1998 Agreement – we do these things because they are hard…

“We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard” were the famous words of President Kennedy in 1960 concerning sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth.

One correspondent noted the other day what I think is the crux of Northern Ireland’s political problem: it was assumed in 1998 that implementing the Agreement would be cost-free, simple and straightforward; actually, it is costly, difficult but worthwhile. This distinction is important, because too often people read into the text what they want to read, rather than what is there.

Just as one example, another correspondent, for whom I have a lot of respect generally, put to me the view that the Agreement recognises the “disputed status of Northern Ireland”. Actually it does not. The Agreement establishes the existence of Northern Ireland and confirms its place within the UK. There is no dispute about that (it does of course recognise that a desire to change this status and unify with the rest of Ireland is present on the part of some of its people and is legitimate – but that is not the same as disputing its current status). The Agreement also establishes that the people of Northern Ireland will in perpetuity have the choice of being British or Irish or both (by identity and citizenship), thus further legitimising the existence of Northern Ireland a distinct entity on the basis of its people having a choice of two national identities rather than one.

In other words, the Agreement establishes that Northern Ireland exists, and that it is British by sovereignty (though the desire for it to be Irish by sovereignty is recognised as a potential and legitimate alternative at some later stage), and British and Irish by nationality.

To be clear, in the Agreement, this is absolutely not “disputed”. Denial of Northern Ireland’s existence or of its constitutional status within the UK is not catered for by the Agreement; nor is denial of the people of Northern Ireland’s existence and their right to either British or Irish nationality.

This is important because the Agreement (effectively as subsequently amended in 2006 and appended in 2010 and at other times) is the foundation of our social and political relations. We must respect what is contained within it, difficult though that will be for many – and recognise that we implement it not because it is easy, but because it is hard…

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