Republic of Ireland and a part of the United Kingdom.

In the condominium solution, individuals in Northern Ireland would choose which citizenship they wished, and would carry the passport of the country to which they chose to belong. They would vote in that country's elections. There would be free movement between Northern Ireland and its two sovereignties, as Northern Ireland would no longer have national borders.

Joint police

There presumably would be both British and Irish courts, applying national law to their respective citizens. A single police force would undoubtedly be necessary, but under joint British and Irish direction.

On the Hebrides model, there would be two state school systems, and no doubt parochial and private schools as well, all recognizing the diplomas of the others. Students would go to university in the country of their citizenship, or their choice, or in the existing Northern Irish institutions.

Local government would be assured by regional or municipal assemblies in which the citizens of both countries would vote, but these would deal only with defined matters. External security would be provided by Britain and Ireland jointly, as well as maritime and air traffic control.

This system would give both nationalists and unionists what they want. Nationalists would be Irish citizens living in Ireland under Irish sovereignty, with Irish education and Irish justice. Unionists would remain British subjects with British passports, British education, British courts, and British careers. All would be guaranteed their civil and religious liberties by both sovereign powers.

This solution could resolve the fundamental problem bedeviling Irish affairs for eight centuries.

It addresses the central problem of modern Irish history, the conflicting claims to sovereignty, and the real clash of interest between those Irish belonging to rival national and religious traditions.

The condominium proposal is not likely initially to be welcome in either the nationalist or the unionist camp. However, the talks that have already taken place among the parties suggest that a recognition now exists on both sides that maximum claims are unrealizable.

A condominium would give each side more than it is going to get from any other settlement.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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