Archive | October, 2022

Present at the creation: Ireland, Northern Ireland and a new social contract

8 Oct

Wouldn’t be great if we could be present at the creation of the social contract? Let’s face it, most of us are inhabitants of states that have long traditions of institutions that are structured and operate in particular ways. Although we might get to vote every few years, we are inheritors of the system and don’t really get a chance to have a say on some of the fundamentals of how we are governed. We can vote to change the government but in most cases those governments do not engage in root and branch change. There are exceptions, of course, with coups and revolutions but very often the institutions of state remain the same. The software may have an update but we are stuck with (sometimes) ancient hardware.

But let’s engage in a little fantasy … what if we could contribute to a new social contract? What if we could ask fundamental questions about how we are to be governed, the purpose of government, and how the structures of power can be updated when – inevitability – they become outdated? Forging a new social contract would – in theory at least – provide an opportunity to think through relations between society and government, about how resources should be shared, and how relations between people are to be managed – an especially important factor in societies that might suffer major cleavages in relation to identity. A new social contract might foreground ideas and practices on how conflicts are to be managed and resolved, on how minorities are to be included and respected, and how institutions can be responsive. Indeed, Erin McCandless and colleagues have contributed to very exciting work on how social contracts can help with transitions towards peace.

Of course, discussions on a new social contract might do none of those things (it might be a very retrograde social contract!), yet it seems that the process of discussing a social contract could be a very useful site of exchange and engagement. Certainly such discussions could point to the dysfunctions of the current ways of doing things, but – more positively – they could provide spaces for thinking about how things could be done differently. These discussions could be a site of innovation, learning from other countries, and grappling with searching questions about the purpose and extent of government.

There is a tiny (I stress the tiny) opportunity for discussions on a social contract in Ireland, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and how it might fit into, and contribute to, a changed Ireland. Let me provide a little context … There has been an uptick in talk about a new, united or shared Ireland. Some of that talk is the result of deliberate strategies by individuals and groups who have an agenda to promote. And some of it is the result of circumstances; census figures showing that Northern Ireland no longer has a Protestant majority, and the obvious dysfunction of Northern Ireland with its non-functioning Assembly and lack of elite reconciliation. It is also worth noting that Sinn Féin – whose primary goal is Irish unification – is set to be Ireland’s largest political party both north and south of the border.

The talk about constitutional change gives a sense that a genie is out of the bottle and is unlikely to go back in. Northern Ireland Secretaries of State (they come and go with dizzying frequency) is now regularly asked about ‘border poll’ or that clause in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that says that the British Government must call a referendum on Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom if it looks like a majority of its voters want to leave the UK. Five years ago, that question was not posed. Now Secretaries of State are likely to be ambushed with the question in every second interview.

There is a certain predictability to some of the manoeuvres around a new or shared Ireland, but there is some nuance too. The predictability comes from the flag-waving fraternities that are unbowed in their pursuit of a united Ireland or the maintenance of the United Kingdom. The nuance is identifiable in that a good number of those whose goal is Irish unity are using the language of a ‘shared’ or ‘new’ Ireland or a ‘shared island’ and avoiding the term ‘united Ireland’ – a term that scares many unionists.

But the most interesting aspect of all of this is the groundwork and policy scoping on what a shared island might look like in terms of policy. So, if Ireland was to have a new constitutional basis with some form of all-island government what would this mean for pensions, welfare, regulatory bodies and trade? In other words, rather than focusing on hard constitutional issues or touchpaper issues like flags or anthems, what would a new constitutional order mean for the “boring” issues? There has been excellent work in this regard by the ARINS project whereby academic and policy experts have sought to think through the policy implications of a shared island. This groundwork is priceless and we know from the Scottish independence and Brexit referendum campaigns that a lack of properly research information allowed for the void to be filled by misinformation of the project fear type. Such groundwork, if disseminated beyond the usual academic suspects, also has the potential to help demystify what a shared island might mean for everyday life. It might even – and there are tiny signs that this is happening – encourage unionists to actually make a case for the continuation of the Union.

But most of all, these initiatives have the potential to allow inhabitants on the island of Ireland to think beyond flags, anthems and abstract notions of Irishness and Britishness and instead think like citizen-consumers. They might be encouraged to ask: What system of government will deliver the best healthcare? What tax regime would be best for my business? Which school system would be best for my kids? Wouldn’t it be great – and HUGE FUN – to be present at the creation of the social contract?