Wednesday, 5 August 2009
Flagging Labour will be replaced by a government with a different outlook
I believe the government’s scheme to introduce national ID cards represents a colossal waste of money and should be scrapped as soon as possible. I am not, therefore, unduly excited by Labour’s decision to omit the Union Flag from the card, as a sop to nationalists in Northern Ireland. Jeffrey Donaldson is rather more exercised by the issue and Irish News’ columnist, Fionnuala O’Connor, has trumpeted the flag’s omission as evidence of our tenuous links with the rest of the United Kingdom. Certainly, the government is failing to adorn a silly card with an appropriate symbol for equally silly reasons.
I have criticised O’Connor’s analysis before and the flaws which I have highlighted in her arguments are once again present in this piece. In common with many nationalists, two of her favourite devices are reading provisions into the Belfast Agreement which are not supported by the text and conflating equality of aspiration with equality of outcome. Whilst Labour has demonstrated its inclination to pander to such sensibilities, Cameron’s Conservatives show evidence of a clearer understanding of the British government’s responsibilities in Northern Ireland.
Contrary to nationalist claims, the Good Friday Agreement did not establish the right to hold either British or Irish citizenship. Prior to the agreement the Republic of Ireland was already granting passports to people from Northern Ireland. The document, which was endorsed by referendum in both Irish jurisdictions, certainly affirmed the existing situation whereby the Republic’s irredentist citizenship laws enabled it to grant, by default, residents of part of the UK Republic of Ireland passports.
However, the much cited (and rarely quoted) clause which ‘recognise(s) the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose’ certainly does not give explicit political effect to nationalists’ wish to conflate ‘Irish’ with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remains unambiguously part of the UK whilst a majority here supports the constitutional status quo. Giving effect to the principle of consent in terms of symbols and furniture of state does not prejudice, one iota, people’s ability to identify themselves as Irish.
On one hand O’Connor indulges her instinct to rubbish the ‘Britishness’ of Northern Ireland and maintain that the UK government does not regard it an integral part of the UK. On the other she expresses anxiety that the Conservatives will not be as ‘committed …. to parity of esteem”.
The irony is rich and Orwellian. By O’Connor’s prescription ‘parity of esteem’ involves depriving the people of Northern Ireland of their right to fully enjoy the constitutional status which they have chosen. Clearly some are more equal than others.
The author’s allusion to a Conservative government is instructive, because whilst she can’t resist the temptation to gloat, she seems to understand that her gloating is premature. The Tories are committed to affording Northern Ireland the national political participation which its membership of the United Kingdom should involve. That commitment won’t effect nationalists’ right to campaign for a different constitutional outcome, nor will it interfere with the expression of culture or perceived nationality. The people of Northern Ireland will remain soundly in charge of their own future, whether it is within the UK or not.