Frank Millar’s book about David Trimble, Price of Peace, takes the form of a series of extensive conversations with the former UUP leader, examining the beliefs, motivations and tactics which informed his political journey from the early 1990s onward. Price of Peace is a discussion, a dialogue, predicated on the ideas surrounding outward-looking, progressive unionism and therefore reading it is a stimulating experience, which raises issues which chime resonantly with the themes of this blog.
A passage in the book investigating the principle of consent and its role within unionist politics and those of Northern Ireland, in particular struck me as especially relevant, given a post carried on this site from Friday last. The two men discuss both the history of the principle, as it relates to the Northern Irish state, and the extent of Trimble’s achievement in enshrining that principle in an agreement to which all main sections within nationalist Ireland eventually subscribed.
The principle of consent, which acknowledges that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland must only take place with the consent of a majority of its people, is the bedrock of unionist argument. When Millar traces its acceptance by the British government, and the roots of its subsequent acceptance by the Republic of Ireland’s government, to the early 1970s and the Prime Ministership of Edward Heath, Trimble is quick to correct him.
The 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which set up the northern state and the southern Free State, carried implicit within it, the notion that Northern Ireland’s people would have to assent to any future all-Ireland parliament. This interpretation was effectively accepted by both governments when they signed the Anglo Irish Treaty and further enshrined by the Tripartite Agreement in 1925. Trimble’s thesis, and it is difficult to refute, is that the Irish Free State subscribed to the principle of consent and that the southern state abandoned that position only when it adopted de Valera’s irredentist constitution in 1937.
Whilst the British government restated the centrality of consent from 1973 onwards, it did not consistently cleave to its own undertaking. Trimble argues that the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and its clause regarding the principle were effectively a means of saying ‘we’ve changed some things without consent, but we’ll not do it again’. Thus when Millar posits that the unionist leader ‘oversold’ consent’s inclusion in the Belfast Agreement, Trimble is able to argue that his achievement was not only in persuading nationalists to subscribe to a central unionist tenet, but that even the British government’s commitment to the principle was being substantially solidified.
Of course persuading nationalists to sign up to the principle of consent is a different matter altogether than making them adhere to what they signed up to. The equivocal attitude of nationalism to a principle which it purportedly accepts has been raised numerous times on Three Thousands Versts (most recently in the post cited above). There are differing degrees to which nationalists’ adherence to consent is either genuine or merely rhetorical. Trimble identifies the SDLP as committed to the principle for example. In contrast Sinn Féin’s approach is deliberately disingenuous and their policies are frequently designed actually to undermine the principle of consent.
The challenge for unionists is to clearly argue that having accepted the principle, nationalists should be expected to live with the consequences. Nationalists must persuade a majority of people within Northern Ireland to change their mind on the existing constitutional situation, rather than attempting to change it through stealth and sophistry.