Mary Robinson was president of the Republic of Ireland when the state still made an irredentist constitutional claim on Northern Ireland. The offending clauses were altered after the Republic’s voters endorsed the Belfast Agreement in 1998 and it is instructive that ten years later it is Robinson’s view that a united Ireland “"isn't on the agenda" and "doesn't need to be on the agenda". In an interview with William Crawley, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added that a united Ireland, " isn't even relevant to the context of what is happening [here now] ... There is no constituency of pressure for a united Ireland".
The view which Robinson is articulating is similar to that which Maurice Hayes ascribed to the majority of voters in the Republic who endorsed the 1998 accord. This reading of the agreement views it as a permanent or long-term arrangement for Northern Ireland, departing from the northern nationalist view that it represents a staging post on the route to a united Ireland. The southern electorate, having discharged their emotional duty toward northern nationalism, in Hayes’ analysis saw the agreement as ‘a polite way of saying so-long’.
In ensuring that the irredentist machinery was removed from the Irish constitution and the principle of consent enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, David Trimble and his party strengthened the safeguards ensuring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, but the process was also facilitated by a desire within the Republic to disengage from northern nationalism. This disengagement is to be encouraged as it engenders realism within northern nationalism and fosters a stable atmosphere in order to strengthen Northern Ireland’s institutions.
The encroachment of Fianna Fáil into the politics of Northern Ireland is an unwelcome retrograde step in this regard, as Hayes observed. There is a danger that further organisation in Northern Ireland will send ambivalent signals to both nationalists and unionists here, with destabilising and unhelpful results.
In contrast, the attitude which Mary Robinson articulates, contributes to a much more constructive atmosphere within Northern Ireland. There are challenges to be met by both sides of the political divide. Unionists must help build a successful Northern Ireland which seeks to include and make welcome the Irish nationalist tradition. Nationalists meanwhile must accept that the constitutional question has for the foreseeable future been settled, and recognize that their acceptance of the principle of consent entails respecting that constitutional position and not seeking to undermine it.