Adams, intolerance and the principle of consent

I have largely avoided contributing to the comments zone developing below my post about Gerry Adams’ ethno-nationalist remarks at last Sunday’s homecoming parade. It has become something of a bun fight in which I have little inclination either to participate or intervene. However, that argument, Tom Hartley’s snub of Remembrance Day in Belfast and Eamon McCann’s fine article in the Belfast Telegraph, have motivated me to flesh out a little my thoughts as to why Sinn Féin’s adherence to the principle of consent is merely rhetorical and why Adams’ comment puts last week’s protest in its rightful context, as an abhorrent event.

When nationalists, Sinn Féin included, signed up to the principle of consent, as enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, they were acknowledging that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority here decides otherwise. As McCann intimates in his piece, and as I have stressed repeatedly on this blog, a sizable section of nationalism, and certainly that part which calls itself republicanism, as represented by Sinn Féin, has not faced up to the consequences which flow from accepting the principle of consent.

Sinn Féin’s stance is effectively that whilst it nominally accepts Northern Ireland will continue to remain part of the United Kingdom, if a majority wishes this to be the case, it opposes any outward manifestation of this constitutional status. It is a position which is simply not tenable. If the principle of consent means anything at all, then it carries with it certain consequences. If the people of Northern Ireland are to be allowed to determine its constitutional status, then their determination must be respected. This does not mean an effective hegemony for British or unionist ‘culture’ as republicans claim. It means that some furniture of state, certain constitutional manifestations and indeed a degree of symbolism most accompany Northern Ireland’s UK status, if it is to indicate anything worthwhile.

One of the more lamentable legacies of John Hume’s political career was the sophistic concept ‘parity of esteem’ and its sublimation into nationalism’s lexicon as an indicator of equality. The false conjunction on which this device rests is its conflation of personal equality, and even equality of political aspiration, with equality of political status and equality of political outcome. Thus we have attempts to argue that, in order for equality to be realised, institutions and symbols from the Republic of Ireland must be accorded the same status in Northern Ireland as those of the United Kingdom. It is a disingenuous mode of thought to which Sinn Féin more frequently takes recourse than the SDLP.

It is a mode of thought which gives rise to arguments such as appear in the comments zone on the previous thread. A commenter maintains that if the British Army has a parade in Belfast, then the Republic of Ireland’s armed forces should also be allowed to do the same. He reinforces his point by stressing that many people in Northern Ireland hold Republic of Ireland citizenship. He might be right that many people in Northern Ireland do choose to take a Republic of Ireland passport, but unequivocally they do not live where the Republic’s remit runs. Its army does not enjoy equal status with the British army in Northern Ireland and nor should it. To propose that it should is entirely to misunderstand the essence of rights, equality and indeed democracy.

Of course Gerry Adams’ remarks, when his argument against the British army marching in Northern Ireland's capital is to highlight Belfast's status as an ‘Irish town’, are not even bothering to pay lip service to some disingenuous ‘equality’ agenda. He is simply saying, Irishness is different from Britishness, never the twain shall meet and we are claiming this place for Irishness. It might be said that at least, for once, he is being honest.

Although I clearly stated that Sinn Féin’s protest was a disgrace, I certainly didn’t deny them the right to hold that protest. I offered arguments that they shouldn’t, as opposed to saying that they couldn’t. I also ascribed to republicans different motives for the protest than those which they initially propounded. Gerry Adams’ statement, in concert with other remarks from his party, confirmed precisely my suspicions. The commenter who defends Adams on the other thread in essence complains, so Sinn Féin object to a British army parade, what’s surprising, what’s new? To an extent he is right.

If I believed that Sinn Féin’s main objection to last weekend’s parade had sprung from its opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would have rejected that argument, but respected its basis. Even if I had accepted that Sinn Féin were peculiarly opposed to the British Army because of its past conduct in Northern Ireland, I would have strongly rebutted the basis of its opposition, but I might have acknowledged that there was an argument to be raised. Instead I implied that Sinn Féin’s principle drivers were hatred of everything British, a failure to accept that Britishness and Irishness can coexist in Northern Ireland and its crude adherence to a prescriptive form of identity politics.

Adams’ proved me right. And the correct response is derision. ‘British things don’t belong here because this is Ireland’, is a lousy, intolerant, ethno-nationalist argument. It confirms much of the suspicions unionists have about Sinn Féin and epitomises why its politics are so objectionable.


Anonymous said…
Nicely written and well-argued.

Timothy Belmont said…
Excellent piece. The reality in NI, which must be continually exposed by those who care, is that Irish republicans will not, and do not, tolerate a "Brit" about the place. They find it impossible to accept that people like myself - unionists generally - remain the British presence in the Province.
Mr Adams asserted that Belfast was an Irish City. His mentality cannot fathom that Belfast is a British city too.
O'Neill said…
The fascists are starting to remove their collective masks:

How can British soldiers be my fellow Irishmen?

A comment from one of the ethno-nationalists on Slugger. A very short jump from that to "How can British citizens be my fellow Irishmen."
Owen Polley said…
A very instructive comment O'Neill. The famed 'Billy Liar' said something more explicit a week or two ago as well. He said it wasn't possible to be British and Irish.
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When nationalists, Sinn Féin included, signed up to the principle of consent, as enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, they were acknowledging that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority here decides otherwise.
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