We still haven’t “got” the Agreement

The Agreement was, well, agreed 15 years ago today.

In the intervening time, notwithstanding some big setbacks, Northern Ireland has changed unimaginably – much more cosmopolitan, much more successful in many areas, much more pleasant to live in generally.

However, it is increasingly evident that we still haven’t “got” the Agreement – even the very basics of it around the constitutional position.

Firstly, the Agreement establishes that Northern Ireland’s sovereignty is as part of the United Kingdom, unless its people by consent opt to become part of an all-Ireland state. This does not guarantee perpetual membership of the United Kingdom; on the other hand, it certainly does not guarantee a “United Ireland” either.

Secondly, the Agreement establishes that the people of Northern Ireland have two nationalities – they may be “British” or “Irish” (or both). This is also very poorly understood, because it means this: someone may live in Northern Ireland and within the “British” state, and yet opt not to be “British”. In other words, “not being British” does not imply disloyalty to the state in Northern Ireland. Note also that this dual nationality applies regardless of sovereignty – in the event of an all-Ireland State, people in the north-east could still be “not Irish” without implying any disloyalty either (I have absolutely no sense that anyone advocating a “United Ireland” remotely comprehends this point).

In this sense, Northern Ireland is fundamentally different from any other jurisdiction in the British Isles. By sovereignty, yes, it forms part of the United Kingdom just like England, Scotland and Wales do – and it may always do (this is, perhaps, the bit Nationalists don’t care to admit). On the other hand, by nationality, absolutely unlike England, Scotland or Wales, its residents cannot be assumed to be “British” – they may in fact be “Irish” and “not British” (this is the bit Unionists don’t care to admit).

This is fundamental. In a recent debate, the DUP’s Arlene Foster said Belfast was a “British city” – but, in terms of the nationality of its residents (surely the most obvious measurement), it is also fundamentally an “Irish city”. One Ulster Unionist told me that he “just” wanted Northern Ireland to be “as British as Finchley” – but it’s not, as a matter of fact endorsed (rightly) by his own party in 1998 (he may of course be as British as anyone in Finchley, but Northern Ireland, measured by the most obvious route, i.e. those who live there, is not).

On the other hand, there remains a failure to reflect that many of Northern Ireland’s people are British, and quite determinedly and/or contentedly so. The underlying notion that somehow there is any constitutional settlement available, now or in the future, which does not reflect this is too often ignored in what passed for Nationalist or Republican discourse. A Sinn Fein representative on a panel recently said it was not his party’s objective to remove British identity – yet it was a clear objective of the IRA campaign his party endorsed, which included openly targeting people purely on the basis they self-identified as “British”. To be taken seriously as a pro-Agreement party reflective of the dual nationality of this jurisdiction (something which fundamentally separates it from the “26 counties”, by the way), Sinn Fein will have to apologise for that campaign – and stop seeking to take “pride” in or name play parks after those who took part in it.

These are just the fundamentals. They then impact on “Phase 1” (which is a sovereignty matter and thus has nothing to do with Dublin – never mind Nationalists, the NIO itself would do well to take note of that); and on “Phase 2” (which has a lot to do with Dublin, and we have nothing to fear from neighbourly co-operation not least with a State whose people share the same nationality of many of our people). They have to be recognised, understood and acted upon before “mutual respect” and “parity of esteem” can come to mean anything at all.

To come to terms even with these fundamentals requires change. I would love to be convinced that change has happened, but in too many cases it hasn’t. I would love to be convinced it is about to happen…


5 thoughts on “We still haven’t “got” the Agreement

  1. Not forgetting those of us young uns slightly less caught up in labels who have (wait for it……) dual nationality!

  2. fermaniard says:

    This is an excellent post.

    The people of Northern Ireland today may be more socially tolerant than they were 15 years ago but quiet intolerance, particularly when it comes to electing political representatives, still remains.

    There is still a widespread belief in both communities that ‘victory’ on the identity front can still be achieved. For Nationalists this means achieving a United Ireland and expecting the British identity in Northern Ireland to “Whither on the Vine” just as it did after 1922 in the 26 counties. For Unionists, this means hoping that the same thing will happen in reverse in Northern Ireland now that the troubles are over and there are no more civil rights grievances. Peter Robinson latching on to the NI Life and Times survey would try and have you believe that process has started to happen.


  3. Dean F says:

    Change will happen once the dead wood has been cleared out and the new generation that didn’t live through the bitter troubles run the country. Well at least I hope it will – so long as there is a mass decress in segregation in the intermediate years (i.e. more integrated schools, which the majority desire).

    Although I have lived here since birth, I didn’t really see the wider issues and so forth (generally because of my protestant segregation and the circle jerking propaganda my peers would feed me). So when I read Christopher Hitchens on the issue it really brought home what it means to be segregated.

    “For many years, the Protestant establishments wanted Catholics to be both segregated and suppressed. Indeed, in the days when Ulster state was founded, its slogan was: ‘A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’. Sectarianism is convieniently self-generating and can always be counted upon to revoke reciprocal sectarianism. On the main point, the Catholic leadership was in agreement. It desired clerical-dominated schools and segregated neighbourhoods, the better to exert its control. So, in the name of god, old hatreds were drilled into new generations of schoolchildren, and are still being drilled.” (God is not Great, How Religion Poisons Everyhing, Chapter: Religion Kills, p.18)

    So yes you can call yourself what you want in terms of nationality but the main issue I feel is what we label our children. They are simply not at the rational age to dismiss it and will believe what their parents tell them.

    Until we get this virus out of our law making process we will be a backward country split between two tribes. Protestant vs Catholic and Unionist vs Nationalist. That it appears to me is why each side generally deplores the British and Irish nationalities respectively – they percieve it as more a statement of that. Two primatively competiting tribes fighting for recognition and power, how could there ever be change that isn’t aligned with their own agendas.

  4. RJC says:

    I think the idea of ‘quiet intolerance’ when it comes to voting is not such an issue as it may seem. Like the Democrat/Republican divide in the US or the Conservative/Labour divide in Britain people voting along different lines does not necessarily translate into intolerance of those who do not share their voting preferences. On my more optimistic days I like to think that post-GFA NI is no different. Everybody from all sides just needs to stop hanging bloody flags everywhere.

  5. Ditto compliment re excellent post.

    As Eamon Phoenix pointed out in his comprehensive way, there have been divided loyalties in this part of the island for CENTURIES. And it is likely to remain that way. Accepting this fact in a civilised way, which the Good Friday Agreement provides the code for, will put us in good stead.

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