The Cadogan Group


Rough Trade



Negotiating a Northern Ireland Settlement

The Cadogan Group, 1998


In its first pamphlet, Northern Limits, published in 1992 at the time of the Mayhew inter-party talks, the Cadogan Group argued strongly against what it saw as the misguided approach to the Northern Ireland problem then embraced by the two governments, constitutional nationalists, and all but a handful of commentators and observers in London, Washington, Brussels and elsewhere.

Our contention was that this consensus was based on an acceptance of too much of the nationalist analysis of the question - that partition was a mistake, that the Irish nationalist case was historically and morally correct - and on a belief that a solution could be found only in an accommodation of that nationalist case, along the lines of, or going further than, the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

In subsequent publications the group has argued that a stable settlement can better be found by challenging the falseness of political nationalism, with its ideas of 'the nation' and the nation's ownership of territory - ideas widely discredited in a post-nationalist world. It has advocated instead a search for stability within the generally accepted political boundaries, with the fullest guarantees of minority rights in an increasingly pluralist society, and with greater recognition, institutionalised if necessary, of the oneness of the island to many of its inhabitants in cultural, social and other senses.

In the intervening period the Group has been encouraged by a significant number of influential voices putting forward similar views. At the same time it has been disappointed at the tenacity with which the political establishments in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have clung to the tired quasi-nationalist analysis of the problem. In particular the Group has viewed with acute misgiving the rush, on the part of the two governments, from accommodation of nationalism to appeasement of republican terrorism. In Square Circles (1996) the Group sought to spell out the real dangers of such an approach, and the unlikelihood of a 'solution' based on it leading to peace or stability in the medium or long-term.

Some of the participants in the latest round of all-party talks shared much of the Cadogan analysis, as do some of those who remained outside the conference room. They, like the Group itself, and the people of Northern Ireland, must now consider the outcome of the talks in the light of these considerable reservations. In Rough Trade the Group offers four distinct commentaries on the present situation, in part reflecting differences of emphasis within the Group itself. They are intended to help promote reasonable and sober dialogue among all those elements in Northern Ireland who, while desperately anxious for a settlement and for peace, share varying degrees of unease about the proposals now put before them.

Though published in the run-up to the 1998 referendum, this booklet is not intended primarily as part of that campaign. The Group collectively does not endorse either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ position, but hopes that these explorations of the Agreement and of the arguments surrounding it will contribute towards a debate which rises above charge and counter-charge of sell-out and betrayal. The issues discussed will, in any event, outlive the referendum campaign and the vote itself, and remain to be confronted whatever the result.

Our first chapter takes on board many of the misgivings already expressed, but argues strongly that the opportunity now presented for a settlement, while far from perfect from any aspect, and certainly not from what might be termed a Cadogan viewpoint, must be seized. This view is based on two main factors - that the proposals themselves make mainly symbolic or rhetorical concessions to nationalism, while securing the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, and the formal abandonment of the explicit territorial claim to Northern Ireland in the Republic's constitution. Secondly that the cross-border mechanisms to be created will be essentially practical, and answerable to a Northern Assembly. In addition, it is argued, this is a unique opportunity, a last chance perhaps, for a reasonably balanced settlement.

Our second chapter seeks to present the perception of those who feel that the settlement offered is fundamentally flawed, not just in detail but also in principle. It argues that close examination of the key documents agreed between the United Kingdom and Irish governments since the search for a replacement for the Anglo-Irish Agreement began - principally the Downing Street Declaration - indicates acceptance by the United Kingdom government of the fundamental claims of nationalism. The 'peace process', and the inter-party talks, therefore, it is argued, have been about accommodating unionism within a mainly Irish nationalist solution. Whatever assurances on the principle of consent are offered, the impetus is towards joint London-Dublin authority over Northern Ireland, with the ultimate possibility of Irish unity. To accept the agreement now offered is to concede so much ground to the nationalist side, it is argued, that there can be little or no hope of a balanced settlement ever emerging.

A third chapter questions the wisdom of rushing now to endorse a settlement which could and should be improved upon. It warns particularly against the dangers of arrangements which almost certainly promise bad government, and which, as result of their fudged nature, may eventually unravel. This view accepts the broad three-strand outline as the necessary basis for a settlement, but argues that tailoring the detail to offer maximum accommodation to nationalist concerns both makes it a weak settlement and, through appeasement, runs a serious risk of encouraging, not eliminating, republican violence.

In addition, a fourth chapter looks at what became a key issue in the negotiations, the role and nature of cross-border institutions. This seeks to give a historical perspective, exploring why the dispute over whether such bodies should or should not have executive powers is of fundamental importance. It argues that the ideology of nationalism, historically and today, has, ironically, proved an obstacle to sensible cross-border cooperation and a shared sense of Irishness, rather than the foremost promoter of such ends.

No one argues that the Agreement is perfect. Deepest unease about the release of prisoners, police reform, and the workings of the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly is shared by even the most convinced advocates of acceptance. The United Kingdom government, as the prime sponsor of the Agreement, has both an opportunity and a responsibility to clarify the ambiguity of the language in some of these areas, and to reassure the democratic majority, through the legislation that will be needed to implement much of the Agreement if the referendum approves it, that the most malign scenarios are excluded.

Many observers, including people in Northern Ireland, have watched the talks process of the past two years with mounting frustration. Those on the unionist side unwilling either to enter the talks, or to accept readily within them the overall approach of the two governments, have been denounced as wanting to put the clock back. The purpose of this booklet is to counter such an understandable but essentially shallow and unhelpful assessment. The issues of principle at stake are real, and of enormous importance to large sections of the population in Northern Ireland.

The arguments in the following chapters are not based on any unrealistic intellectual purity. All of the contributions accept the value of compromise and also, occasionally, the need for some element of fudge The challenge, for all involved in this problem, is to gauge the point where such compromise itself makes the process unsound, and any agreement resulting from it unworkable. There have to be the most serious doubts, however, about building a solution on formulations which owe more to the need to persuade terrorists to stop their terror than to their basis in rational analysis.



It requires an effort to recall it, but a few short years ago there was an abundance of seriously canvassed 'solutions' to the Northern Ireland problem. Take a look at the contents page of The Future of Northern Ireland, edited by John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary and published by Oxford University Press in 1990: there you will find all the then fashionable options laid out in their glittering array: a unitary Irish state; a federal or confederal Irish state; electoral integration within the UK; re-partition; a reactivation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement; joint authority and negotiated independence. It makes for nostalgic reading but the fact is that all these have now died. Four years into the highly ambiguous 'peace process', signalled by the paramilitary ceasefires, we knew that there was only one possible line of settlement and it was signalled by the Heads of Agreement document, published at the Stormont talks in early 1998. The Stormont Agreement merely confirmed this; balanced constitutional change on both the British and Irish sides - in particular, involving Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution; a Northern Irish Assembly; a remodelling of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985; a Council of the Isles body linking the Northern Assembly to other bodies in the UK; new North-South structures to link Belfast and Dublin. But does such a package deserve support in a referendum?

The participants in the talks process were subjected to much moral persuasion. 'They must reach an agreement,' it was said, 'the alternative is too awful to contemplate'. There are perfectly understandable emotions underlying such an appeal; the prospect of a return to the violence of the period 1969-94 is deeply depressing. But surprisingly, perhaps, no one has really attempted to analyse in a cool fashion the reasons why, at this point, we reached a moment where a negotiated accommodation - if not actually a 'peace settlement' - was possible between the largest parties of unionism and nationalism in the North.

To attempt such an analysis, it is necessary to look at matters, firstly, from the vantage point of the Ulster Unionist Party and then of the SDLP. Compare the position of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1998 with the position in 1958; in 1958 the Ulster Unionists appeared to hold all the cards. In the late 1930s Whitehall had become increasingly alarmed by the Orange populist style of the Craigavon government, but Irish neutrality in the Second World War changed all that. Northern Ireland's role in the war effort hugely improved the image of Ulster unionism within the British political and administrative elite. In the mid 1950s Britain did believe it had a selfish strategic interest in the maintenance of partition. The post-war arrival of the British welfare state in Northern Ireland had further strengthened the position of unionism: there was a sharp contrast with the Irish Republic's fumbling efforts ('the mother and child controversy') in the same direction. Thus in 1966, after over 40 years of independence, the population of the Republic, at 2.88 million, was less than it had been in 1926 (2.97 million), whilst that of the part of Ireland still 'unfree' was larger (1.25 million in 1926 and 1.48 million in 1966). This was in defiance of all the core assumptions of mainstream Irish nationalist rhetoric since the 1880s. The unionists had one major difficulty - the alienation of 150,000 northern Catholics who were prepared to vote for Sinn Fein in the 1950s. But even then Catholic support for the IRA campaign was so slight that the campaign inevitably fizzled out.

But today the picture is very different. The Republic's economic fortunes have been transformed since the 1960s. By 1970 the population in the Republic rose to just over 3 million and by the mid 1980s to 3.5 million. The Republic's relations with Britain are much stronger - to the extent that the Thatcher government negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and imposed it on the unionists without any serious consultation. Since the start of the Troubles the unionists have suffered republican violence on a massive scale, have seen their own parliament abolished, have failed to defeat the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and have suffered a significant decline in the economic and demographic positions of their own community. This experience of decline fuels unionist melancholia and creates a large constituency consumed with fear of the final betrayal. To put it another way, it eats away at the self-confidence which is a sine qua non of successful political dealing. On the nationalist side these factors lead to a mood of expectancy - 'our day has come', a united Ireland is inevitable.


Embracing Consent

Why don't the unionists realise this and quietly fold their tents? Such a view, however, ignores other aspects of contemporary reality. The Union, despite all the success of the Celtic Tiger, still delivers significantly higher average living standards - the decline in the bargaining power of unionists, who nevertheless remain a substantial local majority, is not quite the same thing as a collapse in the viability of the Union. Perhaps as important, the Irish state has moved steadily towards an even more unreserved embrace of the doctrine of consent - that there will not be a united Ireland until a majority in the North votes for it. The Republic does not wish to endanger its hard won prosperity by absorbing the North - with all its huge political and economic problems - in the foreseeable future. This is not to say that the Republic's public opinion is at all times moving towards compromise; many of the strongest trends are probably more inimical to unionism (and even at times to Britain) than they were in the early 1980s, but the interests of the state as such are defined and, in this context, unlikely to change. The texts of international agreements - notably the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 - illustrate this fact beyond doubt. The Irish state has been prepared, therefore, to put its weight behind suggestions for compromise (notably the Heads of Agreement) which dismayed significant sections of the broad northern nationalist community. It was clear that any possible deal would involve elements of ambiguity; some will say it protects the Union, while other will see it as a way towards Irish unity by democratic means, but the widespread adherence to the principle of consent has the capacity, in principle, to make such an ambiguity tolerable. Certainly, northern nationalists and republicans were not being encouraged by the Irish state to hold out for a more radical solution at a later date. Bertie Ahern made this clear in an interview with Parliamentary Brief in March 1998.

This suggested that the SDLP at least had to be in the market for a historic compromise in 1998. The downside of the Anglo-Irish Agreement for northern nationalism has always been clear. The Irish government gained an enhanced protective role, but simultaneously it continues to respond to its own imperatives which do not always reflect the mood of northern nationalism, and it has the capacity to insist on its own interpretation of events. This was seen most clearly in Sinn Fein's temporary expulsion from the Talks, in defiance of what appeared to be the majority view among northern nationalists. In such a context it is still difficult, but not impossible, for Sinn Fein to embrace the negotiated outcome: to do so it would have to moderate policy rapidly on two key issues - the Northern Assembly and the Irish claim to Northern Ireland. For the SDLP, however, there is a definite chance of sustaining a settlement which reflects many of the key elements of the SDLP's traditional approach: effective power-sharing, or 'responsibility sharing', within the North, a significant Irish dimension embodied in new North-South links, and a continued role for the Irish government. The settlement is not joint authority - which some in the SDLP have supported - but it remains a very good deal for northern nationalists, especially as it includes a renewed British commitment to the equality agenda.

For unionists, on the other hand, the principal difficulty is well known. They have problems with the plans for the internal government of Northern Ireland - unionists would have preferred a more low key assembly on the Welsh rather than the Scottish model. But the key issue remains North-South structures: many unionists fear that these inevitably mean the acceptance of a transitional stage towards Irish unity. Are they right?

The end result of the negotiations suggests that both governments realised that the conceptual baggage of the Frameworks (dynamism, albeit agreed dynamism, executive powers and harmonisation) constituted a political impossibility for unionism and that other language - closer to the Craig/Collins pacts of 1922 - had to be found. This is very much in line with the analysis of the Cadogan Group pamphlet on the Framework proposals, Lost Accord (1995). In the end, the Stormont Agreement emphasised the banal detail of proposed North-South cooperation (animal and plant health, aquaculture, etc.,). In other words there is no Pol Pot-like project to harmonise education or health on an all-Ireland basis, rather a search for limited areas of cooperation. But some unionist rejectionists insist that the detail is not the point - it is still a betrayal of Northern Ireland by Britain.

It is undeniable that at a key moment the IRA's London bombing campaign led to the transmission of ambiguous messages to the IRA ('Ireland will be as one' etc.), and it is equally undeniable that Mr Blair told leading Irish-Americans that in the settlement he envisaged national boundaries would become less relevant. But it is also the case that John Major's Irish strategy involved a search for the acceptance by Dublin of British sovereignty over the North and, indeed, was influenced by a significant pro-unionist grouping within his Cabinet and party - see Anthony Seldon's John Major(1997) - and also that Tony Blair vigorously supported a Union based on consent in his key Belfast speech of May 1997. Alongside the desire to placate the IRA is a British government acceptance of the downside of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and a desire to bring unionists in from the cold. Nonetheless, the fears generated by the secret initiatives of the British state - whether in 1985 or the 1990s - have left behind a legacy of distrust within mainstream unionism. From the British point of view, the defence of the current strategy is clear enough: at least 250 lives have been saved and, despite the collapse of the British position on the hand-over of arms, no fundamental concession to republicans has been made on the outline of a political settlement; hence, of course, the widespread republican dissatisfaction with the process, and the breakdown of the first ceasefire. Britain may well be unenthusiastic about the long-term future of the Union (though Mr Blair denies it) and be offering it only on certain terms, but from a unionist point of view there is no alternative to accepting these terms. The rhetoric of a Paisley or McCartney implies only one logic - an independent Ulster - and that is a political and economic impossibility.


Cross-Border Cooperation

The papers presented by both governments at Lancaster House revealed that there was already a considerable amount of cross-border co-operation in place. There is nothing envisaged for the future here which is not of a similar type to that which has gone before, but it is clear, too, that regardless of any agreement intensified North-South co-operation will take place. In a sense the only issue is whether there will be any democratic control over the process. The governments' papers do, however, permit a more realistic appraisal of the possibilities.

The greater integration between the two economies, a key intellectual prop of the Frameworks, now looks to be a rather more uncertain project. The decision by Ireland to join the single European currency while the UK stays out has seen to that. As the Lancaster House paper North-South Co-Operation reveals, it is difficult to talk of harmonisation of financial services when the two countries will be inside different currency systems.

The papers also show the extent of the Labour party's abandonment of 'the Irish unity by consent' policy of the 1980s: as the Prime Minister told UK Unionist leader, Bob McCartney, at a recent meeting, the abandonment of this policy at the general election was hugely significant. In the mid 1980s, Labour envisaged 'harmonisation' of social welfare as involving the re-routing of Treasury welfare payments via a Dublin post office, so that Northerners would get used to thinking favourably of the Irish government. Laughable in its way, the fact remains that such an initiative is a necessary part of any serious attempt to win Irish unity by consent.

But what did the Lancaster House document propose for the harmonisation of social welfare? 'Action against welfare fraud' on a cross-border basis - hardly a threat to the preservation of the British identity in Northern Ireland.

It is now clear that the North-South body will be accountable to a Northern Assembly. The remit of such a body is initially activities drawn from the less controversial elements of the North-South cooperation paper, but it is also clear that any expansion depends on the consent of the Assembly. However, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is right to say that the settlement has an 'all-Ireland' character. The concept reappeared in the allegedly pro-unionist Heads of Agreements. But what does this mean in practice? A significant influence on the Frameworks Documents was an article by the late Dr John Whyte, Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast. Dr Whyte drew attention to the large number of voluntary associations which had an all-Ireland identity and in which unionists participated freely. He noted that the secretary of his local Unionist Association was also the secretary of one of these all-Ireland bodies. The implication is clear: North-South bodies are already a significant part of Northern Irish life, and they have a role to play in any compromise.

Dr Whyte's article is a clue to the ethos underlying the settlement. There will not be Irish unity until the majority in the North support it. At the same time, an effort is being made to win northern nationalist acceptance of this reality by creating an Irish dimension, as well as an equality programme. The Union and unionism will survive, but will be shifted on to a more liberal and flexible axis. Can unionists cope with such a project?

The Irish Constitution and British legislation are also be amended to reflect the principle of consent. The end of the Government of Ireland Act has little significance when the Agreement reasserts the sovereignty of Westminster over Northern Ireland (paragraph 33 of Strand One). The Irish constitutional claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland goes, and there will be no question of an Irish Foreign Minister reiterating continued Irish juridical sovereignty over the North, as Dick Spring did in the days following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The claim to territory goes with it in the radical revision of Article 2.

For both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party a decisive point has been reached: neither party has anything to gain by rejecting the settlement, neither has any rational reason to believe that more can be gained by delay or that the continuation of Northern Irish politics sans agreement is to its advantage. For unionists the continuation of the status quo would guarantee the continued unhappy marginalised status of 1985-98, a period defined by an inevitably purely reactive and defensive style. This style has now served its only conceivable purpose: both governments have been forced to concede the undesirability of imposing a settlement on the North, but it has not (and could not) have forced the return of a more traditional (still less 'high') unionist agenda. The deal offers the chance of playing a part in the active shaping of a political agenda - in the context of a settlement underpinned by a double referendum North and South, endorsing the philosophy of consent as opposed to the coercive mentality of northern republicanism. The referendum in the South amounts to a retrospective delegitimisation of the IRA campaign.


Healing Process

As for the SDLP, it needs the 'healing process' - to borrow John Hume's phrase - which should flow from the deal. No deal would have meant the continuation of inter-communal aggravation at current levels, at least - something more favourable to the long-term electoral growth of Sinn Fein more than of any other party. On the other hand, a classic Parnellite option for the SDLP now exists: to attempt to advance democratically nationalist aims in a context where barriers between unionists and nationalists have been lowered. But as Seamus Mallon has admitted in Parliamentary Brief(Jan.1998), the current Agreement does not predetermine the future landscape, and as he also said, North-South bodies must be genuinely accountable to an assembly.

While there remain entirely honourable unionist or nationalist reasons for rejecting an accommodation at this point, in the real world of Northern Ireland in the late 1990s any 'rejectionism' will find it difficult not to be contaminated by association with the rejectionism of paramilitary groupings, whether loyalist or republican. Nonetheless, 'rejectionism' may well command a majority of the Northern Irish community: if so, it condemns Northern Ireland to a decade of economic marginalisation, social decline and political misery.

Nevertheless it remains true that the Agreement offers an absurdly complex model of government. This quite simply will not work without a continuation of the firm understanding between David Trimble, the likely First Minister, and Seamus Mallon, his likely Deputy, which played such a role in the final success of the negotiation. The Stormont Agreement entrenches sectarianism, and offers no obvious means of transcending it. It is, however, the only way a majority in both communities can walk away from a civil war with their honour intact. Most dramatically, in this as in any form of devolution, even that sanctioned by Mr Paisley, Sinn Fein can enter the administration of Northern Ireland - they may conceivably win two out of 10 'ministries' - but only at the cost of abandoning about eighty per cent of their previous beliefs. Mr Adams has been hard at work here. The man who said there would never be an IRA ceasefire in the absence of a British declaration of intent to withdraw from Northern Ireland has now delivered two such ceasefires. The man who said he would resign from Sinn Fein the day it disavowed violence has signed up to the Mitchell principles of non-violence and democracy. But he has still to make it clear that the war is over. If he does so soon, it will be with difficulty. Mr Adams' close ally, Pat Doherty, has confessed that the Agreement poses 'huge problems' for the Republican movement; indeed 39% of the Sinn Fein membership are reluctant to offer a ‘Yes, Yes’ to it.

On the broad constitutional issue, Sinn Fein's claims to have won anything out of the Agreement are simply not credible. Their most realistic leaders admit that the only dynamic to Irish unity lies in demography, if it exists even there. In essence, the Agreement is a UUP/SDLP deal which Sinn Fein may feel unable to resist. But they know that if they embrace it, rejectionist unionists will implode with rage and this, in time, makes it easier to sell it to the republican ranks. If this cycle of mutual sectarian reinforcement is to be broken, then it is the current dynamic of the referendum campaign which can do it; indeed that is one of the best reasons for voting 'yes'.

This Agreement is quite simply power-sharing plus an Irish dimension, and it will leave Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom for so long as a majority wants. All the rest is hype - either over-the-top unionist hype, or over-the-top republican hype. It is time to move to 'planet reality'.

There are aspects of the Agreement which cause deep concern, which have to do with the morality of the details on the release of prisoners and the uncertainties about the surrender of terrorist weapons. Both of these are open appeasement of terrorists, and no amount of rationalisation can still the feeling that, on purely moral terms, what is included in the Agreement is wrong and cannot be justified. However, the Cadogan Group's first booklet, Northern Limits, had as its sub-title, ‘The boundaries of the attainable in Northern Ireland politics’, and it may well be the case that no agreement would have been attainable without crossing some moral boundaries. It is also both politically unacceptable and morally unconscionable to solve politcal problems by force, and perhaps also to neglect any opportunity to end the resort to violence.

If one accepts the realistic constraints of British and Irish policy and holds to the principles of non-violence and consent, then certain logical possibilities are laid out in the Agreement which assume, but also test to the limit, the good faith of politicians. That is a risk, but there comes a time when risks have to be taken.

First, if nationalists really are sincere about persuading unionists of the value of being fully part of an Irish nation, and if they are sincere about an inclusive rather than an exclusive definition of it, then it is reasonable to expect that they should be true to their own assumption - namely that the harmony of the nation is the pre-condition for the unity of the state. That end should be worked for at commercial, cultural and environmental levels which could realise practically the benefits, where possible, of an island community. On the other hand, unionists too should acknowledge that there may be positive benefits to be had by working cooperatively and constructively at all these levels. These communities of interest, if they were realised, would be defined by unionist as well as by nationalist expectations. This is provided for in the North/South Ministerial Council. In sum, since nationalists assert the primacy of pre-political unity (the nation) then it cannot be imagined without consent.

As the Cadogan Group argued in Northern Limits, with political unity off the agenda, the oneness of the island in many mutually beneficial ways can become a practical reality: this would enable people in Northern Ireland to live their lives - business, cultural, social - if they so wished partly or even mainly in the context of the whole island without in any way weakening the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

This now becomes a real possibility under the terms of the Agreement. Second, if unionists are really sincere about the positive benefits of British statehood then one would expect them too to act on the basis of their own assumption. Just as pursuit of cultural and economic cooperation on the island of Ireland presupposes the detachment of the idea of the nation from ethnic homogeneity, then so too would the pursuit of equality within Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom depend on the detachment of the state from a single community. Since 1972 this has been happening anyway, driven mainly, though not exclusively, by British policy. Unionists should recognise necessity, and make a virtue of it; their interests can be best served within a framework which acknowledges cultural diversity, which would not be incompatible with the political Britishness of Northern Ireland. Provisions in the Agreement for the Assembly and the protection of rights hold out this potential.

It remains an obligation for nationalists, on this same basis, to participate constructively in a system which would accord them equality of status and equality of rights. Northern Limits argued that if unionist consent is required for constitutional change, unionists must recognise the need for nationalist consent to a settlement which enables them to live in dignity and security short of unity or joint authority. As the European Union develops a common citizenship, residents of Northern Ireland could be in the happy position of being British, Irish, European as the mood takes them, while remaining constitutionally citizens of the United Kingdom.

Once again, this becomes a possibility. Under the terms of the Agreement, respect for the principle of consent qualifies the aspirational drive of contemporary Irish nationalism. And the changes required are also far from congenial to the immobilism of traditional Ulster unionism. Neither of these forces will willingly wither away, but new conditions could be built which might deprive them of their destabilising power. It is an enterprise worth the risk.



The current drive for a solution in Northern Ireland has been largely directed by the governments in London and Dublin. While impetus has also come from dialogue within nationalism and a joint approach by the SDLP and Sinn Fein/IRA, and from unionism’s insistence on replacement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the organisers of the process, the articulators of agendas, have been the governments. The key landmarks in the process leading to the Belfast Agreement of 1998 have been the governments’ joint statements and agreed proposals, notably the Downing Street Declaration and the Frameworks documents.

A careful examination of these can reveal much of the fundamental approach of the two governments, and of the overall direction in which they are headed in search of a solution. It is on the basis of such an examination that some unionists refused to be part of the Stormont talks, and some commentators have consistently argued that, within the framework set by the governments, no real settlement can emerge; at best, they predicted, a fudge would result, gaining perhaps a temporary peace, but leading inevitably to long-term instability and renewed communal violence.

The Downing Street Declaration is widely accepted as the seminal statement, and within its text can be found the foundations for unionist unease. It has been argued that in it the United Kingdom conceded in principle the fundamental claim of Irish nationalism, that the inhabitants of the island of Ireland, ‘the people’ of the island, constitute a single nation, and have therefore a collective right of self-determination. Article 4 of the Declaration states:

The British Government agrees that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland.

While the manner in which self-determination is to be exercised is certainly circumscribed, the vital principle that it is the people of the island who have such a right is conceded. This paragraph of the Declaration has to be read in conjunction with Article 1 of the Republic’s constitution which states that ‘The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible and sovereign right to choose its own form of government...’. There is no proposal to alter Article 1 as a result of the Stormont Agreement, and the new Article 2 will define the Irish nation as anyone born on the island. We are left, at best, with the contradictory situation where the right of the people of the whole island to self-determination is endorsed, but then restricted. Whether a fundamental right once accorded can then be effectively denied by the manner of its implementation is a moot point.

Moreover the formula for self-determination in Article 4 of the Downing Street Declaration is a statement of what the Prime Minister declared on behalf of the United Kingdom government. The wording of Article 5, which sets out the Taoiseach’s commitment on behalf of the Irish government, is slightly different. He speaks of ‘the democratic right of the people of Ireland as a whole’ which ‘must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland’. Here ‘the democratic right’ of the Irish nation to self-determination is bluntly affirmed, and the qualification as to how it is to be achieved is purely circumstantial - a united Ireland cannot be imposed on the North because stability cannot be achieved when a significant minority refuse allegiance.

Such close textual analysis may seem over sensitive, but Article 4 of the Declaration does indicate the extent to which the United Kingdom government was seeking a solution to the Northern Ireland problem within the intellectual framework of Irish nationalism. In it the Prime Minister again uses the language of ethnic nationalism when he states that the British government ‘believe that the people of Britain would wish, in friendship to all sides, to enable the people of Ireland to reach agreement...’. For a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to make such a distinction between the people of ‘Britain’ - one part only of that United Kingdom - and the people of Ireland, one third of whom are his fellow United Kingdom citizens, is either careless or highly significant. At any rate for it to appear in a seminal statement painstakingly negotiated by two sovereign states is, to say the least, remarkable.


No Selfish Interest

In Article 4 the Prime Minister declares the primary aim of the United Kingdom government to be peace, stability and reconciliation by agreement among all the people of the island, and he commits the government to encourage, facilitate and enable such an agreement. But only one outcome of this process is specifically envisaged in Article 4 - and that is a united Ireland, and the government binds itself to legislate to bring that about if the people so wish. There is no accompanying declaration that an equally, or more logical outcome might be confirmation of the present situation with Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom. Instead there is the famous statement that the British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.

It has been argued that in the Downing Street Declaration the United Kingdom government was reflecting the political realities of the situation, and that it was pushing the problem on to the ground where it undoubtedly lies - division between people in Northern Ireland and in the island of Ireland. But the manner in which this was done had a profound effect on the argument in Ireland, and on the parties involved. The language of the Declaration is dominantly the language of ethnic nationalism. In it the government of the United Kingdom made real and substantive concessions to the imperatives of Irish nationalism which not only drive the republican commitment to terrorism but also inform and direct the stance of the political establishment in Dublin to Northern Ireland and to unionism.

In the overall context of the Declaration, the 1921-25 settlement can be understood not only as a failed attempt at an agreed Ireland, but as one devoid of legitimacy since partition does not represent the harmonious and collective exercise of the will of the Irish nation. In this sense the Declaration is seen by sections of unionism as an acceptance of the core tenets of Irish nationalism, by implication denying, or at least undermining, the legitimacy of partition and of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the Union.

This view of partition as resulting from the failure of the 'people of Ireland' to agree on the exercise of their collective right of self-determination, was carried into the Frameworks Documents. In Paragraph 10 of A New Framework for Agreement the two governments list as their first guiding principle in the search for a settlement ‘the principle of self-determination, as set out in the Joint (Downing Street) Declaration’. And in Paragraph 16 they repeat their respective, and slightly different, British and Irish definitions of that principle.

The problem to be resolved is presented in the Frameworks (paragraph 18) as due to the fact that 'the option of a sovereign united Ireland does not command the consent of the unionist tradition' and the present status of Northern Ireland does not command the consent of the nationalist tradition'. The shared understanding between the two governments is that there must be 'new arrangements and structures ... to foster the process of developing agreement and consensus between all the people of Ireland'.

In today’s post-nationalist world the most logical and obvious place to find such agreement and consensus would be in simple acceptance of partition and accommodation of the minority community in Northern Ireland. But the general tenor of the Frameworks Documents seems to be in the other direction, towards all-Ireland structures of government through which the undivided will of the 'people of Ireland' can find the authentic political self-determination set out in Article 1 of the 1937 constitution.


Frameworks Defused

The Frameworks were put forward as a basis for discussion, both governments strongly endorsing their proposals. They have now, of course, been overtaken by the Stormont Agreement. Many of those who rejected the Frameworks are now prepared, some reluctantly, to accept the new Agreement, arguing that in several essentials the Frameworks have been substantially modified and defused. The contrary argument is that those changes are marginal or cosmetic, and that the fundamentally unacceptable aspects of the Frameworks can still be found in the altered wording of the Stormont Agreement.

For instance the overall approach remains unaltered - the search is still for a solution within the broad parameters of Irish nationalism. The core concessions to the principles of nationalism remain, notably in Article 1(ii) of the agreement between the two governments annexed to the multi-party agreement which repeats verbatim the Downing Street formula, recognising ‘...that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts exercise their right of bring about a united Ireland...’

The incorporation of this in a treaty between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the ratification of the Agreement by referendum in both parts of the island could arguably give the concept of the Irish nation as the people of the whole island some basis in international law. Certainly this formal recognition of a collective right of self-determination for the ‘people of the island’ undermines the legitimacy of partition, also weakened by the repeal of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

On institutional issues it was the ‘free-standing’ nature of the Frameworks’ proposed North/South Body, not subject to the authority of any Northern Assembly, which attracted most unionist criticism. It is now argued that the North/South Ministerial Council proposed in the Stormont Agreement is a considerable advance from a unionist point of view. Yet the North/South Council will also be set up and maintained by legislation at Westminster and the Dail. Its legal status and its accountability are to be established by that legislation.

The functions assigned to it are, however, to be decided by the Council itself rather than by the two governments, and the list of subject areas proposed at the outset are those agreed in the multi-party talks, not decided by Dublin and London. Moreover any further development of the cross-border arrangements under the Council is to be by agreement in the Council and with ‘the specific endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Oireachtas, subject to the extent of the competences and responsibility of the two Administrations’ (Strand Two, paragraph 12.) Unless that last phrase masks some hidden intention, this provision would seem to limit the North/South Council’s ability to develop independently of the Northern Assembly.

There is concern that Ministers within the North/South Council would be able to take decisions ‘within their defined authority’ independently of the Assembly. Paragraph 6 of Strand Two seems to say so, though it also adds that each side, in the Council, ‘is to remain accountable to the Assembly and Oireachtas respectively, whose approval...would be required for decisions beyond the defined authority of those attending’. Could it be that a Sinn Fein Minister could, acting within his ‘defined authority’, enable the Council to take a decision unacceptable to a majority in the Assembly? A check on such an eventuality may be found in paragraph 24 of Strand One, where Ministers in the Assembly are given full executive authority in their respective areas of responsibility ‘...within any broad programme agreed by the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly as a whole’, but the wording here is very loose, and would seem to leave individual Ministers an unacceptable freedom to act according to their own priorities within the North/south Council.

The manner in which, under Paragraph 6, each side in the Council is to ‘remain accountable to the Assembly and Oireachtas’ is not spelled out, and remains a crucial area of ambiguity.

The Agreement does terminate the Anglo-Irish Agreement and close Maryfield. But under the new British-Irish Agreement there is to be a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, supported by a standing joint secretariat, or new ‘Maryfield’. The Intergovernmental Conference will ‘subsume’ the Ministerial element of the AIA, and will continue to meet ‘regularly and frequently’ to discuss non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, not those within the competence of the Assembly. Once again the Irish government’s ‘special interest in Northern Ireland’ is formally recognised, along with its right to ‘put forward views and proposals’.

The Intergovernmental Conference will provide a second channel for promoting north-south cooperation, outside the North/South Council, and not accountable to the Assembly on non-devolved matters. It will also have a particular role in addressing ‘rights, justice, prisons and policing in Northern Ireland’, so long as these are not devolved.

Even allowing for modifications of the arrangements operated under the AIA, and some departures from the Frameworks proposals, the new Agreement still gives the government of the Republic a role in the governance of Northern Ireland, with the potential for that role to increase. It is this situation, seen against the background of considerable concessions in principle to the nationalist analysis, and in the light of sustained support for the nationalist goal of Irish-British joint-authority over Northern Ireland from both the SDLP and the political establishment in Dublin, which calls the new Agreement into serious question, particularly when the price paid in terms of extravagant concessions on arms surrender, prisoner release and policing is taken into consideration.

The import of these concessions is that representatives of Sinn Fein could exercise ministerial authority in the North/South Council, while the IRA is reinforced on the ground by the release of prisoners, with no effective requirement to surrender arms. The wording of the section of the Agreement on policing is such that to some it opens the possibility of the recruitment of IRA people into new community-based policing structures, which would give the IRA effective control over the areas from which they operate. These considerations suggest that the working of the Agreement could give rise to a growing unionist disaffection combined with a strengthened IRA terrorist capacity, which would be a recipe for long term instability rather than peace.

Should unionists accept the Agreement? The insistence on all-Ireland executive bodies stems from the view that a political settlement must give ‘parity of esteem’ to nationalists, where ‘parity of esteem’ is defined in a way that no unionist can accept, that is that Irish nationalism has an intellectual validity within Northern Ireland equal to the maintenance of the Union according to the will of the majority. Yet in intellectual terms Irish nationalism has no basis, given that there are no accepted criteria of a single identity which can be used to establish the fundamental claim of nationalism that there is a single nation on the island of Ireland.

Unionists, as United Kingdom citizens, are under no obligation to accept the nationalist use of a so-called principle of ‘parity of esteem’ systematically to divest Northern Ireland of its public and symbolic identity as an integral part of the United Kingdom, nor to agree to all-Ireland institutions intended to weaken the Union.

At the practical level no strong arguments have been advanced for powerful North/South bodies. Nationalist leaders claim that these are required for the development of a ‘single-island economy’, but no substantive economic case has ever been made to underpin such a concept, despite public statements of support from the leaders of business organisations in Northern Ireland, particularly from the local branch of the Confederation of British Industry.

Should unionists make significant political concessions in the form of all-Ireland institutions for the sake of peace? Everyone desires peace, but offering concessions as the price for an end to violence is, at heart, appeasement of terrorism, with no guarantee that peace will result. Nationalists in Northern Ireland have always lived within a basically democratic state, with every opportunity to develop lawful political opposition to partition. Their inability to convince a majority of citizens of the correctness of the nationalist case can never legitimise a resort to terrorism, nor should terrorism be rewarded by concession of the demands of a violent Irish nationalism in order to secure an end to that terrorism.


What is the Alternative?

What is the alternative to the Agreement? The fundamental problem with the negotiations which produced the Stormont Agreement is that they were locked into the fantasies and mythology of Irish nationalism, There were two reasons for this. First, the negotiations formed the core of a ‘peace process’ directed towards a political settlement with terrorism in order to take the gun out of Irish politics, which means they were essentially oriented to accommodating the ideological demands of Sinn Fein/IRA, at least to the extent necessary to secure a continuing cease-fire. Second, this imprisonment of the negotiations within the ideology of nationalism stems directly from the acceptance in the Downing Street Declaration of fundamental principles of nationalism.

The so-called peace-process and the Agreement it produced were driven by a nationalist ideology divorced from political and economic reality in Ireland. The first major step back towards political realism must be a resolute commitment to the defeat of terrorism by the governments of both the United Kingdom and the Republic - a position of principle for which both governments repeatedly declared their unwavering support up to the early stages of the ‘peace process’, but which has now clearly been abandoned.

What is required from both London and Dublin is the acceptance that there are two distinct sets of political allegiances in Ireland, and that partition was the legitimate and sensible outcome of that reality. The challenge for political leaders in the Republic is to promote the acceptance of a purely pragmatic relationship with Northern Ireland, which could extend to many aspects of life on the island. This would mean the State dropping the rhetoric of archaic nationalism, and bringing its formal aspirations into line with those of many of its citizens - the development of a modern, prosperous state living within its internationally recognised boundaries on good terms with its neighbours.

From the government of the United Kingdom, there is required unequivocal confirmation that the baggage of Old Labour on the Irish Question has been finally discarded, and that the explicitly nationalist policies espoused by the current Secretary of State when she co-authored the 1988 Labour policy document Towards a United Ireland have no place in the approach of today’s government. Every citizen of the United Kingdom is entitled to expect from his or her government an unqualified commitment to the boundaries of the state. This would not prevent nationalists aspiring to a different order, nor should it deter unionists from seeking to create within Northern Ireland a political modus vivendi with nationalists, in the context of the different modes of devolved regional government emerging in the United Kingdom.



In his Lessons of Ulster T.E. Utley castigated successive United Kingdom governments for their attempts to build a Northern Ireland consensus on a centre ground which he believed did not exist. Utley’s criticism, written in 1975, has appeared prophetic right up to the present day as government after government sought solutions which patently did not work. The question faced in the spring of 1998 is whether the United Kingdom and Irish governments have at last discovered the holy grail of consensus in the form of the Stormont Agreement.

This chapter examines arguments for and against the Agreement. This is not an easy task because the Agreement is unclear in many respects and lacking in essential details. Signing up to such an Agreement represents at the very least a considerable risk. While it is perhaps understandable that the United Kingdom government should be willing to take such risks , it is important that we explore their extent. The priority of government has, after all, been to bring peace and to placate deadly enemies to avoid a repetition of a disastrous past , but the main consequences of defects in the Agreement will be borne here in Northern Ireland. Since we cannot expect a government with ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ to guard effectively against such defects we must ourselves be doubly cautious.

The principal aim of the Agreement has been to secure peace, but will it do so? Related to this question is the issue for unionists of whether the Agreement will bring political stability, or does it represent merely another turn of the ratchet whereby concessions are made to nationalism without any end to the pressure for further change. The second major issue is whether the price of agreement is too high. Clearly the value of the Agreement to unionists depends on the reliability of the promise of peace and constitutional stability. The third significant concern is whether the complex of new institutional arrangements is likely to constitute good and effective government. Since the issue of good government has hardly been raised during the so-called ‘peace process’ we might expect the Agreement to contain significant weaknesses in this respect. Finally this chapter examines whether the elements of appeasement inherent in the Agreement, particularly the release of prisoners and the review of the RUC, are more likely to encourage future violence than cement peace.


Will the Agreement Deliver Peace ?

In an important sense the process leading up to the Agreement has already brought a measure of peace in that the two IRA and accompanying Loyalist cease-fires have saved perhaps 200 lives and much damage to property. The Agreement is widely viewed as presenting the bill both for this demonstration of peaceful intent and for the possibility that the cease-fires can be made permanent. If we believe the United Kingdom government’s assertion that the IRA made contact in 1993 to say the ‘war is over’ it could be argued that nothing need have been given in return for receiving the surrender, but few in positions of responsibility were willing to take the risk of offering the IRA nothing. In dealing with a secret organisation the risks could only be guessed at, and the decision was made at government and other levels of society, including business organisations, to offer concessions which would strengthen the hand of those within the Republican movement who were viewed as the doves.

The presence of IRA and Loyalist representatives in the Talks has simplified the task of assessing what needed to be offered to achieve a permanent peace. The question now is whether Sinn Fein and the IRA can be trusted to deliver peace at the price indicated in the Agreement. Here we immediately encounter a problem. The most astounding aspects of the Agreement are the absence of any undertaking by Sinn Fein to disband the IRA, and the weakness of terms for the surrender of paramilitary weapons. To this extent the Agreement is one-sided. It involves political concessions from unionists, indeed from all democrats, without any guarantee that they will gain in return an end to the long terrorist war.

The fact that David Trimble and some of his UUP colleagues regard this as ‘as good and fair as it gets’ (Belfast Telegraph April 16) suggests that they expect Sinn Fein and the IRA to deliver peace despite the absence of any formal undertaking to do away with their military capability. This appears also to be the assumption of the two governments despite warnings of on-going violence, presumably from fringe paramilitary groups and/or a minority of dissidents within the IRA or UVF and UFF.

A contrary assumption is that the Sinn Fein and the IRA have lost none of their determination to destabilise Northern Ireland, and that the IRA will maintain its capability in order to continue its campaign of violence. Under this scenario Sinn Fein representatives in the new Northern Assembly, and a Sinn Fein minister in the Executive, could act within government to manufacture grievances while Sinn Fein and the IRA exploit those grievances with disorder and violence in the streets.

It is not possible at this stage to say which of these views is more likely to be correct. Both are based on extrapolations of past, and deeply ambiguous, Republican behaviour. Those who purport to be close to IRA thinking have not had a particularly good record in predicting events and there is no credible or authoritative source to which we can turn for a definitive answer. Optimists expect Republicans to become absorbed in the detail of government. Pessimists expect them to do their utmost, by fair means or foul, to further their undiminished desire to achieve a united Ireland.

What the Agreement does contain is a declaration committing signatories to ‘exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ (para 4). Once again, like so much of the Agreement, the value of this undertaking depends on trust. The fact the Mitchell Commission wrongly reached the conclusion that the IRA had made this commitment by 1995, just before the breakdown of the IRA cease-fire, undermines the trust of many. Similarly, the fact that an almost identical undertaking given by Sinn Fein in order to enter the talks did not prevent the murders of Constables Graham and Johnson will have cemented a lack of trust in many minds. Others will argue that these interruptions in the cease-fires demonstrate how difficult it is for the IRA leadership to bring a complete end to violence and thus strengthen the case for supporting IRA doves.

A common defence of the Agreement is that there is no alternative. Whatever view one takes of the overall thrust of the Agreement it seems clear that detailed improvements could have been obtained. One of these would have been to have made clear to Sinn Fein , PUP and UDP what the consequences were in the event of any return to violence. The whole Agreement could have been made conditional on sustained peace notwithstanding the admitted difficulties in identifying the perpetrators of individual acts of violence. The fact that the IRA is taken on trust says a lot about the asymmetry of risk in the Agreement. It is one of many contrasts in the treatment of terrorist organisations between the British and Irish governments on the one hand, and that in many other countries, most notably Spain, on the other.


Does the Agreement Offer Stability?

Just as the Agreement lacks formal undertakings on the demilitarisation of paramilitary groups, it also lacks punch in its undertakings to accept the existing position of Northern Ireland within the UK. Only one paragraph in the Agreement refers to Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK (Constitutional Issues para 1(iii)). Of the seven paragraphs in this section, almost all refer to the possibility of a united Ireland. Even the single paragraph referring to NI’s position within the UK combines this reference with an acknowledgement that ‘ a substantial section of the people in Northern Ireland share the legitimate wish of a majority of the people of the island of Ireland for a united Ireland’.

This nationalist bias in wording has been carried over from the Frameworks Documents where it was privately viewed by British government officials as ‘necessary nonsense’. It is less acceptable that a similar bias should appear in an international agreement of this nature. As in the Frameworks, the pro-nationalist wording seems to signify little except a perceived need to soothe nationalist feelings, albeit at the risk of alarming unionist sensibilities. Even so, the bias remains and is reinforced by an absence of any balancing requirement upon nationalists to register their acceptance of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK.

Optimists would expect that the Agreement itself will lead to warmer relations between the two communities so that in time such acceptance will come. This could happen but it takes us back into Utley territory where hope always triumphs over expectation. Past experience is not promising. Neither the fall of Stormont nor the Anglo-Irish Agreement brought nationalists nearer to accepting the legitimacy of partition. Similarly the establishment of the NI Housing Executive and the implementing of two Fair Employment Acts have not ended calls for further strengthening of what is now called the equality agenda, including yet another Fair Employment Act and a raft of new regulations for the public sector.

Perhaps the Agreement has finally offered enough to nationalists to gain their acceptance of Northern Ireland’s legitimacy, but more likely is a continuation of the revolution of rising expectations in which each reform raises nationalist confidence in the rectitude of their case. What seems clear is that the Agreement has missed an opportunity to achieve a balanced settlement in which unionists conceded political parity of esteem in return for a genuine recognition not only of the principle of consent but also of its practical consequences in the acceptance of UK citizenship. A single Agreement is rarely sufficient to change people’s hearts but it would at least indicate what was to be expected in return for the undoubted gains to nationalism.

As the only group openly to celebrate at the conclusion of the negotiations, the SDLP clearly feel they have won a victory of sorts, and the 90% Catholic support for the Agreement in the first opinion poll suggests this view is shared by most nationalists. If nationalists wish the Agreement to be a true settlement rather than a transition to joint authority, now is the time for the SDLP to indicate this intention to unionists. The vague language of John Hume has always confused unionists, leading to deep scepticism; a clarification of intentions now would be both helpful and generous.


Is the Price of Agreement too High?

The concessions made by unionists to secure peace, political stability, and participation in regional democracy are chiefly a system of power-sharing through enforced coalition in the Northern Assembly, and the setting up of a North/South Ministerial Council with executive powers, plus reform of the RUC, early release of prisoners and enhancements to the ‘equality agenda’. In return David Trimble has stressed the gain to unionists in the abolition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and its secretariat at Maryfield, and the removal of the Republic of Ireland’s territorial claim.

The unionist agreement to the principle of power-sharing is of long standing. It was almost fully worked out in the 1991/92 Brooke-Mayhew talks. The legacy of opposition to the Sunningdale Agreement was preserved only in an illogical opposition to the setting up of an ‘executive’ or cabinet to co-ordinate the assembly. However it can be argued that the UUP too easily accepted the widespread view that as successors to the discredited Stormont regime they were unfit to govern as a democratically elected majority. In accepting at least part of this view unionists appear to have absorbed many of the nationalist-inspired exaggerations of the conduct of government in Northern Ireland prior to 1972.

Even if one accepts that a power-sharing assembly was a sine qua non of political reconciliation, there are less permanent and more practical methods of sharing power. One option might have been to agree rules for voluntary coalition as a transition to normal democracy. The rule could have been that to form the regional government any coalition would need to command say 65% of the total vote thus requiring the support of a substantial number of both Catholics and Protestants. An arrangement of this sort could have been put in place for 10 or 20 years subject to review by the British and Irish governments at the end of that period. However the lack of open debate on these issues, including the secrecy which to this day surrounds the Brooke-Mayhew talks, means that these alternatives have hardly been considered. As we argue in the next section, the costs of accepting the arrangements in the current Agreement are likely to be bad government and political instability.

The previously highly controversial proposals for cross-border executive bodies seem to have attracted surprisingly little unionist opposition, at least within the UUP. This is because the proposed bodies appear to be firmly grounded within the authority of the Assembly (and of the Dail). Moreover the suggested list of functions over which there might be joint executive authority are relatively trivial. They would impinge little on the internal administration of either North or South. Since no economic or administrative case has ever been convincingly made, or even attempted, for setting up cross-border bodies, we must assume that their value to nationalists is either symbolic, or as a wedge that can be used to move further towards joint authority and eventual Irish unity. The UUP have concentrated on measures to prevent the latter. In this they seem to have been successful, mainly due to the ease with which the SDLP agreed to making cross-border bodies subject to the Northern assembly, and to their relatively insignificant powers. The decisive influence here is likely to have been the UK government’s opposition to cross-border bodies with significant spending powers.

Whether these concessions by unionists return to haunt them depends again on the degree of trust which can be placed on nationalist intentions. We have already argued that this is an imponderable and only time will tell if the UUP gamble has been worthwhile.

Meanwhile what of the purported gains to unionism beyond the promise of peace and political stability? The first of these is the superceding of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the closure of the Maryfield secretariat. Critics will argue that this gain to unionists has been fully offset by the introduction of the equivalent cross-border Council of Ministers. What the UUP claim has been gained is that Irish government influence in Northern Ireland has been brought out into the open and, most important, brought under the control of the Northern Assembly. Unionists tended to exaggerate the influence of the Maryfield secretariat, although its secrecy made it difficult to judge precisely what its influence was, and the gain may be more apparent than real. However the openness of the new proposed arrangements must be an advance.

Finally, unionists have gained proposed changes to the Republic’s constitution. Once again, however, the gain is of uncertain value. The danger to unionists in the territorial claim was not so much legal, since it had no international standing, as in its apparent legitimisng of the aims of northern nationalists, at least in their own eyes. These aims underpinned the strong sense of validity which republican terrorists felt for their cause.

Even without the violence Articles 2 and 3 were deeply unhelpful. Instead of northern nationalists focusing on such legitimate aims as their own democratic rights, and their own links with the Republic, the philosophy enshrined in Articles 2 and 3 encouraged an unjustifiable territorial claim which insisted that northern unionists should be forced to join the Republic. This thinking among nationalists has far from disappeared and it may be many years before it vanishes from the manifestos of nationalist parties. However the changes to the Articles must be a move in the right direction. The pity is that the move was not more decisive. The unhelpful ambiguities about the nature of the Irish ‘nation’ may still be sufficient to underpin republican violence. The changes do, however, give unionist propagandists a basis on which to argue that the legitimacy of Northern Ireland is now recognised in all respectable circles north and south.


Bad Government

The prize of avoiding another 25 years of violence has seemed so great that almost no-one has been concerned with the question of whether the Agreement proposals promise good government. The cost (to British, including Northern Irish, taxpayers) and the effectiveness of the proposed arrangements have not been debated.

Yet the proposed arrangements are unique within the democratic world and border on the bizarre in their departures from the principles of democracy. The Northern Assembly as originally proposed by unionists had no government as such and no cabinet. Instead a dozen or so committees were to control the various departments of administration. Last minute negotiations with the SDLP led to a more practical arrangement involving an executive of up to ten ministers. The role of the executive involves co-ordination and representative functions, but its real power remains unclear. Control may still remain within the departmental committees. Committee membership will be allocated pro-rata on electoral strengths and decisions will be taken by (65% or 70%) weighted majorities. Committee chairmen or women will be the ‘ministers’, and each ministry may become a powerful fiefdom. The executive is unlikely to form a coherent government, being drawn from different and antagonistic parties which have negotiated no coalition programme. Elections will not be won or lost in the usual sense. In Northern Ireland’s partitioned electorate each party will merely pick up its traditional 2,3 or 4 ministries. There may be a Sinn Fein minister for education and a DUP minister for health, side by side.

A belief that all will be well on the day underlies these arrangements. It is assumed that once the quarrelsome crew are all in the same boat that they will have to row together. This may happen, but no other democracy has taken such a chance. Northern Ireland would probably not take the chance itself if the expenditure at stake were all to be raised from its own resources.

The involvement of potential cross-border bodies and a Council of the Isles (as well as a Secretary of State) complicates these arrangements even further. While all coalitions have tensions, in this case there will be no common programme and little likelihood of normal electoral consequences for bad government. Instead the political game will be one of shifting blame; parties will blame the Secretary of State for inadequate financial resources, and other parties for failing to agree their own favourite schemes. Add to this melée the presence of one or more parties with a vested interest in destabilising the state, and the prospects for good government are dim.

Those who look back in admiration at the few months of operation of the Sunningdale powersharing executive tend to forget that Sinn Fein was not involved, nor were many of those unionists most opposed to sharing power with nationalists. Moreover several of the most prominent SDLP members were more socialist than nationalist, and were soon to be expelled from the SDLP.

The alternative to this badly thought out scheme of permanent government by involuntary coalition would be a transition scheme based on power-sharing through voluntary coalition. This would admittedly force parties to form coalitions involving more than just unionists or nationalists acting alone, but would allow such coalitions to be negotiated within the context of the issues of the day. This approach would supply the flexibility which is completely lacking from current proposals.



In February 1996 the IRA broke its 18 month cease-fire with a huge bomb destroying a large part of London’s Canary Wharf office complex and killing two people. John Major appeared on BBC television the same evening to assure the nation that that the bomb would not deflect him from ‘the search for peace’. Since he and his government were attempting to make peace with the very organisation which had just let off the bomb, this extraordinary statement amounted to a direct admission of a policy of appeasement. Something had to be offered to Sinn Fein and the IRA to persuade them not to repeat the carnage of Canary Wharf. One of the key questions for the ‘peace process’ and the Agreement is whether appeasement can work, and whether it has worked in this case.

The unspoken consensus in most government, business and professional circles within Northern Ireland, and indeed throughout the UK has been that a range of concessions to violence are a worthwhile price to prevent several more decades of mayhem. This view is also universal in the Republic, which is less surprising in that it coincides with the vested interests or at least emotional desires of most people there. Their view is that it is fine for some-one else (unionists) to make concessions to violence to advance the position of the Northern community which they support.

The dangers of appeasement are frequently trumpeted by spokesmen from Connor Cruise O’Brien to Roy Bradford and Sean O’Callaghan, and indeed by the Cadogan Group, but in truth there has been little serious debate. An unarticulated assumption is that the Sinn Fein (and IRA) leadership genuinely desire to stop fighting, and the challenge is to manage the transition to peace in an orderly fashion, with a minimum level of casualties and in a way which provides some dignity for those who have spent much of their lives actively or passively supporting violence to advance their political aims.

If this assumption is correct then pragmatism will dictate that minor, if painful, concessions will be worthwhile to save lives and property, while conceding nothing of real constitutional importance. The difficulty is that in dealing with secret organisations no one can guarantee that this view is correct. Some who have been heavily involved in the Republican movement sound the loudest warnings against trusting Sinn Fein. It seems clear that Sinn Fein activists do not expect the Agreement to bring an end to IRA violence. A Sunday Times poll of delegates to the April 18 Sinn Fein ard fheis indicated that only 12% thought the IRA campaign was over for good.

The dangers of appeasement are twofold. The first is that Republicanism has learned that it gains more from violence than from democracy. While the Gerry Adams generation may want to retire from the fray, others may reckon that more can be gained than is currently on offer. This calculation may or may not be combined meanwhile with some sort of political settlement. The real danger is that the cult of violence has been entenched in the Irish nationalist tradition, not exorcised from it. Making Sinn Fein part of the solution without any surrender of arms or genuine renunciation of violence comes perilously close to post facto legitimisation of the terrorist atrocities of the past three decades, and the admission into the nationalist pantheon of a new generation of gunmen heroes. As Gerry Adams has already declared, post the Agreement, Sinn Fein makes no distinction between the IRA volunteers of today and those of 1916.



The Agreement is a flawed document and acceptance carries many risks alongside potential gains. Nationalist opinion clearly welcomes the Agreement since it offers potential advances and retains the aspiration to a united Ireland without giving up much of substance. Unionists face a more difficult choice; they are offering to share government with minority parties including that which has been involved for three decades in killing members of their community and destroying the physical fabric of Northern Ireland. They are agreeing to give Dublin some involvement in the running of Northern Ireland through executive bodies, and they face the prospect of immoral early prisoner releases, and of changes to the RUC which they see as having played a heroic role in the long war against terrorism.

There is no easy answer to the question of whether unionists should accept or reject it. They face two important pressures. One is the threat of a resumption of IRA violence, and hence probably also of loyalist; the other is the fear that the United Kingdom government will impose something similar, or worse from a unionist point of view, if the settlement is rejected.

The threat of resumed IRA violence has to be taken seriously. No one can be certain about the intentions of Sinn Fein and the IRA. It is surely ironic, to say the least, that unionists are being pressured into sharing power with those who were heavily involved in organising and perhaps also perpetrating violence in the past and who may well threaten further violence if they do not get their way. These are the people who may be about to join the government of Northern Ireland.

Those who have been closest to the Sinn Fein leadership over recent months and years appear to accept its bone fides about ending violence. These include the two governments, John Hume, sceptical unionists such as David Trimble and John Taylor, himself a victim of serious IRA attack. It is these latter views which, more than anything, will persuade unionists to accept the Agreement. Only time will tell if they are correct.

David Trimble and his colleagues, however, are surely correct in saying that the Agreement does not threaten the Union. It is less obvious that it actually strengthens it. The question here is in what sense was the Union under threat, given the inbuilt electoral majority held by unionists. The implicit threat was alleged to be from the United Kingdom government itself, which, Trimble and others claim, was in any event prepared to impose a settlement on Northern Ireland sufficiently congenial to the IRA to stop the violence. Of all the claims which surround the Agreement, this seems the most shadowy. It appears to have originated in the fear that a Labour government would prove much less sympathetic to unionism than the previous Tory administration. There is little evidence that this has been borne out. In the event of a rejection of the Agreement, however, it could be that the government would take some further action to secure peace. This might include imposing the proposed cross-border Council, and proceeding with the early release of prisoners and some reform of the RUC. If such moves secured a complete cessation of IRA violence, then it is arguable that the result would be preferable to the Agreement itself, since it would avoid the presence in government of representatives of terrorism.

As it emerged, the main problem with the Agreement is not the cross-border Ministerial Council. (The Cadogan Group, in Northern Limits, published in 1992, advocated a North-South Cooperation Council bringing together Ministers from administrations in Belfast and Dublin to promote cross-border cooperation.). The objection is primarily to the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly, which is undemocratic, inflexible, probably unworkable, and likely to burden Northern Ireland with bad government. At the same time the Agreement is much too vague on both nationalist acceptance of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and on an end to Republican violence. Intelligent opposition should focus on securing improvements to these aspects of the Agreement.



The central issue dividing unionists and nationalists for most of the multi-party talks was the nature of the formal north-south structures on the island of Ireland. For long it seemed the one question most likely to prevent any agreement, and remains one of the key elements on which the worth of the agreement will be judged by rank and file unionism and nationalism. It was mainly on the same issue, the nature of the formal north-south link in the Sunningdale Agreement, the Council of Ireland, that the power-sharing executive of 1974 was rejected by a majority in Northern Ireland.

In a discussion paper, presented to the Stormont talks in January of this year, the United Kingdom and Irish governments posed fourteen questions which they hoped would stimulate systematic and detailed debate on the establishment of north-south institutions. Question (a) asked 'What broad purpose or purposes should formal North/South structures serve?' It is the answer to that question which lies at the heart of the dispute over north-south structures.

The original Council of Ireland, specified in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, and added, under much changed circumstances, to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921-22, was designed to serve two main purposes. One was to promote cooperation between the two parts of Ireland, and to provide for the joint administration of services which the two Parliaments mutually agreed should be handled uniformly throughout the island. The second purpose was to promote unification. 'With a view to the establishment of a single Parliament, and to bringing about harmonious actions between the two governments and Parliaments, there is created a bond of union in the meantime, by means of a Council of Ireland....'.

That Council never met, and for half a century after partition neither Belfast nor Dublin, nor indeed London, saw any need for such a 'bond of union', or for any formal machinery to promote cooperation. It was not until the advent of the present Troubles almost thirty years ago that such proposals were revived, and then in the highly political context of revisiting the whole partition settlement. When they were revived it was in radical form. Northern nationalism, in the shape of the newly formed Social Democratic and Labour Party, in 1972 declared itself in favour of joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland as an interim stage towards an independent united Ireland.

Their document of that year, Towards a New Ireland, argued that nationalists could give their support to institutions in Northern Ireland, even on an interim basis, only if institutions were also created whereby nationalists could express their loyalty to the Irish state. Accordingly the SDLP proposed the setting up of a National Senate of Ireland to plan the harmonisation of 'structures, laws and services' in both parts of Ireland, and to agree on a constitution for a 'New Ireland' and its relationship with Great Britain. The Council of Ireland agreed at Sunningdale a year later, while falling far short of nationalist ambitions, went some way towards satisfying this requirement.

The SDLP approach in the early 1970s, alongside the Irish government's drive to have London recognise an 'Irish dimension' to the Northern problem, and accept Dublin's role as 'second guarantor' (guarantor of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland), contained some of the ideas that have dominated the Anglo-Irish governmental approach ever since.

In 1972 the SDLP argued that Northern Ireland as a political unit lacked legitimacy both because of the way it had been created in 1921, and because of the way it had been governed, and dominated by unionists ever since. Hence the impossibility of nationalists giving their support to any internal settlement. While couched in the language of civil rights, in a period dominated by civil rights, this argument remained essentially the nationalist one of fifty years earlier - that the island of Ireland was a natural political unit, and that it belonged to the Irish nation.

In denouncing Northern Ireland as a one-party state, within which nationalists were second-class citizens, no account was taken of the nationalist refusal to accept the 1921-25 settlement, of their initial prolonged refusal to recognise or work with the institutions of the state within which they found themselves, or of their self-imposed exclusion from the normal political process by restricting their political activity to opposition to the existence of the state itself. Instead the emphasis was on the wrongness of partition


Expression of Irish Identity

This thinking was developed in the pan-nationalist New Ireland Forum held in Dublin in 1983, and presented in quasi-civil rights language as 'the denial of the right of nationalists in the North to political expression of their Irish identity' (paragraph 3.3 of the New Ireland Forum Report, 1984). In the context it is clear that what is meant by this phrase is primarily the exclusion, by partition, of Northern nationalists from the Irish state. (In July 1992 the Irish government told the inter-party talks on Northern Ireland that it represented 'that part of the Irish nationalist tradition which has found political expression in an independent state'.)

The conclusion of the Forum, was, in effect, that the political unification of the island by agreement would offer the best hope of a settlement, and all the parties participating declared that they would continue to work for that. By political unification the Forum meant the nationalist ideal of an independent united Irish state under one parliament. The Forum Report said other arrangements had been considered, including a federal or confederal Ireland, and joint British-Irish authority over Northern Ireland. While the report includes chapters on these, it does not endorse them, saying no more than that they were given 'careful consideration'.

The problem for Irish nationalism after 1984 was that the solution it espoused was not possible, because there was no prospect of unification by agreement. Even the two alternatives considered, and implicitly found inadequate, a federation or formal joint authority, were not possible, as both would have required northern majority assent to constitutional change. It was not just a problem for Irish nationalism, but for the United Kingdom government also, as it was apparent that London was increasingly accepting much of the nationalist analysis, and was committed to working together with Dublin in pursuit of an answer.

Post-1984, therefore, the problem was to find a means short of unification which would allow northern nationalists 'political expression of their Irish identity'. This was at the heart of the negotiations leading up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The Irish government initially proposed explicit joint authority, under a British and Irish Cabinet Minister serving full time and directly controlling specified areas of administration in Northern Ireland. London rejected this, and, as Garret FitzGerald records, informed Dublin that joint sovereignty was not on, joint authority could be contemplated, but joint responsibility would be preferable. At that point FitzGerald's negotiating tactics, he tells us, were to indicate a possibility of movement on Articles 2 and 3 in return for ëa major package involving movement in the direction of joint authority'.

Nationalists had already argued that joint authority could be implemented without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland as it did not infringe UK sovereignty. It was, FitzGerald contended, a manner in which London could choose to administer Northern Ireland, that is in partnership with Dublin, without modifying its formal constitutional position.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement may have enraged unionists, but it did not satisfy, to any significant degree, the core nationalist demand for 'political expression of an Irish identity'. This remained central in the inter-party talks under Peter Brooke in 1991. Setting out an agenda for Strand 2 - north-south links - the UK government, in May 1991, said this should include 'How best to provide... for expression and recognition of the Irish identity of the minority community within Northern Ireland'.

In 1992 the SDLP put forward its proposal for a form of joint-authority, involving Brussels and Dublin participation in an executive commission to run Northern Ireland, on the specific grounds that this would ensure '...parity of esteem, the legitimacy of both traditions and equality of treatment' and that for the first time there would be structures with which nationalists would be able to identify fully.

The answer, therefore, to the question posed in January 1998 as to 'what broad purpose or purposes should formal North/South structures serve?' must include recognition of the Irish identity of nationalists in Northern Ireland and giving expression to it. At least that is the answer the two governments and nationalists give. Only the unionists dissent, but they have a clear problem. There is a fundamental difference between seeking to promote cooperation on the island of Ireland and even accepting a degree of integration for mutual benefit, and setting up a body or bodies to give political expression to this Irish identity.

The problem relates to the nature of the Irish identity concerned, and to the manner in which it can be given 'political expression'. As is clear from the New Ireland Forum and the debates surrounding the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Frameworks Documents and the latest talks, this Irish identity is essentially a political one, based not on race, religion or culture, but on rejection of a British identity, and on a fundamental allegiance to an independent Irish state.

The 1937 Constitution set out the basic principles on which this Irish political identity is based. Article 1 declares that the Irish nation has 'an inalienable, indefeasible and sovereign right' to choose its own form of government, while Article 2 asserts the nation's ownership of the island of Ireland by declaring that to be 'the national territory', and Article 4 underlines that claim by giving as the name of State that of the island - Ireland.

The changes to Articles 2 and 3 offered as part of the Stormont Agreement go a considerable way towards meeting the difficulties posed by the present formulations, but there is no suggestion that any alterations be made to Articles 1 and 4. The rewording proposed for Article 2 drops the explicit claim to the territory of the island, and makes no mention of the 'national territory'. It reads:

It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with many people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.

The proposed new Article 3 states

It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament established by this Constitution shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted by the Parliament that existed immediately before the coming into operation of this Constitution.

The change to Article 2 is certainly significant, but it is the explicit territorial claim which is dropped; the first four articles taken together will still retain an implied claim to the territory. Article 1 asserts the sovereign right of the Irish nation to chose its own government, while the new Article 2 now defines that Irish nation as everyone born in the island, if they so wish. The idea of a 'right' to belong to anything as vague and undefined as a nation, to 'membership' of it, is a piece of nonsense which the UK government went along with in a New Framework for Agreement, but it is a notion fundamental to Irish nationalism, and to the 1937 Constitution. The new Article 2 confirms the essential basis of Irish nationality as geographical - it is being born on the island that confers the right to Irish nationality, not being born within the Irish state. Does this imply that the island of Ireland and the Irish state are still regarded as essentially the same thing, that the 'national territory' is indeed still the island? Article 4 remains unchanged, and the state retains the name 'Ireland', in itself an assertion of claim to the whole island.

The new Article 3 enshrines the principle of consent, in that it recognises that a united Ireland can be brought about only with the consent of 'a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island'. The wording here, and indeed the punctuation might have been clearer: An earlier leaked draft required 'a majority of the people democratically expressed in each of the jurisdictions'. Why the change?

This rephrased Article 3 would also seem to be inconsistent with Article 1. The right of the Irish nation to choose its own form of government (Article 1) can scarcely be described as sovereign if it can be exercised only with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland, many of whom decline membership of the nation.

Why the final sentence of the new Article 3, restricting the jurisdiction of the Oireachtas to the 26 counties, should be included is also unclear. It is carried over from the present wording, where it was needed to clarify the dilemma caused by the specific territorial claim to the whole island in Article 2. If the whole island is not claimed, then this sentence is redundant. These ambiguities may simply be the result of rushed drafting and have little significance, but lack of trust and the history of Irish constitutional reform make it difficult to ignore them.


Philosophic Difference

Years ago the late Professor J C Beckett pointed out a fundamental difference of philosophic approach between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland which made agreement elusive - for the Catholic the de jure and de facto did not have to coincide, for the Protestant they did. Thus nationalists have had little difficulty living with the basic contradiction between the de jure claim to the territory of the whole island, and the de facto acceptance that unity can come only by consent, while unionists have seen this as an intolerable error that must be corrected, by bringing the de jureinto line with the de facto.

This difference of approach helps explain current divided views over the Agreement. But it is also impossible to approach the text of this agreement without awareness of what has gone before. From a unionist point of view the wording is much less offensive than the Frameworks, but the Frameworks remain as a statement of the two governmentsí 'best assessment' of where a settlement lies, and must inform any reading of the present document.

Take, for example, the enthusiastic espousal of the principle of 'parity of esteem'. Paragraph 19 of A New Framework for Agreement states that '...future arrangements relating to Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland's wider relationships, should respect the full and equal legitimacy and worth of the identity, sense of allegiance, aspiration and ethos of both the unionist and nationalist communities'. It goes on to say that institutions in Northern Ireland, and North/South institutions should 'afford both communities secure and satisfactory political, administrative and symbolic expression and protection'.

Nationalists have consistently made it plain that their political identity can be expressed fully only through an independent Irish state, and that their allegiance is to that independent Irish state. To respect fully the legitimacy of that nationalist identity and allegiance would therefore require Irish unity. That is the logical reading of Paragraph 19. Yet the same paragraph also requires equal and full respect to be given to the unionist identity and sense of allegiance. Obviously the literal implementation of Paragraph 19 is impossible; its intention is presumably to present the problem in a manner which makes compromise essential, but in its insistence on respect for the full and equal legitimacy of the two traditions it appears to point to not just joint authority, but to joint sovereignty.

It is that not illogical reading of the Frameworks which fuels unionist mistrust of all cross-border bodies which seem to have any purpose other than the promotion of cooperation and good neighbourliness. It may be protested that the cross-border bodies proposed in the Frameworks, and certainly those contained in the Stormont Agreement, are sufficiently modest, and their responsibilities sufficiently vague, that such a reaction is exaggerated. But if the whole point of them, to nationalists, is symbolic recognition of the rightness of the nationalist case, then that symbolism is an equally powerful negative for unionists.

In all of this the 'essential unity' of the island has been in many ways the loser. In the fundamental physical sense the basic unity remains, unaltered by political division, and is made increasingly real by modern freedom and ease of travel. But the concepts of Irishness which have developed post-partition have done much to diminish the considerable degree of unity which did exist among all people on the island pre-partition. The Irish identity which was expressed by the independent Irish state was itself highly divisive - anti-British, assertively Catholic, and enthusiastically if mainly theoretically Gaelic. These strands were built into the 1937 Constitution, and have been modified only slightly.

The joint approach of the two governments to the problem - the Anglo-Irish consensus - has, somewhat ironically, done yet more to diminish this essential unity. 'Irishness' has been almost totally politicised by the nationalist side, and, they insist, can be expressed essentially only through allegiance to the independent Irish state. English, Scottish and Welsh Ministers, responsible for Northern Ireland, have long expressed the problem in terms of 'the Irish' and 'us', or 'the Irish' and 'the British', ignoring completely that the people of Northern Ireland whom they represent, while British citizens, are not English, Scottish or Welsh, but Irish in the general non-political sense which is the only firm basis for any concept of 'essential unity' among the people of the island.

Now the new Agreement actually requires each member of the Assembly to 'register a designation of identity - nationalist, unionist, or other', which is tantamount, given definitions of the two traditions in other government statements, to asking members to declare themselve 'Irish', 'British', or other. So much for essential unity.


Proud to be Irish

Yet the essential unity of the island was widely recognised by unionists in the aftermath of partition. In 1925 the staunchly loyalist Northern Whig declared that at partition Northern Ireland had not surrendered its title as part of Ireland, nor renounced its share in Irish traditions of art, learning, song, sport and science. In 1922 the Presbyterian Moderator talked to the General Assembly of 'this higher unity' in Ireland which, he said, was quite compatible with political separation. In 1992 an Ulster Unionist Party paper to the Mayhew inter-party talks declared 'Many of us are proud to be Irish, and will always hold ourselves so to be'.

The retention through churches and many private organisations of a strong all-Ireland tradition, or dimension, by large numbers of the unionist community in various aspects of their lives presented no difficulties precisely because it was a non-political Irish dimension. It could be argued that current government policy, by marrying suggestions for practical cross-border cooperation to a highly political attempt to use north-south institutions to embody the political expression of an Irish identity focused on the independent Irish state, is destroying this foundation, not building upon it.

The fear must be that the obsession with an Irish dimension which is explicitly political as the central element in any settlement has weakened this aspect of 'essential unity', and made it more difficult, not less, for unionists to accept any formal institutionalising of an Irish dimension. As the Cadogan Group wrote in Northern Limits in 1992:

Unionists must recognise the significance of the geographical context of the island of Ireland especially for nationalists. With political unity off the agenda, the oneness of the island in a physical, and in many ways in a cultural and social sense, will become more important to nationalists, and more accessible to unionists. The aspiration to political unity could be replaced by an actual, practical unity in many areas of daily life, where it already exists, in sport, the churches, professional bodies.

The problem is that political unity is not off the agenda. The immediate realisation of it may well be, as even Sinn Fein admits, but the Anglo-Irish approach to the issue as embraced by the two governments now formally endorses Irish unity, not just as an aspiration that anyone is entitled to have, but as the core of a political tradition which is as legitimate and valid as the existence in its present form of the United Kingdom itself.

Such an illogical and potentially de-stabilising stance is strongly defended on grounds of the need for a balanced settlement, based on mutual respect. It is regarded as pedantic and unhelpful to point out that there is a significant difference between acknowledging the right of anyone in Northern Ireland to aspire to Irish unity by peaceful means and with consent, to quote the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and determining that future arrangements for governing Northern Ireland must respect 'the full and equal legitimacy' of not just the nationalist aspiration, but the nationalist identity with, and sense of allegiance to the independent Irish state.

These formulations are reduced and diluted in the new Agreement, but are still there. For instance it is accepted that the guarantees under the European Convention on Human Rights, and internationally recognised standards generally, are not sufficient for Northern Ireland. There must be 'supplementary rights' to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, and these additional rights must 'reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem', and be part of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. So the door is again opened to a 'settlement' based not on reconciliation and genuine mutual respect, but on the setting in concrete of division and divided loyalities.

Here even those most committed to the Agreement, and to the principle of compromise, worry about confusion between compromise and fudge. A compromise could be based on a nationalist departure from the tired rhetoric of 'the nation', its sovereign rights and the wrongness of partition on one side, and a unionist embracing of cross-border institutions which not only facilitate cooperation but symbolise and even promote the concept of the oneness of the island in many ways other than the political, on the other. Instead the drive is towards a fudge, based on the pretence that two mutually contradictory analyses of the problem can be given full and equal respect, and that stability can be found by, at the one time, encouraging the political aspirations of nationalists and assuring unionists that those aspirations can be accommodated only with their consent.

It is not necessary to believe in a conspiracy against the Union, or to see a sell-out in every effort to compromise, to be profoundly uneasy about a 'settlement' based on such dubious foundations.