Attention to detail

Mark Durkan with former Secretary of State Theresa Villiers in Derry. Credit: Northern Ireland Office.

As one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement text, former SDLP leader Mark Durkan is highly regarded for his consistent attention to detail in political agreement. In the context of increased calls for an inclusive discussion on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, David Whelan sat down with the former deputy First Minister to discuss his visions around a future roadmap to a united Ireland.

Acknowledging that Brexit has opened up the conversation about the prospect of a united Ireland to a greater extent in public discourse than was ever the case in the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed, Durkan is quick to point out that this is not the first time attempts have been made at initiating such a conversation.

Even before the concept of Brexit – and just four years after the Agreement – Durkan was heavily involved in launching a discussion document on the future shape and pathway to a united Ireland, with the ambition of allowing people to “express honest differences about honest constitutional preferences”.

Durkan outlines that the reason for raising such a discussion so shortly after the creation of the power sharing institutions were two-fold. Firstly, to try to cement the idea that John Hume’s vision of ‘an agreed Ireland’ was provided for by the GFA. The Agreement had a “bespoke democratic integrity of its own”, through an understanding of mandated institutions voted for by the people of the island and an agreement on any potential constitutional change of Northern Ireland, that would have to be seen to stand in the context of any debate on Irish unity and also in the context of Irish unity itself.   

Secondly, he says that the document was in response to indications from within unionism that it was having difficulties coping with changes being asked of it by the GFA, such as decommissioning, police reform and prisoner release.

“Unionism as a whole was projecting this feeling that they were having to do all the adjusting and so we wanted to highlight that the Agreement also needed nationalism to rethink our understanding and approach to unity, which now needed to be informed by the facts, standards and promises of the Agreement. It needed to be outlined that in the event of any question of unity, the Good Friday Agreement would be a core principal and not something that could be abandoned.”

Durkan explains that the importance of stressing this point was made clearer to him during a debate with then President of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, in 2002 at the World Economic Forum held in New York, where Adams outlined his belief that in the event of a united Ireland the Agreement would be unnecessary. Disagreeing with this, he says: “I made the point that I saw the Agreement still standing and that these were commitments made to both traditions on the island, including a long-term British-Irish relationship. I think it is important that just as we would stress the importance of a strong north-south relationship for nationalists, that there needed to be a strong guaranteed east-west relationship into the future to take account of British identity and interests.

“At the time, I highlighted that it was hypocritical to argue for a border poll on the basis of the Agreement, with the understanding that if unsuccessful there would be a need to revert to its protections and institutions, while believing that it could just be cast aside if unity was secured.

“The Agreement provides for the institutions and arrangements in its three strands. It provides human rights and equality guarantees. It also provides assurances that both governments – which ever one has sovereignty – will guarantee certain standards. I believe the Agreement stands on its own terms and own integrity even in the event of constitutional change.”

Durkan’s belief was that the ideal scenario for a referendum on unity was in the context where the Agreement was embedded and stable, so that, even talk of Irish unity would not be destabilising or raise question marks about its future. 

This belief was reaffirmed for him in 2002 when the unionist leader David Trimble called for a border poll as a means of bolstering unionist unity ahead of an election scheduled for the following year. Although endorsed by Sinn Féin and the DUP, the SDLP were cautious and restated their belief that at least two full terms of functioning institutions should pass before any referendum was staged, allowing people to be “confident of honest conversation without any prejudices to the current Agreement or arrangements”.

“The cumulation of these events further convinced me that we needed to do a bit of sat-naving through how you frame a possible referendum or proposition around unity without it being seen to be destabilising,” he explains.

The former MP says that he brought these “thought challenges” to Dublin, where political parties were weary of disturbing the peace. Similarly, in Northern Ireland suspension of the Assembly meant priorities were more short-term.

The SDLP’s John Hume, Alban Maginness and Mark Durkan. Credit: SDLP.

Thought challenges

Drawing comparisons between what the SDLP were proposing then and recent events such as Fianna Fáil’s White Paper on reunification and Sinn Féin’s indications that it would be open to retaining elements of the GFA in the event of a successful referendum on unity, Durkan sees many similarities.

However, while he can be credited with foresight, believing that the prospect of a referendum would become reality in his lifetime, he has never seen the outcome as “inevitable”.

Even considering projected demographic changes in Northern Ireland, in that the Catholic population is expected to become the largest by 2021, he says: “I approach this as someone who negotiated and drafted the Agreement and as someone who is more interested in consensus politics than census politics.”

Adding: “We need consensus politics for any change of constitutional status. This is why we set in the agreement the model that allows for more than one parliament in Ireland. It’s possible to have a united Ireland and still have the institutions and arrangements of all three strands. The difference of course would be that the North would be electing to a national parliament as well and would have a much stronger presence within that than it currently does in the UK parliament.

“In this case it would be realistic and practical to keep an Assembly in the North. What would change would be the envelope of devolution and you would use the review mechanisms that are provided for in the Agreement to make those adjustments.”

Durkan outlines that any such change would ultimately need to be transitional, allowing for bespoke areas of administration – and potentially legislation – to be introduced on different timescales for various sectors.

Addressing the long-standing concern often utilised to argue against a united Ireland that Northern Ireland could not function economically without the current level of subvention from the UK Government, and that Ireland would be economically damaged in shouldering that burden, he says: “Using the review mechanisms of the Agreement you could have managed transitions in both the short and long-term whereby there could be a differential in what some of those transitions are depending on different sectors.

“I think it is legitimate to say that in circumstances where the UK Government is committed to an amount of expenditure in Northern Ireland, if there is a change of constitutional status we should be able to lock in a contribution through a transition period.”

Durkan emphasises that even without a change of constitutional status, it has been a long-held ambition for Northern Ireland to achieve regional economic security and become more self-sufficient. Similarly, another well-worn counter argument often cited is the proposed restructuring of Northern Ireland’s large public sector. Again, Durkan says that addressing this has been a long-term challenge and not one brought about by the prospect of a United Ireland.

“It is in our interest to have better and more efficient public services and policies. It has long been an ambition to change the size and the culture of the North’s public service. I think there is an opportunity to continue this push, probably through a shift in administration and a move to a more common framework.”

However, he is adamant that a British-Irish framework would still need to exist and he suggests, built up further: “Just as we had always argued for northern representation in the Seanad, in the event of a united Ireland we see the case for continuing representation within a reformed second chamber at Westminster for people from Northern Ireland who want that as an expression that they were part of the British politik.”


“Brexit has meant that whether people were comfortable to do so in the past or not, we have had to look very directly at that key precept of the GFA that provided for the democratic potential of unity by consent,” adds Durkan. In the weeks following the Brexit referendum, he warned the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny of the potential that “constitutional nationalism could find itself in crisis” if this concept was not protected.

“We had to make sure that there would be no question mark, in the event of a border poll, that either Northern Ireland would have to negotiate entry into the EU if successful, or indeed that Ireland’s overall terms would be up for negotiation.”

Durkan points to the wording of the Agreement that “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent…”, adding: “We couldn’t have it that further down the line that Brexit in effect will have created an external impediment.”

Subsequently, Durkan endeavoured in Westminster as a sitting MP to get a written guarantee from the Brexit Minister David Davis to the effect that in the event of a referendum signalling sufficient support for a united Ireland, “Northern Ireland would be in a position of becoming part of an existing EU member state, rather than seeking to join the EU as a new independent state.”

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins on Derry’s walls with Mark Durkan. Credit: The irish labour Party.

Despite his focus on ensuring that Brexit will not damage the prospect of a united Ireland, Durkan does not side with those nationalists in favour of what he describes as a “knee-jerk” border poll. “One thing that needs to be remembered is that there needs to be support in the South as well. Traditionally, there is a feeling from the South to steer away from anything that they see as potentially ‘disturbing the peace’ and also there is an economic fear that unification could be damaging for current growth.” He believes that some elements of unionism are aware of these concerns and foresees the potential for a border poll to be utilised as a “point of settlement”.

He adds: “I want to see the fewest unknowns possible for a successful referendum. By successful I don’t just mean one that delivers a vote for unification, I mean one that preserves political stability and the institutions. A poll in the current context, without the institutions in place would compound uncertainties on top of Brexit rather than answer them.”



Quizzed on who ultimately should be responsible for furthering the conversation about a future roadmap to reunification, Durkan believes that given the changed wording of the Irish constitution to reflect an aspiration to unity, it is not unreasonable to expect the Irish government to convene discussions in a format similar to the former Forum for Peace and Reconciliation or the New Ireland Forum.

“Inviting parties north and south to say ‘this isn’t about pushing a bid for a border poll’ but about trying to make sure we have a shared understanding of what it is we mean by reunification.” he explains.    

While Durkan would hope that unionists would engage with such a forum, he issues a cautious warning against seeking unionist agreement prior to a referendum, which he argues would effectively create a unionist “veto”.

“There is a danger of seeking unionist agreement in advance and never getting a referendum because you have accepted a pre-condition that to hold a referendum you need to have signed up unionist leaders to a particular vision. Instead I think the correct path is doing as much as possible to sensitively pre-assure all those involved. To invite all to engage but understanding that it could well be that this happens in the absence of direct unionist engagement.

“However, a lot of work needs to be done to set out a clear understanding about how and when you frame a referendum. The Brexit referendum is the perfect example of the problems of having a referendum on a principle, without that background of detail.”

Much like seeking unionist agreement prior to a referendum, Durkan is against the notion that unionists would be guaranteed a select number of reserved seats in a national parliament. Stressing the point that the current strength of unionist numbers means that any election to an all-island parliament by proportional representation would return a strong presence. He also believes that it would send the wrong message: “In some ways people might frame a guarantee as reflecting an acknowledgement that unionism is going to be some form of endangered species that would need protection in a united Ireland.”

Concluding, Durkan returns to the topic of Brexit and reiterates his belief that the best prospect in protecting the Good Friday Agreement is to properly portray how its “architecture, methodology and machinery” can offset challenges to the North. He believes that discussing ‘GFA status’ rather than ‘special status’ could help achieve the EU’s ambition of ‘de-dramatising’ the backstop proposals.

“It’s about making sure Northern Ireland is able to have the best opportunities it wants to pursue inside the UK economy and also having the best opportunities it wants to pursue inside the island economy, which extends more widely into the EU. Only a fraction of the Agreement’s bandwidth has been used to date and I believe that the make-up of the Agreement offers many solutions to the challenges currently being faced,” he summarises.

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