Something from work

A (long) piece I’ve written for a Kosovo political journal attempting to draw parallels between Kosovo’s future and Ireland’s past.

Conditional Independence: An Irish Angle

The concept of “conditional independence” for Kosovo was first described by an independent international commission, co-chaired by South African judge Richard Goldstone and Swedish analyst Carl Thamm, and further elaborated by ICG in our 2001 book After Milosevic: A Practical Agenda for Lasting Balkan Peace. We proposed that Kosovo’s recognition as a sovereign, independent state should be made conditional in three different ways:

First, it is reasonable to insist that proper standards on minority rights be met for a period of time before all the benefits of international recognition (including membership of international organisations like the UN, and full access to international financial institutions, trade arrangements and the like) are awarded.

Secondly, Kosovo could be required as a condition of recognition to permanently renounce some kinds of action which would normally be within the competence of a sovereign independent nation. While ICG believes that an independent Kosovo is unlikely to be a threat to its neighbours, the international community would also be in a position to require a binding commitment that it would not seek to expand its boundaries or unite with Albania.

Thirdly, a form of trusteeship could be imposed on Kosovo by the UN, under which, for the duration of that arrangement, its government – while exercising all normal day to day government powers – would be subject to the exercise of veto powers by the trusteeship representative, either at large or in certain defined areas. Such powers would be exercised with a lighter touch than under the present protectorate arrangements in both Kosovo and Bosnia.

Our proposals have sometimes been met with the argument that “conditional” independence is unheard of; that, as with pregnancy, sovereignty is something you either have or you don’t. But in fact special arrangements in the transition to full independence are not at all uncommon, and one particularly interesting example is presented by the state which currently holds the European Union presidency, the Republic of Ireland.

The movement for Irish independence was born out of the repeated frustration of Irish hopes for autonomy within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in the period up to 1914. In 1916, a pro-independence rebellion in Dublin was crushed after a week of resistance, and most of its leaders were executed. Pro-independence candidates, including survivors of the 1916 rebellion, won a majority of the seats in the 1918 election to the British parliament in Westminster; they set up their own parliament (the Dáil) in Dublin, passed a declaration of independence, and sought recognition from the international community.

Like the Kosovo parliament between 1990 and 1999, the Dáil was not recognised by international actors as the legal authority in Ireland, and Irish representatives were excluded from the Paris peace conference that rearranged Europe’s frontiers after the first World War. Peace negotiations only began after almost three years of military struggle, in which the British attempted to impose their rule on Ireland through the use of paramilitary units (the “Black and Tans”) whose brutality in fact resulted in even greater support for independence.

The peace treaty itself was agreed in December 1921 between an Irish team led by Michael Collins and a British team led by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (who had described Collins as a terrorist only a few months earlier). The Irish went into negotiations looking for a fully sovereign republic including the entire territory of the island; they came out with Treaty establishing an Irish Free State within the British Commonwealth, not including six north-eastern counties which remained under British rule (though with an autonomous local government).

This provoked bitter debate in Ireland. The leader of the independence movement, Éamon de Valera, repudiated the terms of the Treaty, and a civil war ensued between pro-and anti-Treaty factions, lasting almost a year. The pro-Treaty side won both the civil war and the battle for public opinion, though their leading personality, Michael Collins, was killed in the conflict.

It is interesting that the debate on the Treaty centred not on the partition of the island, but on what could be called the conditional aspects of Ireland’s independence. The Irish Free State had a Governor-General, appointed by and representing the British King, and members of its Parliament had to swear an oath to obey the constitutional order including the British connection; both of these were unacceptable to hard-line supporters of an Irish Republic.

In addition, the British navy and army were to retain use of three military bases on the Irish coast (the United Kingdom retains such bases even today in Cyprus, which are not part of the sovereign territory of the island). And there were provisions for minority rights too, in the form of special representation of Protestants in the Irish Senate during the initial period and protection for their cultural and religious heritage.

In the course of time, almost all of the elements of the 1921 treaty which hardliners had opposed were removed. De Valera won elections in 1932, and over the next few years abolished the parliamentary oath, replaced the Governor-General with a directly elected President, and reshaped the Senate to his own liking; by now, however, Britain had come to accept the reality of Irish independence, and no serious objection was made. The military bases were also withdrawn as Britain reconsidered its military priorities in the late 1930s.

Minority rights had become less of a problem after independence, and De Valera supported a Protestant candidate who became the first directly elected President, and instituted state funding to a Protestant-dominated university in Dublin. De Valera had considerable electoral success, but lost power in 1948; the new government declared Ireland a Republic and withdrew from the British Commonwealth.

The lesson for Kosovo from this story, so far, is that any resolution of the final status issue will almost certainly include elements that will be difficult for many in Kosovo to accept. Politicians should however look at the long term perspective, and ask if the terms on offer can provide what Michael Collins called “the freedom to achieve freedom”. For instance, it’s possible to imagine Belgrade retaining some rights of supervision over important religious sites (as has been the case in other parts of the former Ottoman Empire), and Serbs in Kosovo demanding the right to fly their own flag (as do Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia).

These issues will present huge difficulty for those who have to negotiate them, but it is important to remember that after the passage of time some will simply be accepted as normal (as with minority rights in Ireland) and others can be changed through legal, constitutional and democratic means, as with the Governor-General, the parliamentary oath and the British military bases. The hard-liners in the debate on Ireland’s treaty brought chaos and disastrous defeat on themselves by resorting to violence; but inside the next twenty years, most of their aims were achieved peacefully.

The exception, of course, was the partition of the island. By the time the treaty negotiations started in 1921, an autonomous Protestant-dominated government had already been set up in the six counties which became Northern Ireland. The Treaty would have given the Irish Free State government certain border adjustments and a small input into Northern Ireland legislation in a few areas. In the end, though, attempting to implement that part of the treaty caused a major political crisis in Dublin; the border was left unchanged and complete British sovereignty over Northern Ireland continued.

This was basically because none of the pro-independence Irish politicians had developed a strategy for addressing the problem that a fifth of Ireland’s population did not want to be part of an independent Irish state, and there had been no serious debate about how to reassure them. Kosovo is in a slightly more fortunate position with respect to Mitrovica and the northern municipalities – and of course there is always the possibility that an independent Kosovo could agree a border rearrangement with Serbia – but the possibilities of disaster are still there.

It’s possible to imagine a final status deal for Kosovo which includes some kind of special arrangement for the northern municipalities within an independent state. This, rather than outright redrawing of the borders, may be what Zoran Djindjic had in mind when he talked about the precedents of the Republika Srpska and of the arrangements proposed by the UN for Cyprus. Indeed, the 1921 Treaty left this possibility open also for Northern Ireland – that it might remain an autonomous region, but under Irish sovereignty – but nobody seriously pursued that prospect at the time.

We are still a long way from that position (and ICG certainly doesn’t put it forward at this stage as a recommendation), but Kosovo’s ethnic majority needs to consider what it can offer the other ethnic communities, both now (as we argued in a report last year, Kosovo’s Ethnic Dilemma: The Need for a Civic Contract) and in the future as negotiations come close.

There will be some in Kosovo who will draw the wrong lesson from history, and who will argue that Kosovo should simply try and get whatever independence is possible through the use of violence against anyone – Serbia or the international community – who opposes them. It is possible that such a strategy could work; if it did, it would deliver independence to a diminished and economically devastated Kosovo, without friends in its own neighbourhood, dependent on assistance from friends abroad – rather like Israel, but without the tourist potential of the coastline and with much less hope for American support. Kosovo’s leaders have to decide if they would rather see their children grow up in a country like Israel or in a country like Ireland.

One final point. There will be enormous reluctance in Belgrade as well as in Pristina to start, never mind finish, negotiations on Kosovo’s final status. The 1921 Treaty obviously had huge consequences for Ireland. It is often forgotten that it also had a massive impact on the political scene in the rest of the United Kingdom. The abandonment of the British claim to sovereignty over most of Ireland led to the fall of David Lloyd George’s government, and since then his Liberal Party has been perpetually in third place in British elections. Lloyd George’s right-hand man, who had personally negotiated many of the most difficult points with the Irish, was consequently excluded from the front rank of politics for most of the next twenty years. His name was Winston Churchill.

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