Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP, has stated that any vision for how a united Ireland would look must be fleshed out in more detail and in realistic terms. He said that the SDLP “has long proposed that the protections and institutions won for minorities in the Good Friday Agreement would need to remain to protect unionism in a New Ireland. That would mean that Stormont would remain, giving both northern unionism and nationalism power in both Belfast and in Dublin.”
The retention of Stormont in its present form as a regional assembly within a united Ireland may strike some republicans as an odd arrangement for an Irish nationalist to advocate, but the idea has merit. Any talk of reuniting the country has to go into more detail than wishful thinking about British withdrawal as a result of nationalists demanding and the British granting. Fleshing out the details of how Irish unity could work is an essential step in building support for it among the people of the north, particularly those on the more moderate and persuadable end of unionism.
This is where it is worth looking at similar handovers elsewhere in the world. Britain handed Hong Kong back to China at the end of their 99 year lease on the New Territories to the north of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded to Britain permanently, it was impractical to only hand back part of the New Territories when the lease was up, so both parties agreed to a total handover. China did not immediately dismantle all traces of western style capitalism and impose their communist system. Instead Hong Kong came into “Greater China” as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR).
Today the former colony retains many of its distinctive characteristics such as the Hong Kong Dollar as its currency, UK-standard road signage and construction standards, driving on the left, Hong Kong citizens still have easy access to many countries, more press freedom, more internet freedom and more democratic control than the mainland, the legal system remains intact, and even statues of British monarchs remain unchanged. Some British symbols, such as the police insignia, were replaced by symbols specific to Hong Kong rather than those associated with the People’s Republic, but in general, day-to-day life and physical appearances in Hong Kong are not much different from before the handover. It was as if Beijing did not want to jolt the territory too suddenly from one system to another, a move that could be unpopular and destabilizing. “One country-two systems” was the concept. The British insisted that as a condition of the Hong Kong handover the territory’s SAR status should remain in place for at least fifty years after the British departure.
The handover of Macau from Portugal to China in 1999 offers many parallels. The transition period from the joint declaration to the formal handover lasted twelve years, the former colony retains SAR status, and most of the distinctive attributes that were retained in Hong Kong are also retained in Macau. The economy of Macau is quite different from Hong Kong in that much of it is based on tourism rather than being a global financial center, but the similarities of its constitutional arrangements are noteworthy.
That said, the Hong Kong and Macau handovers also have many key differences with the Irish situation. For one, geography meant that China was not exactly next door to the Europeans. The British and Portuguese had to make considerable effort to strategically defend their territories and could never drop soldiers in at short notice. Furthermore the Chinese insisted that negotiations on the terms of the handovers would be between themselves and the British and Portuguese, while the populations of the territories were sidelined, whereas the Good Friday Agreement places the final decision on the north’s constitutional status firmly in the hands of its inhabitants. China had argued at the United Nations that its lost territories had been ceded to more powerful colonial powers under “unequal treaties” and hence were sovereign Chinese territory that did not fall under the ordinary type covered by the UN’s decolonization resolution of 1960. This contrasts with the Irish government’s position of recognizing British rule in the north as a right granted by the people living there.
That said, the handling of the transition back to Chinese rule in both territories offers lessons that could be adapted to Ireland.
Stormont’s elaborate checks, balances, and power-sharing executive are designed to protect the rights of what is now a nationalist minority. A future unionist minority could enjoy those same protections in the event of the northern state being retained as a Special Administrative Region in a reunified Ireland. A minimum duration of the arrangement could also be written into treaty, a promise that could address unionist fears of Irish unity and make it less daunting. Getting down to the specifics of how day-to-day life would look would also help to visualize reunification. Would we switch to the Euro or retain Sterling? Would the BBC continue to have a broadcasting arm in the north or would it partner with RTE to provide public service broadcasting under a new northern-specific brand? Would the mail boxes be painted green, would it do any harm to leave them red, or will anyone even be using paper mail by then?
Maintaining some level of northern autonomy would have many advantages in making the deal an easier sell to unionists, but it would also have disadvantages. Many of the economic benefits of Irish unity come from the elimination of duplicate public services, and regional autonomy would retain some of that duplication and lessen the economic benefit. The level of autonomy retained in the north would have to be enough to preserve peace and stability since any gains in reduced duplication could be lost if civil unrest got out of hand. Hong Kong and Macau are good places to look for ideas about how such continuity can make for a peaceful and stable transition.