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EU Affairs - Northern Ireland

We need the re-instatement of democracy – however imperfect – in the North right now

When you come to think of it, there is something deliciously ironic about vigorous support now being loudly offered by Sinn Féin to the cause of Catalan secession.

That a prosperous north-eastern province of a country, wealthier than and  claiming to be culturally and historically distinct from the rest of the country, should assert the right to secede is a matter on which it is very possible to hold two views, as the Irish know.

When Carson and Craig asserted the “right” of what they termed “Ulster” to opt out of regional autonomy in the form of Home Rule for Ireland in 1912 and backed it by a threat of armed force in the shape of the UVF, their claim was angrily denounced and resisted by nationalists, north and south.

When the demand for Home Rule was itself superseded by a claim for outright independence in 1916 to 1921, any concession to the unionist demand to opt out was equally denounced as anathema by nationalist Ireland - and especially by those who later opposed in arms the Treaty of 1921.

I am not saying that Catalan independence is wrong in principle. I happen to agree wholly that Irish partition was a tragedy for Ireland – and that Irish unity by consent will be the makings of this country. Whether partition was in some sense inevitable at the time is a more difficult question. And whether the end of Irish partition is now inevitable is also a very real question in the light of demographic changes in the north and of the growing economic strength and prosperity of the south compared with the northern economy, and of the long-term implications of Brexit for both parts of this island.

Another issue is the status of any dissentient minority within a seceding state. Nationalists did not agree to being incorporated into a unionist Northern Ireland. “Ulster” was cut from nine to six counties to ensure perpetual unionist hegemony. But Catholics and Protestants are now demographically near equals at 45% each - even in the ethnically-tailored six counties.

If it was unjust to create an isolated, vulnerable and oppressed Catholic minority behind the Irish border, as happened, would it now be just to drag the Spanish “loyalists” in Catalonia out of the state to which they now belong just because they lose some future, fairly executed re-run of the recent referendum?

And is the only significant difference between the Scottish independence referendum and a Catalan referendum that Westminster was tolerant of one while Madrid was prepared to use force to prevent the other? Was the violent, brutal behaviour of Madrid’s Guardia Civil a pale imitation of the British over-reaction to 1916 – a violent injustice which could yet somehow transform a minority viewpoint into the will of a majority?

Just as Madrid defends holding on to Ceuta and Melilla, its tiny enclaves in Morocco, on the basis of the wishes of their inhabitants, while demanding the return of Gibraltar (even when 98% 0f Gibraltarians want to remain within British sovereignty), we should not expect total consistency in the world of realpolitik.

Britain re-captured the Falklands to vindicate the wishes of the islanders because it could do so; it abandoned the notion of self-determination as regards sovereignty in Hong Kong because it had no other choice in reality.

In the circumstances, it might make more sense for Sinn Féin to concentrate on the urgent need to restore power-sharing executive rule in Northern Ireland than to bother its head about the fraught and seemingly intractable issues of Basque and Catalan separatism. One issue is capable of being resolved by Sinn Féin; the other is one on which they can only make noises from the side-lines.

But in Belfast there is a real and pressing issue which demand’s Sinn Féin’s attention immediately. That issue is the resolution of identity issues on this island including language rights and the re-establishment of the democratic institutions of the Good Friday Agreement which require compromise to make them work.

It was a cornerstone of both Sunningdale and the Good Friday Agreement that it was the right of a majority of the people of the North to opt between remaining in the UK or becoming part of a united Ireland. Likewise it is the enshrined right of the people of Northern Ireland that there should be a poll if there is reason to believe that a majority wishes to opt for Irish unity.

But there is no reason to believe that a current majority in the North wants to vote for Irish unity at present; all the evidence is that a unity poll held now would result in a rejection by a 2 to 1 majority. The undeniable fact that a similar majority voted in the North to reject Brexit is in no sense an indicator that a majority – any majority – now wishes to vote for Irish unity in the short term.

Sinn Féin’s demands for an immediate border poll are all to do with their strategy of polarisation and crisis-state politics in preference to stability and normality.

But it is in a Northern Ireland that is de-polarised, politically normalised, and institutionally stable that reconciliation and cross-community cooperation is likely to flourish. Just as Michael Collins could see in 1921 that the independence of an Irish republic had to be achieved by stages, it is clear to all real Irish republicans that the conditions for Irish unity must now be created by stages – not by some crude conflict between Orange and Green.

As we will increasingly see in public discourse during the next few years, the 1922 Free State constitution drafted by Collins and my great-uncle James Mc Neill, among others, with the exception of a few relatively insignificant and largely symbolic features, was a radically, secularist republican document in substance and intent. The ideals of non-denominational republican democracy based on the cornerstone of the sovereignty of the people were set out in great detail, including the rights to referenda, popular initiatives, an elected senate, and universal suffrage.

In it. the new state was described as Saorstát Eireann, the same term in the Irish language used in 1919 by the first Dáil to describe the Republic founded in the 1916 proclamation, but there described as Poblacht ns h-Éireann. It had its flag, the tricolour, its own army, its own international status and its own foreign policy.

Those who use the term Free State derisively might reflect that they too willingly signed up to the Good Friday Agreement as a stepping stone to true republican liberty and unity. They are in no position to accuse others – past or present -of ignobly betraying republican ideals.

The unfinished republican work of reconciling the Green and Orange panels of the tricolour in fact as well as theory is now the great political challenge and vocation for all Irish republicans. It requires patience and commitment and will require generosity of spirit - even where such is un-reciprocated.

Brexit is a challenge to that project – but a challenge which we must take up and address by statesmanship and states-craft.

Polarisation and the use of language rights as a battering ram in northern siege politics is not the way forward. The Irish language deserves better than to be used in such a way. We need the re-instatement of democracy – however imperfect – in the North right now. Belfast is not Barcelona – and Belfast needs to play a part in the Brexit debate.

The game-playing must end, Gerry Adams, that if you want to avoid direct rule by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and all those in their mould who care nothing for the north except as a territorial possession.


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