Friday, 23 November 2007

A lack of understanding or deliberate ignorance?

Disappointment expressed by nationalists at unionist politicians’ non-participation in the Irish parliament’s joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement yesterday betray a true lack of understanding of unionism. It is difficult to decipher whether this is borne of wilful naivety or whether nationalism really does disregard the genuine disparity in the vision it has for future constitutional arrangements here and that held by unionists. Do nationalists really not “get it” (to borrow the horrible phrase employed over the eligibility debate) or is it simply a matter of not wanting to “get it”?

The Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent aesthetic whitewash it received in St Andrews reaffirmed that constitutionally Northern Ireland remains part of the UK and so it will remain until such times as a majority here says otherwise. Certain all-Ireland bodies have been established, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly and further bodies were set up to discuss the “totality of relationships” across the whole of the British Isles. Unionists have accepted these arrangements. They wish to share power with nationalists and everyone else in Northern Ireland, but have no desire to fundamentally alter the new dispensation any time in the near future.

I realise, of course, that nationalists have a very different outlook on where they see the agreement ultimately leading. They wish to emphasise and increase the all-Ireland aspect of the institutions. Incrementally they view a Northern Ireland Assembly under some manner of joint sovereignty as an achievable goal in the relative short term. For nationalists therefore participation in Dail committees and possible representation in the Irish Senate are important symbolic steps.

I acknowledge these aspirations and I respect the right of nationalists to participate in such arrangements, whilst ultimately viewing them as a futile and symbolic obfuscation. Why cannot nationalists extend the same respect to unionists’ desire simply to remain part of the United Kingdom? Instead they condemn us for not taking part in such bodies despite the fact that they are clearly inimical to our political beliefs. Why is it viewed as intolerable intractability not to acquiesce in nationalists’ project to further involve the Irish government in Northern Irish affairs, when the entire essence of unionism is that we wish our political arrangements to remain part of the UK?

Taking part in Dail committees is a charade, albeit one that is loaded with important aspirational symbolism for nationalists. Perhaps it is time for nationalists to accept that unionists’ aspirations are very much different and afford them some respect.

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