Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

'We'll never move on until Sinn Fein pays its respects to the UK and Westminster'

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness shakes hands with the Queen at the Lyric Theatre in 2012
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness shakes hands with the Queen at the Lyric Theatre in 2012

The Queen will extend the mother of all Cead Mile Failte welcomes to Irish president Michael D Higgins during the forthcoming state visit. No doubt, the hospitality at Windsor Castle will more than match that which she received three years ago in the Republic.

With only two Easters to go before the centenary of 1916, the Anglo-Irish hatchet is well and truly buried, as further evidenced by the comments of David Cameron and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, when they said relations between London and Dublin had never been better.

Still, some things never change. And most of them relate to Northern Ireland.

The Union flag and the tricolour may fly proudly side-by-side for the state visit, but will they ever occupy a similar position atop Stormont, or Belfast City Hall?

One of the most incongruous aspects of the state visit is the fact that the second-largest party here cannot bring itself to recognise the UK parliament.

Sinn Fein still refuses to take its seats there and, by its constitution, does not accept that Westminster should have any jurisdiction over any part of this island.

Can any lasting relationship be achieved between nationalists and unionists so long as Sinn Fein adopts the same abstentionist attitude it did once towards the Dail and Stormont?

Sinn Fein is out on a limb compared to the other major nationalist parties in the UK — the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and the SDLP — all of whom take their seats at Westminster. Their nationalist aspirations are not denied; the Scottish have even won the right to a referendum.

Sinn Fein makes much of the need for dialogue. Refusing to take seats and snubbing parliament authority is hardly conducive to finding stability here, or to building trust with unionists.

The crisis over Crimea and the Ukraine, in particular, has thrown a spotlight on cultural identity and national allegiance, issues of which we are all too aware of.

European countries, including the UK and the Republic, subscribe to a code of conduct, covering the rights and responsibilities of minorities.

The Council of Europe’s Convention for Minorities was agreed around the time of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and is even mentioned in the latter.

European countries are expected to adhere to its code for protecting the rights of minorities. Much store is now being laid on these guidelines in respect of the dangerous divisions in the Ukraine.

Of particular interest to divisions closer to home should be the following clause from the convention: “Governments undertake to promote the conditions for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, tradition and cultural heritage”.

However, with rights for minorities come responsibilities. The European convention also states, at Article 20: “In the exercise of the rights and freedoms, any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority, or to other communities”.

And Article 21 goes further: “Nothing in the present convention shall be interpreted as implying any right to engage in any activity, or perform any act, contrary to the fundamental principles of international law and, in particular, of the sovereign equality, territorial integrity and |political independence of the state”.

No doubt, these words are being pored over in Washington, London and Brussels to justify Western policy in respect of the pro-Russian and pro-European factions in Ukraine.

However, with regard to Northern Ireland and the attitude of Sinn Fein, is the convention code being selectively applied?

What steps have the London, or Dublin, governments taken to ensure that all parties in Northern Ireland subscribe to the spirit and the letter of Articles 20 and 21 of the convention?

While it is indisputable that both governments have applied considerable pressure to “promote and develop” the rights of minority cultural identity, can Sinn Fein's rejection of the Westminster parliament really be said to constitute the reciprocal “respect” which a minority should show towards the state in which it exists?

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