O’Connor’s piece is a dismissive canter through the whys and wherefores of any proposed deal. The central thesis is that Cameron does not understand Northern Ireland and therefore should keep his nose out, in order not to compromise his ‘neutrality’ or the Belfast Agreement’s requirement for ‘equality’.
“Nationalists - at least those beginning to examine today's Conservatives - instinctively suspect, that the Tory leader has no feel for the agreement underpinning the new Stormont. Or worse, that he chooses not to accept that Sinn Féin and the SDLP are in a Belfast administration on the basis that Irish nationalism has equal status with British unionism.”
This excerpt encapsulates nationalist misunderstanding of both the Belfast Agreement and the concept of equality. It is a misapprehension which one must assume is genuine, as opposed to one which is adopted for tactical benefit. Although its deployment by Sinn Féin as a means by which to attack Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is difficult to construe so benignly. It is a misapprehension which equates personal equality with political group equality and conflates individual rights and the political aspirations of a particular group of people.
Various pieces of legislation, the Belfast Agreement and a broad consensus within Northern Ireland agree with the concept of equality. That means equal treatment legally, in employment and equal opportunity to participate in the politics of Northern Ireland. To this end, we have a power sharing agreement whereby devolved government depends on participation of the two main communities. That is what the Agreement was about and that principle is accepted.
To summarise the position briefly, unionists and nationalists are equal, unionism and Irish nationalism certainly are not. The reason is very simple and is enshrined in the Belfast Agreement. It is called the Principle of Consent.
Of course unionists and Irish nationalists are equally entitled to their respective political aspirations, but that does not entitle both positions to be equally accommodated within constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland. Unionism commands a clear majority and therefore it is within the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland must clearly and unambiguously remain. That is the essence of democracy.
By signalling willingness to forge a cross-Union movement which would encompass moderate unionism in Northern Ireland, David Cameron is actually recognising in tangible fashion, circumstances which flow from the principle of consent. He is underlining his commitment to the people of Northern Ireland and their wish to remain within the United Kingdom. To this end he is determined to allow Northern Irish people to participate in Westminster politics in a way which has not been possible up to now and incidentally to dilute the communal-sectarian cleavage which has frequently dominated politics here. More open minded members of the SDLP have already perceived in the UUP – Tory talks a sign that our politics might eventually realign along a more conventional fault-line.
O’Connor’s commentary is at least written well. The Fortnight piece makes turgid reading. At its heart, though, is an emphasis on Northern Ireland as distant from mainstream British politics. For contrasting reasons, neither article wishes that distance to be bridged.