Sunday, January 28, 2024

Act of Disunion

As machinations continue within the Democratic Unionist Party on the return to devolution outside influencers will, no doubt, return to demands about the relying on the Act of Union to copper fasten Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom.

Before unionism becomes distracted by such commentary a better understanding of the origins of the Act and its limitations would aid the debate.

At the end of the 18th century Ireland witnessed the birth of the Orange Institution and the United Irishmen uprising, nationally Britain constantly fretted about the intentions of France. It was feared that turmoil in Ireland would provide an opportunity for a French invasion with a welcoming population and ultimately a serious threat of an invasion of England from two directions.

In London the answer was clear, if Catholic unrest in Ireland was an opportunity for France addressing that unrest would reduce or remove the risk of a French invasion of Ireland. The strategy to achieve that was to introduce Catholic emancipation, a policy with limited impact in England in terms of the population affected but a significant impact in Ireland.

Achieving this was problematic, at the time the Parliament in Dublin was a Protestant Parliament, more specifically a Church of Ireland Parliament which would never vote for Catholic emancipation. The answer was an Act of Union subsuming the Parliament in Dublin into the Parliament in London allowing for the passing of Catholic emancipation laws. To achieve this there were 2 Acts of Union, one to be presented to the Dublin Parliament the other to Westminster.

The Acts were designed to facilitate the change in Governance covering the number of MP’s from Ireland in the House of Commons, seats in the Lords, the merger of the Church of Ireland and Church of England, tax payments to the Exchequer and the now infamous Article 6 on trade.

Passage of the Bill in Ireland did not progress smoothly with the Parliament in Dublin voting against it. Not to be outdone the Governent set about persuading Members of the Dublin Parliament to support the Bill when it returned to be considered, there were of course seats in the Commons and Lords and various additional positions available to those who supported the Bill. 

It wasn’t only within the Dublin Parliament that opposition to the Act surfaced, members of the recently founded Orange Institution had grave concerns about the implications and expressed these views robustly when Grand Lodge took no position. Dr David Hume provides some interesting context to the correspondence lodges sent to Grand Lodge. For many the concerns centred on the recognition that having ceded authority to Westminster there was no protection against any future decisions taken by Parliament. 

The Bill passed and in the 223 years since it’s provisions have gradually been eroded and removed. Once passed the Government introduced a customs border in the Irish Sea for 10 years to address issues arising from the level of trade France had with Ireland and to limit French goods passing through Ireland to England. The newly created Unified Church of England and Ireland would eventually split back to their constituent parts. Partition saw the end of the majority of Irish seats in the Commons and Lords and Irish contributions to the exchequer. 

The initial point of the Act, to facilitate the introduction of Catholic emancipation was blocked by King George III as he felt it was contrary to his coronation oath. It was eventually introduced and progressively the issue of Home Rule came to the fore, with the Act of Union providing the legal authority to Westminster to take a decision but for the outbreak of World War I. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 then led to partition. 

The Act of Union provided the authority for partition, the suspension of Stormont, Anglo-Irish Agreement, Protocol, Windsor Framework and whatever follows, only the ultimate decision on the creation of a United Ireland falls outwith Parliament.

Parliament is sovereign, as those on the right wing of the Conservative Party express loudly in challenging the legal interpretations of courts. While the absence of a formal written constitution is considered a flexible, quaint historical feature of our Government the clarity and certainty from developing a codified constitution provides the opportunity for renewal. A constitutional process detailing the rights of citizens, the responsibilities of Parliament and the limits of Government would provide unionism with far greater security than centuries old legislation.

Unionism can spend its limited political capital in trying to interpret centuries old legislation in its favour or alternatively it can argue for a constitutional process to improve the protection of rights of all our citizens across the UK. Making a better union is the best protection unionism has.









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