It was encouraging to see Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill sharing press statements on Bombardier and sectarian intimidation, and sharing a platform at Conservative Party Conference. Having the Leader of Sinn Féin in the Assembly at that event serves as a useful reminder of how far we have come, and credit is due for attending.
There is also evidence of what Arlene Foster described as “solid progress” at the talks. It is inevitable that this is not accompanied by any particular evidence of a “breakthrough” on key issues because of course the old maxim that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” applies.
At the heart of the issue remains the fairly fuzzy notion of “respect”.
I have always been troubled by the requirement in the Agreement to demonstrate “mutual respect”. It is useful at one level that it must be “mutual”, but I have also always thought respect has to be earned and offered, not just demanded.
The crux of the problem, it appears to me, remains to be that it is just demanded.
At the conference, Michelle O’Neill was quoted as saying “the North [i.e. Northern Ireland] isn’t British”. There is an element to this which is an appeal to her base and is thus not politically unreasonable if the talks really are progressing, but it runs directly contrary to the subsequently stated notion of “protecting British identity in a United Ireland”.
This followed another, ahem, error, when Sinn Fein Councillors were found to object to the term “Londonderry Air” appearing on a sign welcoming people to Limavady. The “Londonderry Air” is the name of a tune, as a simple matter of fact. Again, this type of nonsense runs directly contrary to respecting the broadly British identity cherished by many in Northern Ireland.
Notably, under the Agreement, respect for the British identity of Northern Irish people is guaranteed even in the event of a United Ireland. It therefore forms part of any definition of “implementing past Agreements”.
Therefore, the fundamental issue remains – both Unionists and Nationalists profoundly believe Northern Ireland is “theirs”. To back this up, the former focus on the aspect of the Agreement dealing with sovereignty (which places Northern Ireland within the UK unless there comes a time where its people decide otherwise), and the latter focus on the aspect dealing with nationality (which enables a “person of Northern Ireland” to be British, Irish, or both – and thus solely Irish, if they choose). In fact both sides need to focus on both – regardless of sovereignty, people here may choose to live entirely British (and not Irish) lives or entirely Irish (and not British) lives; but they also have to respect their fellow citizens who opt for the other one (or indeed both).
So, while evidence of progress at the talks is good, one outcome must be a much broader understanding among a much broader section of the population about what the Agreement (albeit as amended with DUP consent in 2006) means. Northern Ireland is in fact a crossroads – as in the middle of Downpatrick where “Irish Street”, “Scotch Street” and “English Street” meet. It is all the more interesting because of that. But all aspects of our collective identity need to be emphasised, understood and respected…