Friday, 7 March 2008

Because the principle of consent has consequences

Good sense has prevailed and the Assembly Commission have ensured that an event to celebrate the life of IRA bomber Mairead Farrell cannot be held in Stormont’s Long Gallery. All parties other than Sinn Fein objected to the premises being used. An outcome Jennifer McCann MLA must have known was ineivitable even as she initiated her attempt to organise this deliberately offensive and provocative commemoration at the seat of Northern Ireland’s government.

The decision of the Assembly Commission was unsurprising. Equally unsurprising was SF’s response, a demand that a list be given of all symbols, statues, pictures etc. at Stormont. A cynic might even suppose that Sinn Fein did not believe when they proposed this event that there was a realistic chance they might be allowed to hold it at Parliament Buildings and instead their purpose was to launch an attack on perceived unionist symbols at Stormont.

And Sinn Fein’s definition of unionist symbols is likely to be wide. Particularly if their antics in the council premises of Limavady or Banbridge are any indication. Expect Wikipedia to receive a deluge of hits from the computers in SF’s offices as attempts are made to establish how ‘offensive’ various items actually are. The republican argument is that their culture must also be represented in Stormont if unionist symbols are to be allowed. The Good Friday Agreement is frequently invoked to this effect.

Of course the GFA is concerned with respect being accorded to British and Irish identities. Most unionists would have little difficulty in acknowledging Irish culture in Stormont – harps, shamrocks and other symbols of Ireland, indeed some allusion to the Irish Language or portraits of constitutional nationalist politicians would be appropriate.

It would not be appropriate to erect symbols of violent terrorism or to recognise a culture which sanctifies murderers, at Stormont. That was not the intention of the Good Friday Agreement and no amount of Sinn Fein revisionism will make it otherwise. Similarly, the stark fact is that some unionist symbols must be given priority over their nationalist equivalents, simply because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

If nationalists see symbols which represent Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as part of the UK as unionist I am afraid they will simply have to put up with those symbols until such a time as Northern Ireland is no longer part of the UK. Irish symbols are appropriate at Stormont and other publics buildings, symbols of the Republic of Ireland are not.

Sinn Fein know that their campaign of terror will never be legitimate in the eyes of most reasonable people in Northern Ireland and their attempts to present veneration for this campaign as a form of cultural expression is merely subterfuge to attack symbols which represent Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. But Sinn Fein has signed up to the principle of consent and they must accept the logical consequences of this.


Ciarán said...

Hi Checkov. Interesting (and depressing) post. What fun that we're in for a tit-for-tat being offended campaign on the hill.

Still, I'm not convinced that there is any necessity for having the more obvious symbolic trappings of the Union - mainly the Union Jack - being displayed in Stormont, or in any other public building. Given the history of flags and emblems in NI, no flag or emblem is absolutely untainted, and the easiest thing seems to be not to have any of them on display.

Which is different, I should say, to crawling through the nooks and crannies of the house hoping to find an tyrannical etching of King Billy.

Ignited said...

Good post Checkov -

As you stated the principle of consent is the key issue here - and Ciaran until such a time as NI is not part of the UK then the Union Flag has every right to fly.

What I find frequently is the misrepresentation of the GFA - it provides equality of aspiration - for nationalist to aspire to a UI and unionists to a continued existence within the UK. The GFA does not provide equality of symbols of state due to the fact that NI remains in the UK.

All parties have signed up to GFA and have to accept the baggage that comes with it.

Ciarán said...

Ignited, I'm absolutely mystified why people (of all political persuasions) here take issue with the symbols of the other lot and are then terribly confused as to how the other lot can take issue with their symbols.

It strikes me that the principle of consent, in requiring, you know, everyone trying to imagine how the other guy feels, has two sides to it. Of course, Nationalists ought to acknowledge very explicitly that NI remains part of the UK, although they may legitimately seek to persuade people towards constitutional change if they wish (though given their half-baked attempts so far, I have a feeling they don't).

But Unionists can't simply shrug their shoulders and insist on a narrow version of consent. They can't just say that being in the UK means that public buildings in NI ought to be treated in exactly the same way as public buildings are in Hampshire. Symbols are obviously contentious here and, like it or not, the list of contentious symbols includes the Union flag.

As a blow-in, one of the things I've never been able to get about Unionists is that they hold to symbols where a gesture would be relatively cheap given the benefit of keeping nationalists onside. That is, with a 'thicker' conception of consent, one the seeks to persuade nationalists to be satisfied with the constitutional status quo, NI remains embedded indefinitely in the UK - no matter what flag flies in Stormont. Why is the high ground so costly?

By the way, you're strictly speaking wrong to say that the Union flag has every right to fly. The protocols on flags (pdf), signed up to by the PSNI, OFMDFM etc, place substantial restrictions on flags and emblems in public buildings and is, AFAIK, still in force.

Chekov said...

Ciaran – don’t get me wrong. I in no way advocate the flaunting of symbols or excessive use of flags. I actually do believe that it is possible to provide public spaces which are not offensive to either side. As you’ve pointed out though, there are substantial restrictions on flying of flags already and that to me is a sufficient accommodation. There must be a certain amount of furniture of state which accompanies our constitutional status and there has to be a limit to how much of that can be removed without actually raising questions regarding sovereignty. I do not want pictures of King Billy or even the Queen cluttering up every wall in Stormont. I simply want those symbols which are important to the practice of government to be unambiguously those of the UK, thus reflecting our constitutional status and the democratic wishes of a majority of people in Northern Ireland.

My problem with SF’s campaign is that I do not believe it will stop at removing explicitly unionist symbols (Carson’s statue for example). I believe it will be increasingly aimed at the very fabric of our constitutional status, because I am convinced that they are working toward the gradual erosion of UK sovereignty under the guise of this spurious equality agenda. Ignited has hit the nail on the head as regards the GFA and the misreading that SF in particular are advancing. The notion is increasingly that recognising the aspirational rights of nationalists and allowing for identities to be respected actually equates to permitting picking and choosing of sovereignty and allows nationalists to cleave to the institutions of the southern state if they so wish.

Ciarán said...

I am convinced that they are working toward the gradual erosion of UK sovereignty under the guise of this spurious equality agenda.

As always Checkov I mostly agree with you! That said, I think Ignited is presenting rather too conservative an interpretation of the principles underpinning the GFA.

On the gradual erosion of UK sovereignty, you see I'm entirely untroubled by SF's approach to this: they can attack symbols to their hearts' content, but that won't undermine UK sovereignty one jot. The UK was not founded on headed notepaper, nor on the emblem on a peaked cap.

All that said, I'd be very depressed if the end result of all this was the removal of Carson's statue. How sad that we would confuse neutrality with the hiding of our common history.

Chekov said...

I think the removal of the statue would be very regrettable. It has historical and cultural significance to everyone as you say (whether their politics coincide with the man's or not). Even from a stance purely of providing a heritage interesting to tourists, it would be extremely disappointing.

Ignited said...

Ciaran -

I attempt to take a factual reading of the situation and wish to stay away from equating aspirational pursuits from equality agenda as laid down in GFA.

The principle of consent is there to satisfy both sides that if the situation araises it will be through democratic means that there is constitutional change.

In a British devolved government I would expect all the trappings of British identity. Thats not to say that Irish/Northern Irish identity is not there - its part and parcel.

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