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…