I am indebted once again to O’Neill for drawing my attention to an article about the SDLP’s youth wing on A Pint of Unionist Lite. This group mounted a demonstration at the Dáil to demand the right to vote in presidential elections in the Republic of Ireland. O’Neill focuses on the disinterest displayed by Southern parties as regards giving people from Northern Ireland actual political power in the Republic. What struck me about the story in contrast was once again the nationalist misreading of the Good Friday Agreement which equates an Irish identity exclusively with the institutions of the Republic of Ireland.
Gary McKeown, chairman of SDLP Youth is quoted as follows “People living in the north have the right to identify themselves as Irish, so it is only fair that they should be allowed to vote for their head of state. This is in-keeping with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and strengthens democracy”. People in Ireland north and south have of course every right to identify themselves as Irish, British or indeed in any way they please. A sense of identity is a personal matter. That “right” was certainly not established by the Good Friday Agreement. In addition people have the political right to aspire to a 32 county Irish Republic if they so wish. That does not mean that they can act as if that aspiration has already been realised. Certainly identifying oneself as Irish is not the same as participating in the workings of the Republic of Ireland state, which is of course only one of two political entities which have an equal claim on the term “Irish”.
What the Good Friday Agreement actually affirms (rather than establishes) is that people may equally legitimately identify themselves as either Irish or British within the context of an agreed Northern Ireland and that those identifications will be accorded respect. Our constitutional status is also dealt with in the Agreement and it is explicitly linked to the will of the majority within the 6 counties which comprise Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, whilst it recognises the legitimacy of political aspirations, certainly does not allow people within Northern Ireland to pick and choose the elements of sovereignty which they want to adhere to from either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Functional joint sovereignty cannot be smuggled in under a misrepresented equality agenda. The principle of consent has been universally accepted and must be paramount.
The disingenuous argument equating a sense of Irishness with cleavage to Republic of Ireland institutions arose also in the football eligibility debate. I do not propose to return to the football issue, because it immediately causes a red mist to descend, but nevertheless there are common principles which link the two arguments. Nationalists must not be allowed to conflate the terms Ireland and Irish exclusively with the Republic of Ireland without challenge. The narrow definition of Irishness must not be allowed to prevail. To fully express one’s Irish identity does not mean voting in elections in the Republic of Ireland, nor does it mean having the right to play for the Republic of Ireland football team.