Thursday, 2 October 2008

Keep your distance - two attacks on UUP / Tory talks

I’ve encountered two attacks on the UUP / Tory talks today. One is from the perspective of Irish nationalism, penned by Fionnula O’Connor in the Irish Times. The other is written (poorly) from the ‘ourselves alone’ standpoint of the DUP and was purportedly first carried in Fortnight magazine.

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.

15 comments:

Aidan said...

I thought Fionnuala O'Connor made some very good points. The most important one is this:
"He was deaf to the complaint that an arrangement with the SDLP would make it impossible for Fianna Fáil to play an impartial government role in the North. Cameron is equally dismissive."
At this juncture it is important that both the British and Irish governments remain above the political situation in 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."
I don't doubt that there is currently a majority in favour of NI remaining in the United Kingdom (the state was designed to have a unionist majority after all). However, even if there were a nationalist majority the spirit of the Belfast Agreement is not to automatically bring NI into an all Irish state.
The Belfast Agreement was designed to fudge the issue up until the point that some kind of new constitutional situation à la joint sovereignty is acceptable. Given that support for the two large moderate parties has collapsed I don't expect any changes from the current situation any time soon.

Chekov said...

"At this juncture it is important that both the British and Irish governments remain above the political situation in Northern Ireland."

The British government is responsible for Northern Ireland. It cannot remain 'above the political situation'.

"The Belfast Agreement was designed to fudge the issue up until the point that some kind of new constitutional situation à la joint sovereignty is acceptable. Given that support for the two large moderate parties has collapsed I don't expect any changes from the current situation any time soon."

The Belfast Agreement was designed to move things forward and achieve a position which could be built upon. Normalising politics is the next step. Joint sovereignty certainly isn't. People in Northern Ireland don't want joint sovereignty.

Anonymous said...

“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.”

LOL. No, it's Fionnuala who has got the wrong end of the stick. One consequence of devolution to Scotland and Wales is that Northern Ireland is now, in a UK context, on an equal footing with these regions. Therefore, it is now actually impossible for a UK Government to be pro-union for Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.

Of course, the current government does this. But, there is no logical basis for it at all. Cameron recognises that.

Aidan said...

"The British government is responsible for Northern Ireland. It cannot remain 'above the political situation'."
I meant from a constitutional point of view. The consent principle means that both states accept that the people of NI decide its future. The Republic gave up its claim to the north but equally so did Great Britain. Of course the British government could act as a unionist broker but the main goal in recent years was peace and normalization so they have tried to act more as an honest broker.
"People in Northern Ireland don't want joint sovereignty."
I am sure that they don't but I would posit that it is best solution longer term.
Of course there is an alternate possibility whereby NI really does become a normal part of the UK with the same political parties etc. As long as the NI economy remains structured as it is that might happen.

Chekov said...

"The Republic gave up its claim to the north but equally so did Great Britain."

No offence Aidan but that makes no sense. How could the UK government, which governs Northern Ireland, which devolved part of its sovereignty to Stormont, be relinqushing 'its claim' to Northern Ireland? Clearly the consent of the people of Northern Ireland is required to underpin its claim, but there is a claim there.

Anonymous said...

'The Belfast Agreement was designed to fudge the issue up until the point that some kind of new constitutional situation à la joint sovereignty is acceptable.'
That well might be the wish of some nationalist politicans however it is equally likely that many unionists regarded the Agreement as a means to wean the Ira off violence and through which normal politics could then be established... Seems Cameron shares the later view

Aidan said...

"No offence Aidan but that makes no sense. How could the UK government, which governs Northern Ireland, which devolved part of its sovereignty to Stormont, be relinqushing 'its claim' to Northern Ireland."
That is a big change from when Ireland was in the UK. Ireland's future was not determined by the democratic will of the Irish people in the past. Decisions about Ireland were made at Westminster.

Aidan said...

"it is equally likely that many unionists regarded the Agreement as a means to wean the Ira off violence and through which normal politics could then be established... Seems Cameron shares the later view"
I think that all moderate politicians wanted some kind of normalization and thankfully that succeeded. At an inter-government level I am sure that joint sovereignty is the long-term solution. At an NI level politicians seem to lack a long-term vision and there are very few people even talking about what might be possible beyond having a united Ireland or NI become a normal part of the UK.

Anonymous said...

'At an inter-government level I am sure that joint sovereignty is the long-term solution. At an NI level politicians seem to lack a long-term vision and there are very few people even talking about what might be possible beyond having a united Ireland or NI become a normal part of the UK.'
Make up and smell the coffee Aiden your 'inter-govt level' conspiracy - if it exists is clearly not shared by Cameron and he will soon be PM and he is talking about NI becoming a normal part of the UK - if he can find enough people with the wit to back him!

Aidan said...

"Make up and smell the coffee Aiden your 'inter-govt level' conspiracy - if it exists is clearly not shared by Cameron and he will soon be PM and he is talking about NI becoming a normal part of the UK - if he can find enough people with the wit to back him!"
The aspiration for NI to be a normal part of the UK is not new (Margaret Thatcher, as British as Finchley etc.).
If Cameron were really serious about getting all of the people of NI behind the UK then why is he not talking to the SDLP?
Surely a normal NI would involve nationalists voting for UK national parties? Why would an SDLP or SF voter vote Conservative if they knew it was just the UUP by another name?

Chekov said...

“That is a big change from when Ireland was in the UK. Ireland's future was not determined by the democratic will of the Irish people in the past. Decisions about Ireland were made at Westminster.”

The Free State left the UK due to the will of its people. Likewise Northern Ireland remained within the UK due to the will if its people. The principle has been established for the best part of a century. Northern Ireland did not remain within the UK because Westminster was grabbing what it could. It remained within the UK because a substantial number of Irish people did not wish to secede.

“I think that all moderate politicians wanted some kind of normalization and thankfully that succeeded. At an inter-government level I am sure that joint sovereignty is the long-term solution. At an NI level politicians seem to lack a long-term vision and there are very few people even talking about what might be possible beyond having a united Ireland or NI become a normal part of the UK.”

That’s because joint sovereignty has no value as an eventual stopping place and the other solutions do. It appeals to no-one. It will satisfy no-one. It is neither fish nor foul. It is anti-democratic. It is an extremely silly idea.

“If Cameron were really serious about getting all of the people of NI behind the UK then why is he not talking to the SDLP?
Surely a normal NI would involve nationalists voting for UK national parties? Why would an SDLP or SF voter vote Conservative if they knew it was just the UUP by another name?”

The SDLP are a nationalist party Aidan, albeit a moderate one. There aim is to dismember the United Kingdom. Cameron is a unionist. As a unionist, his party will naturally appeal to other unionists. His challenge is to bring those who count themselves as nationalists now, into the unionist camp. Unionism and nationalism are not communal labels. They actually describe a political belief!

Aidan said...

"Northern Ireland did not remain within the UK because Westminster was grabbing what it could. It remained within the UK because a substantial number of Irish people did not wish to secede."
So what you are saying is that if the vast majority of a polity in the UK (in this case Ireland) votes for something then the appopriate response is to draw a new line to create a polity with a big enough unionist majority ecompassing the most possible territory. Using that logic repartition is an acceptable solution if there ever were to be a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland.
That is a very conditional type of democracy.

"It appeals to no-one. It will satisfy no-one. It is neither fish nor foul. It is anti-democratic. It is an extremely silly idea."
Compromises are normally like that. It only seems silly because your views are based on 'all or nothing'.

Chekov said...

“So what you are saying is that if the vast majority of a polity in the UK (in this case Ireland) votes for something then the appopriate response is to draw a new line to create a polity with a big enough unionist majority ecompassing the most possible territory. Using that logic repartition is an acceptable solution if there ever were to be a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland.”

I am not saying that. Feeling was strong enough within Ulster that a solution had to be found in order not to foist independence on a large majority which did not want it.

“Compromises are normally like that. It only seems silly because your views are based on 'all or nothing'.”

Compromises are not usually composed of silly ideas and are not unworkable. If there were ever to be joint sovereignty, would nationalists accept that that was the stopping point, any more than the current arrangements? Of course not. Nationalists have been guaranteed a role within Northern Ireland’s government, there is a raft of very robust equality legislation, there are safeguards in place to recognise the various cultural identities which people feel in Northern Ireland. All this has been provided with Northern Ireland squarely within the UK, albeit admitting a consultative role for the Republic. That’s the way it stays until the people of Northern Ireland decide otherwise.

Giving equal rights to a political minority does not mean according equal rights to a minority aspiration.

Chekov said...

A good assessment of the position from a left wing blogger.

Aidan said...

"I am not saying that. Feeling was strong enough within Ulster that a solution had to be found in order not to foist independence on a large majority which did not want it. "
I think you are being a bit disingenuous here. Ulster did not and certainly does not have a large unionist majority. Unionists considered it too dangerous to take Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal.
Fermanagh and Tyrone were included despite having nationalist majorities. Six counties was the most territory possible with a unionist majority.
You rightly do not like Ireland being used as a synonym for the ROI so it is good to remember that NI is two thirds of Ulster.

"If there were ever to be joint sovereignty, would nationalists accept that that was the stopping point, any more than the current arrangements? Of course not"
They might well see it as a final solution because it is certainly preferable to repartition.