Distinguishing people from territory could be key to unification

Posted By: August 30, 2018

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast.30 August 2018 01:00

The comparison being made this week between Northern Ireland and Belgium, as we surpass its record without a government, is precisely wrong: devolved government kept Belgium going in the absence of central government, while we are in the opposite situation.

It is a pity we have not taken this chance to look more closely at Belgian political thinking, to see if there is anything we can learn from it beyond the d’Hondt formula and an erroneous attempt to get into the Guinness Book of Records.

By far the most interesting aspect of Belgian devolution is its attempt, albeit flawed and confused, to disassociate community from the territory.

Over the course of 30 years, beginning in 1963, Belgium moved from a unitary state to a three-tiered model of federal, regional and community government – with ‘community’ defined more by language than geography.

There are three communities: Dutch speakers, French speakers and German speakers; and three regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels.  Each was given its own legislative assembly and executive. The communities look after mainly cultural matters, including education. The regions have a ‘Stormont minus culture’ remit – transport, planning, agriculture and so on.

In Northern Ireland terms, it is as if there is a tier of separate unionist and nationalist governments between Stormont and the super councils.

The communities have territorial boundaries, but these do not match up with the regions. Flanders is mostly Dutch-speaking, Brussels is bilingual between French and Dutch, while French speakers share Wallonia with virtually all the German speakers, concentrated in a few eastern districts.

An instinct to flatten this system has been evident since it was introduced. Flanders immediately merged its regional and community governments, creating something more like Scottish devolution within the UK. That left Dutch speakers in Brussels stranded – they ended up forming their own mini-government ‘commission’.

The French community lacked the same option to take over Wallonia. However, it decided to draw all its parliamentarians from French speakers in the regional assembly, rather than elect them separately. It also renamed itself ‘the Wallonia-Brussels Federation’ – an unrecognized move, seen as laying claim to the capital.

To continue the Northern Ireland analogy, this would be like confining nationalist government to the west of the Bann and unionist government to the east of the Bann, while also requiring both to share Belfast, then watching this turn into a land grab.

It is fair to say that is not an inspirational scenario. Where hope lies is in the example of the German-speaking community. Although it has a legally defined territorial extent – nine districts on the border with Germany – it has no corresponding regional government to grab and in effect floats over eastern Wallonia as a purely cultural polity.

The most obvious way this could be applied to Ireland is as a government of the Gaeltacht but it is also a fascinating thought experiment in options for Irish unity.

The official option, implied by the Good Friday Agreement and clearly favored in the Republic, is for a devolved Northern Ireland to continue under Irish rather than British sovereignty. This must be a complete non-starter. Why would northern nationalists, having won a border poll, agree to remain in a semi-detached territory under a unionist veto? The institutions required for this are barely sustainable now.

The default alternative, a unitary Irish state, raises unionist concerns that many nationalists wish to address, yet the options suggested are similarly problematic. If any form of northern devolution survived, would that not inevitably turn into a land grab, leave nationalists stranded, or encourage dangerous fantasies of repartition?

The recurrence of the old ‘Eire Nua’ proposal for four regional assemblies must be seen as a sign of desperation to come up with any idea that grants unionists a concession – or more cynically, that keeps them at arm’s length. It is notable there is no appetite to discuss Stormont-style protections in a new Dail.

The common thread through all this thinking is associating the unionist community with the northern territory. What if that community could instead be given a way to float across post-unification Ulster, leaving everyone else – including in Ulster – alone?

John Hume said peace was about uniting people, not the territory. Perhaps the key to unification is to distinguish people from the territory.

Belgium is, of course, an unhappy country. Its devolution model is felt to have driven division beyond the linguistic to the cultural and political. But as we are already unhappy and divided, it remains useful to know other options are available.