Nationalist politicians are very quick to demand respect for their “aspiration” to a “United Ireland” (again, to be clear, outside the United Kingdom). There is scant evidence, however, that they recognise the need to offer respect to those who either are clear about having no such aspiration, or are genuinely disinterested.
Respect for Nationalists’ constitutional aspirations requires those who do not share them to accept that one day they may nevertheless come true (according to the Agreement, if the people of both jurisdictions vote to realise them). It should be noted that the absolute assumption in such a situation is that those who wish to remain tied to Great Britain, or who simply do not wish to be tied to the Republic of Ireland, would have to give up their constitutional aspirations completely.
However, respect for Unionists’ constitutional aspirations also requires those who do not share them to accept that those may remain fulfilled forever (according to the Agreement, if the people of both jurisdictions never vote to change Northern Ireland’s constitutional status). In the same way that Unionists have to be prepared for the possibility of a “United Ireland”, non-Unionists have to be prepared for the possibility that there will never be one.
Are they prepared for that possibility?
I think this requires some further definition. I have no difficulty respecting someone from a broadly Nationalist and/or Catholic background favouring, on the basis of upbringing in that background, an all-Ireland world view and thus by logical extension an instinctive preference for an all-Ireland constitutional settlement. Likewise, I have no difficulty with someone from a broadly Unionist and/or Protestant background favouring, on the basis of upbringing in that background, a Northern Ireland and UK world view and thus by logical extension an instinctive preference to remain within the UK.
I do have some difficulty, however, spending too much time working on the basis of constitutional aspirations which have no objective merit. Anyone whose constitutional views are based solely on their background is due respect for their national affiliation and religious background, but it is hard to spend a lot of time respecting aspirations which are, in fact, purely an accident of birth. Respect for national identity and choice of citizenship must be automatic, but in reality respect for constitutional aspirations has to be earned.
A lot of people on either side object to the view that holding a constitutional aspiration is of itself “sectarian”. However, if that view is held solely on the basis of the national affiliation and religious background that someone was born into and for no other reason, then by the strictest definition of the term it actually is. This becomes most obvious when we consider that if absolutely everyone chose their constitutional aspiration that way, the ultimate choice would become nothing other than a crude sectarian numbers game. If we doubt this, just watch how Nationalist politicians describe any non-Nationalist as “Unionist”, and how Unionists describe any non-Unionist as “Nationalist” – both disallowing absolutely the idea that anyone may actually want to determine their constitutional aspirations objectively and rationally on the basis of evidence!
National identity is an accident of birth, and we should respect it so we never return to an era of discrimination and maximise the potential of our society as a whole. Constitutional preference, however, should be something considered objectively; anyone unable to make an objective case for their stance to citizens of different backgrounds has no real right to demand respect – because, put crudely, that person is relying solely on a sectarian numbers game to deliver their desired outcome.
Unionist leaders, of course, disgracefully use the perceived “threat” of a “United Ireland” to drive voters to the polls. But it would pay us all to consider another question: what happens if there is never a “United Ireland”? The answer to that may be just as telling.