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Local historian and Daisy Hill Hospital campaigner, Francis Gallagher, has written a new book called 'New Ireland on a Napkin: a political framework for the future.' 

The author said, he drew from on his experience in the late Dr. John Robb’s New Ireland Group, and presents the case for a unitary, confederal Ireland, influenced by the Swiss system of participatory democracy.

Speaking about his book Francis said “If a border poll is called in the near future, it’s imperative that Northern Ireland and the rest of the island moves forward on the basis of widespread consensus across the whole community rather than by majoritarianism, that’s leaves a significant portion of people feeling they have been side-lined or outvoted. Consensus and agreement could be achieved by having a multi-option ‘your future poll’ that asks people to vote for a new type of constitution for the island, that could include the Swiss style confederal option as well as remaining within the UK. So if people had a first, second, third and fourth choice, we may not get our first choice but we could get our second that would have broader community consensus”.

“I prefer the term ‘your future poll’ because it is more positive and could include the option of reforming the institutions at Stormont if there is not enough whole community consensus for more significant constitutional change. Because the Stormont institutions are organised around identity rather than accountability, they are hard wired to cement societal divisions, provide poor administration and will ultimately fail. In my book, I write about a ‘direct accountability model’ that will ensure more competent government while building a more shared society. Gradually, through time, the next generations, having enjoyed a more civic society, may or may not wish to make a decision about any constitutional change.”

Politics too important to leave to politicians

Francis believes that many people feel alienated from political parties and see many politicians as self-serving, hence why politics is too important to leave to the politicians, and it is vital to involve civic society in making political decisions.

Dr John Robb's idea was to organise citizen conventions throughout the North, to build awareness of various constitutional options, and calculate which one had the most consensus. This is how the Swiss constitution developed, through consent, and eventually Alpine communities asking to be part of the confederation because it was to their benefit.

Gallagher explains "A Swiss acquaintance tells me that in his country, when they need a hole in the road fixed, they say ‘I must call my civil servant’. There cantonal government is so accountable that they don’t need politicians to exercise clout to get the problem sorted. When we can talk like the Swiss in this regard, we will be well on the way to a New Ireland.” 

Author Francis Gallagher.
Author Francis Gallagher.

Continuing Gallagher adds “In New Ireland on a Napkin, I have stated that my preferred option is a confederation that is a unitary state, but not a centralised one that gives too much power to the banks, corporations and politicians. A confederal Ireland would be within a radically reformed EU that is more democratic and less remote. A confederal democracy would mean that Newry could be a municipality, and its people would be able to take part in direct democracy and vote for local projects they preferred such as a park at the Albert Basin. Daisy Hill Hospital would have its own budget, paid directly from an equality commission at Stormont instead of the Department of Finance. The hospital would be run by a committee representative of all the staff in the hospital and finally the threat to Daisy Hill as an acute hospital would finally be laid to rest. A confederation is more about enabling people to influence government decisions, where they live and work, so it is much more accountable than a federation, which is all about delegating the minimum amount of power so complete central control can be maintained. But I am politically mature and I can see that the best way to move forward is by achieving maximum consent among all political traditions. This could very well mean just having more civic and accountable political institutions in Northern Ireland and you could very well see that future generations from across the community, will feel more confident to discuss a new constitution for the whole island and how we relate to Britain and the EU.”

Swiss Confederal system

Gallagher met Dr. John Robb at a New Ireland Group meeting in Belfast in the mid-1980s. The meeting had a speaker from Switzerland who explained how the Swiss confederal system of participatory democracy worked. John chaired the meeting and he made a very positive impression on Gallagher, not only due to the originality of his ideas but his obvious integrity.

Gallagher recalls "I remember a meeting where John showed the walking stick of his Presbyterian ancestor, the United Irishman, Daniel Rabb, from Ballysallagh. Daniel Rabb worked for Mary Anne McCracken during Robert Emmet’s rising of 1803. John was a very talented surgeon in the RVH in Belfast, when the troubles erupted in 1969. His experience treating some of its victims, influenced John to take a political journey to research alternative political ideas and ways to build a society more at peace with itself. He became a Senator in the Dublin Parliament from 1982-89.” 

Gallaghers friendship with John and hearing his refreshing political views, helped motivate him to write New Ireland on a Napkin. "John would often talk about the need to build consensus among the whole community for political change. In my book, I write about his idea of citizen’s conventions throughout Northern Ireland, as a means of building awareness and agreement: this could be about making the Stormont institutions more accountable to the people, or for broader constitutional change, if the Unionist community wished to participate. But the most important thing is to achieve wider community consensus for change rather than by majoritarianism. It’s very difficult to persuade anyone to do anything because it usually involves someone giving ground but Unionists may wish to consider the confederal option as a plan B, especially if Scotland leaves the UK and there is a debate about how these islands could co-operate in some kind of common ground.” 

Border poll language misleading

Gallagher believes the language used around a border poll is misleading because in many ways Ireland is already united in the sense there is no physical border but it is the people who are divided politically. The EU may be reformed in the future and with this, the UK may very well join up again. So the island of Ireland and Britain would be states within a less centralised EU and linked up economically and politically. So to me, the fundamental question is: how accountable are the politically institutions that pass laws and what influence do we have over them.” 

Gallagher believes we also need to be mindful about the power of the banks and corporations.

Keep it real: will Unionist take part?

Because one could argue that Ireland is already united in the sense there is no physical border, but as yet, consensus has not been achieved for an alternative to the status quo if the political grounds shift. 

Gallagher concludes "In the conclusion of my book, I ask: how can trust and confidence be strengthened among the whole community for a New Ireland? It is important to discuss constitutional models that would give us a better quality of life than we have today, otherwise what is the point of change? A good starting point would be to build a more accountable form of administration in Northern Ireland. If we improved upon what we have at the moment, maybe a shared space could be created whereby succeeding generations would feel more confident about building consensus for a new constitution for our island. It would be very important to have a broad support among all traditions in Northern Ireland for any constitutional change otherwise many people will feel marginalised and that is not a good way to proceed.”

Francis says his book is not an academic work but is more geared for the popular market: “This is why I called it New Ireland on a Napkin. if you can’t write your ideas for any project on a napkin, then they are too complicated – and it helps if you have a cappuccino to hand. 

New Ireland on a Napkin: a political framework for the future, can be ordered from WWW.WATERSTONES.COM or by emailing the author at: francispatrick.gallagher@ymail.com 

The book costs £9.99 + postage and packaging. You can ring Francis on 07746486891

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