6 National self-determination

Who should get to vote on secession?

The Bs (encompassing the Cs) or all the As too? After all, democracy is often said to be about people who are affected by an issue having a say on it; and As will certainly be affected if Bs secede. This is a live issue with regard to Northern Ireland's future, for example. If a referendum were to decide if the province should join the Irish Republic, should the voters include all UK voters and all Irish voters, or just those living in the province? If, for example, there were to be a vote on the creation of an independent Palestinian state, what would be the appropriate constituency: (a) Palestinians living in the occupied territories, which might become the state, or (b) these plus Palestinians living elsewhere (the ‘diaspora’), and/or (c) those living in the occupied territories plus Israeli citizens? Clearly, the answers to these questions are politically critical.

One writer on secession, Harry Beran, has proposed that there should be a series of votes in such difficult cases. The proposed boundaries of a would-be new state could be expanded or contracted slightly from one vote to the next. The idea is to maximise the number of people who live in a political community of their choosing. For example, if some of the people of Northern Ireland wanted to vote to leave the UK and join the Irish Republic, a series of votes could be held on the issue. In each subsequent vote, the boundaries around the voting group could be expanded or (normally) contracted in order to maximise the percentage of people desiring the change. But while this ‘solution’ might maximise the number of people being able to belong where they choose, it does have its problems. One is that in principle it favours secessionists over integrationists, whereas there may be reasons not to allow the stability of existing arrangements to be upset so fundamentally. Perhaps more importantly, it may only work well where a would-be secessionist group occupies a continuous slice of territory. Where a group is interspersed among others who do not wish to change the status quo, the dangerous spectre of significant and forced population movements raises its head. The deaths as people moved east and west with the creation of Pakistan in 1949 offer a stark reminder of those potential dangers.