Politics: Impact of the Northern Ireland Crisis on Southern Politics

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Politics: Impact of the Northern Ireland Crisis on Southern Politics

When the Northern Ireland "Troubles" began in 1968, the political system of the Republic was unprepared for the consequent challenges to its own system. The call for an end to partition and for the establishment of a united Irish state had been a mainstream nationalist demand since 1922 and had in effect been written into the Republic's constitution in 1937. They were the defining principles of the state's official stance, but political elites and parties had given little thought to mechanisms for actually implementing this policy. Northern Ireland intruded little in political debate in the Republic and had virtually no impact on the electoral performance of the parties. In the decades that followed, though, life in the Republic changed in all three of these respects—constitutional, party political, and electoral.

Constitutional Realities

The wording of Article 2 of the 1937 constitution, which declared that "the national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas," combined with Article 3, which confined the jurisdiction of the state's political institutions to the area of the former Irish Free State "pending the reintegration of the national territory," was generally interpreted by constitutional lawyers up to 1990 as a statement of political aspiration. It reflected a widespread domestic view that the Republic had a vested interest in Northern Ireland, an interest that had found expression in periodic demands from Dublin that the British government take steps to bring about Irish unity.

The outbreak of civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s resulted initially in a hardening of this position, with the southern Irish government insisting that the roots of the problem lay in the partition of the island and that unity was the obvious solution. In the early 1970s, as the IRA's military campaign for Irish unity intensified, successive administrations distanced themselves from this position to avoid any allegation that they endorsed the IRA's methods. The Sunningdale Agreement (between the Irish and British governments and the moderate Northern Ireland parties) on 9 December 1973 was the first clear indication of this shift. The Irish government "fully accepted and solemnly declared that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired a change in that status." Subsequent Irish administrations have adhered to this position, with varying degrees of emphasis, while continuing to express a desire for unity in the long term.

On 1 March 1990 the Irish Supreme Court ruled in favor of a more assertive interpretation of the constitution that construed Articles 2 and 3 as amounting to a claim of legal right. Consequently, the explicit recognition of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom that was written into the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998 made necessary a change in the Irish constitution's articles. This change had considerable value as a symbolic gesture to northern unionists, and it was made part of the peace agreement. In a referendum on 22 May 1998 Irish voters approved the change by a majority of 94 percent; the amendment took effect on 2 December 1999. The "national territory" is no longer defined in the constitution, which now incorporates a guarantee to unionists that "a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island."

The Good Friday Agreement also brought about further institutional changes, including the creation of a British-Irish Council linking the British and Irish governments; the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish administrations; and the governments of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey. More significantly, it set up a small network of North-South bodies designed to encourage cooperation in specific areas (such as economics, certain marine matters, and language), under the political control of a North/South Ministerial Council made up of representatives of the Irish government and the Northern Ireland executive.

Party Policies

These constitutional and institutional changes reflected shifts in the positions of the Republic's main parties. The two largest parties had long advocated Irish unity as a major goal but had differed in emphasis. From its formation in 1926 the first aim of Fianna Fáil, as specified in its constitution, was "to secure the unity and independence of Ireland as a republic," and this objective had featured from time to time in party rhetoric. A notable shift in direction took place under the leadership of Jack Lynch (1966–1979), who stressed that unity must be brought about only with the consent of Northern Ireland. Later leaders adhered to this policy, notwithstanding the more nationalist tone of Lynch's successor Charles Haughey (1979–1992).

Fine Gael had traditionally supported Irish unity too (the official English version of its name was "the United Ireland party"), but less insistently than Fianna Fáil. Under the leadership of Liam Cosgrave (1965–1977), the party began to deemphasize its nationalist past and stress that unity could come about only by agreement between the two parts of Ireland. The party has since adhered to this position, though other leaders have pushed it in rather different directions: Garret FitzGerald (1977–1987) committed the party to a vision of new constitutional structures for the island of Ireland, and John Bruton (1990–2001), according to his critics, displayed more sensitivity to the unionist case than to the nationalist.

Other parties have undergone similar transitions. The Labour Party had been formally committed to the establishment of an all-Ireland republic, but in the course of the 1970s it increasingly accepted the long-term reality of partition. The official Sinn Féin party (as opposed to provisional Sinn Féin, which broke away from the official party in 1970 and is now known as Sinn Féin simpliciter) changed even more radically than Labour, eventually renaming itself the Workers' Party and altogether rejecting the mainstream nationalist position (but eventually becoming entirely politically marginalized). The very birth of the Progressive Democrats in 1985 suggested strains over policy in relation to Northern Ireland—the new party was founded partly to oppose the more aggressively nationalist Fianna Fáil.

These changes indicated (and, to some extent, also influenced) a profound shift in public attitudes. As the economic and political costs of absorbing Northern Ireland have become obvious, popular enthusiasm in the Republic has waned. The cooling of public opinion has been reinforced by revulsion at the IRA's campaign of violence and by the increasing differentiation of northern from southern Irish society, itself a long-term consequence of partition.

Electoral Competition

There is little evidence that the Northern Ireland issue was significant in electoral politics in the south after the 1920s, except possibly in 1948, when a radical nationalist party, Clann na Poblachta ("Party of the Republic"), made a dramatic but ephemeral dent in the support base of Fianna Fáil. The evidence of more recent elections, opinion polls, and party electoral strategies suggests that the Northern Ireland issue attracts little interest. Indeed, in the November 1982 election Charles Haughey, sensing widespread popular suspicion of any interference with the status quo, used Garret FitzGerald's advocacy of an all-Ireland security force as a weapon against Fine Gael.

Attempts by newer parties to mobilize support for North-South unification have not been notably successful. None of the small radical nationalist parties has won a sizeable bloc of electoral support. Although Sinn Féin won a large share of the nationalist vote in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s (about 50% by the beginning of the twenty-first century), it has had little impact in the Republic (less than 3% in 1997). Although opinion polls registered an increase in Sinn Féin's popularity in the Republic after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, it is likely that this owes more to the party's increasing moderation on the issue of partition and its involvement in domestic social issues than to nationalist enthusiasm; by 2002 it built its share of the vote up to 6.5 percent.

SEE ALSO Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Primary Documents: From the 1937 Constitution; Statement by the Taoiseach (13 August 1969); "Towards Changes in the Republic" (1973); Anglo-Irish Agreement (15 November 1985)


Arthur, Paul. Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Problem. 2000.

Bowman, John. De Valera and the Ulster Question, 1917–1973. 1982.

Cox, Michael, Adrian Guelke, and Fiona Stephen, eds. A Farewell to Arms? From "Long war" to Long Peace in Northern Ireland. 2000.

Kennedy, Michael J. Division and Consensus: The Politics of Cross-Border Relations in Ireland. 2000.

O'Halloran, Clare. Partition and the Limits of Irish Nationalism: An Ideology under Stress. 1987.

O'Leary, Brendan, and John McGarry. The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland. 2d edition, 1996.

Ruane, Joseph, and Jennifer Todd. The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict, and Emancipation. 1996.

John Coakley

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Politics: Impact of the Northern Ireland Crisis on Southern Politics