It is important to reiterate, (as Gerry Moriarty recognises in his Irish Times piece) nothing that Cameron said from the platform on Saturday was in any respect incompatible with the Belfast Agreement, nor does it compromise the requirement that Irish nationalism’s legitimate aspirations should be recognised and respected.
The usual shrill republican voices have been haranguing UUP / Conservative efforts on Slugger O’Toole. But sober commentators too have raised concerns. In particular, Damian O’Loan avers that Cameron’s speech is based on misrepresentation of the Belfast Agreement.
“The nature of consociationalism is that it allows the respective parties full expression and the right to seek their objectives democratically. Thus, nationalists want a stability that leads to consolidated ties with the South, then peacefully to an eventual united Ireland. The agreements legislate to support the right to hold this position, specifically outlawing discrimination on those grounds in public and private life. Cameron, in denying its legitimacy, has either not done his homework, or got carried away with his words.”
Damian is partly correct. The Belfast Agreement does accord the respective aspirations recognition and it does outlaw discrimination on the basis of political aspiration. Neither Conservatives, nor Ulster Unionists, are proposing any change to the basis of the agreement. Recognising the legitimacy of an objective does not commit, either politicians within Northern Ireland, or those in the United Kingdom and the rest of Ireland, to agree with that objective, nor does it require them to censor any view that they might hold. The Republic of Ireland has never hidden its aspirations for a United Ireland. The UK government should not be asked to hide its belief that maintaining the Union is of paramount importance. Anyone who suggests otherwise is the one who is actually guilty of misinterpretation.
The basis of the Belfast Agreement is that the people of Northern Ireland must determine its constitutional future; a basis which Cameron explicitly endorsed in his speech. And if the principle of consent is to be fully respected, then the decision which Northern Ireland’s people make must also be respected. That is the principle to which Cameron is committed, as well as the notion that continued membership of the United Kingdom provides the best form of governance for the province.
I can understand why nationalists are worried. The UUP / Conservative alliance aims to provide genuine involvement in UK politics for Northern Ireland voters. It threatens to dilute the focus of politics here on the constitution. If the electorate respond, it will strengthen the Union. But it will not strengthen the Union to the exclusion of anyone on the basis of their community.