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Constraining speech April 15, 2021

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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Curious piece in the IT this week from a former Government Minister where he seems to argue, despite quoting the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement about “[there being] “substantial differences” between their [Unionist/Nationalist/Republicans] continuing “political aspirations” and acknowledged that those different aspirations were “legitimate” , thatsomehow expressing one ‘legitimate’ aspiration is less legitimate than expressing another. How else to read the following?

Acceptance of the legitimacy of an opposite point of view demands respect for that point of view. That is a cornerstone of the Belfast settlement that cannot be wished away or eroded by rhetoric.

Of course according each other’s aspiration the status of legitimacy and treating each other with respect is a two-way street. Those obligations apply equally to loyalists and republicans, nationalists and unionists, and Irish people who see themselves outside those categories.

Or particularly:

That obligation runs counter to any stoking of political trench warfare between unionism backed by Boris Johnson’s English nationalism or by his nationalist equivalent in this state. The Republic’s commitment to unity is now to “unity of all the people on the island in all the diversity of their identities and traditions”.

He goes on to argue that:

While some now speak of a unitary Irish state with unitary institutions, the problem is that there is absolutely no likelihood that the unionist political community is ready to participate in a negotiation process aimed at agreeing a model to be submitted to referenda North and South.

And:

Talk of unity and polls without addressing these issues is futile.

Any campaign for unity demands realism and respect for the “legitimacy” of the aspirations of those whom you must convince.

But this seems to confuse the legitimacy of an aspiration with the number of those who are polled and express support for that aspiration. Or to put it another way, he seems to be saying that only when the numbers who aspire to a United Ireland are in a majority is the aspiration ‘legitimate’ and prior to that it is, he doesn’t quite go this far – but he goes pretty close, not legitimate and should be avoided.

This seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the GFA/BA and the particular aspects relating to the legitimacy of aspiring towards a political goal (whether maintenance of the union or reunification). It is entirely legitimate to seek unity, to work towards unity and so forth – in a peaceful manner. To argue otherwise is to run contrary to the express sections of the agreement. Moreover it is entirely legitimate for political unionism to work for the retention of the union (something they do continually) and entirely legitimate for nationalists and Republicans to work for the end of the union.

The GFA/BA does not reify one aspiration over another – though the fact that it points towards the end of the union as a final end-state should give pause for thought. Prior to that point to argue against holding and acting upon aspirations seems problematic, at a minimum.

Curious too he should bring in the idea of a confederation as an option. There’s an interesting piece in a recent edition of Irish Political Studies from the Political Studies Association of Ireland on a citizen’s assembly held in Belfast in 2019 in order to examine attitudes to potential models of Irish unity. The two that were chosen were an integrated United Ireland (a unitary state in which NI ceases to exist) and by contrast a UI where ‘the bulk of the arrangements of the GFA are preserved but transferred to Irish sovereign authority’. Notable is the statement from those who ran the survey, John Garry, Brendan O’Leary, John Coakley, James Pow and Lisa Whitten, that the study ‘specified the two most plausible potential models of a re-unified Ireland’. One key point they make is that under whatever model adopted some ‘key provisions’ of the GFA would remain since the agreement is not just between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland but also ‘an internationally binding treaty’ which could only be amended by a further internationally binding treaty. Intriguing that this is not mentioned at all in the piece linked to above.

But then consider another piece in the same paper from this week, this time from unionist Peter Cardwell, who was a former special advisor to two secretaries of state for Northern Ireland. In it he points to further factor, also unaddressed in the first piece:

For many, loyalty to Britain feels very one-way in the context of the protocol. Couple this with the very real prospect of a Sinn Féin taoiseach and first minister by 2025 and the crisis of leadership within unionism, and the feelings of desperation and being boxed in start to mount. If Scotland falls, the union is fundamentally changed. Indeed, what is the union at that point? Is Northern Ireland the next domino?

Mentioned here before, at least once. For all the talk of Sinn Féin pushing for Border Polls the unaddressed issue is that what is taking place is largely – though not exclusively – a result of the Brexit vote and the manner in which the British government subsequently sought to implement that vote. And, as Cardwell notes, not just in Northern Ireland.

Cardwell notes that there’s already a newish group within the North, ‘others’ whose attachment to the Union is tenuous compared to previous generations. A striking observation in the following:

The threat also comes from within Northern Ireland. Witness the comments of former Ireland international rugby player Andrew Trimble on Claire Byrne Live – many unionists fear his articulate sentiments about a fused British, Irish and Northern Irish identity are the true threat to the union. Keep diluting Britishness and it will cease to be relevant.

The “others” in the middle are convincible, less constrained by the emotional ties unionists have to Britain, more persuadable in terms of what change would mean, especially for their wallet. The fear is that it is Andrew rather than David Trimble who is the mainstream now. And so, for many, the need to understand pure unionism and Britishness north of the Border perhaps feels even less relevant, compounding the problem. Ignore them, and they will go away.

Cardwell’s proscription is that the South must not go ‘beyond unionism’, but unionism itself is changing, or at least some unionists are. And more broadly, so is the union.

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