My back-of-an-envelope plan for running a United Ireland


Several times on these pages in the last few years we’ve discussed the prospect of a United Ireland and how it no longer seems as remote as it once did. If Brexit - opposed by a majority in the North - was not already a trigger to reconsider the need for two divergent jurisdictions, then the pandemic certainly was. As the kids would say, United Ireland is having ‘a moment’.

So: with that in mind, allow me to humbly put one idea out there for how a United Ireland might actually work in a political sense - as in, how it would literally be run, and who’d be tasked with making some the decisions that shape our lives.

Firstly, it is a mistake to simply look at the example of Germany and to assume Ireland could follow the model of having the larger state simply absorb the smaller one. Both Germanies were federal - a patchwork of provinces, similar in structure to the States of America, each with a certain amount of devolved power. Germany was not a merger: it was the dissolution of East Germany and the admission of its provinces into the West.

This just wouldn’t work in Ireland. The notion that you could, overnight, apply the Republic’s laws in the six counties - let alone its police, health, council or welfare services - is plainly nonsense. There would have to be some slightly more graduated model.

The other major hindrance to adopting this model is the problem of accommodating a sizeable chunk of people who simply don’t want to be part of it. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million and, even if a majority of its adults voted for unity, a large bulk will be unhappy in any kind of united structure.

How do you deal with both: an unhappy minority and the giant change in laws and procedures? The answer is that the two States need to reunite to form a third one, which borrows from the models of other countries.

The United States model may be a start. You could consider a new Ireland to be a federal state in which there is always a certain amount of devolved power-making at local level. Perhaps this might mean, although now Irish, there would remain a parliament in Stormont charged with decision-making for the North. But would that be acceptable to those who wanted Unity? Maybe not.

My humble idea is to become federal in a similar way to the U.S. and to turn county councils into formal mini-governments with meaningfully devolved local power. This way, the country can still exist with a single national Irish government but with properly devolved powers to local authorities, which also means unhappy unionists could take comfort in the idea they are not really being ‘ruled’ from Dublin. You could then have a similar parliament to Congress: a lower house elected on a population basis, and a Senate with equal seats for each county so smaller ones are not under-represented.

Don’t let the idea that ‘Ireland is small’ put you off this. A united Ireland would have a population of 6.8 million, an average population of 212,500 per county. Switzerland is half Ireland’s size, with 8.5 million, but half of its 26 cantons have a population lower than this average.

In fact Switzerland has mastered this system, with four linguistic communities comfortably sharing a single state. They go a step further and don’t have a single head of state: the entire Cabinet, collectively, enacts laws and entertains foreign dignitaries. Not having a Michael D figure might be a concession we need to help unhappy unionists feel more at home.

Gavan Reilly is Political Correspondent with Virgin Media News and Political Columnist with the Meath Chronicle. Gavan's column appears in the paper in full every Tuesday.