Belfast Telegraph

A process stuck in neutral is not threatened by Tory talks

The debate over David Cameron's meeting with the DUP reveals the double-standards of his critics on Northern Ireland issues, argues John-Paul McCarthy

Last week was revealing so far as Northern Ireland was concerned — and not just because it showed once again the limitations of the travelling prime ministerial road show.

There is an ugly debate going on within British politics now about the so-called Tory ‘threat' to the so-called bipartisan policy on Northern Ireland since 1994. A few columnists got an attack of the vapours as they bemoaned David Cameron's meeting with the DUP at Hatfield House.

A meeting of formally pro-union parties in Britain to co-ordinate strategy was made into one more crisis in the peace process at the same time as we were all invited to head for the hills should the Tories win the next election. This is a very revealing formulation. It shows, firstly, that some commentators think it somehow illegitimate for any major British party to openly support the union between the UK and Northern Ireland or to express affinity with parties who share the same goal.

They talk of the UK Government's obligation to be neutral between the warring factions in Northern Ireland, yet express no reservation about the policies of Irish governments which have been explicitly predicated on the notion of a pan-nationalist front since 1994.

This kind of neutrality is not just suspect because of the double standard it applies, but also because it is an attempt to pretend that the explicit consent provisions of the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) somehow don't have any practical reach.

Every Taoiseach since Jack Lynch, with the exception of Charles Haughey, has accepted UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland and has proceeded to work from that point outwards. Those who roll their eyes at Cameron's extension of the comradely paw to other formally unionist parties must explain why this is illegitimate, given the fact that the constitutional treaty signed between the Irish and British governments in 1998 conceded the legitimacy of the continued union between Northern Ireland and the UK. Cameron's Hatfield House gathering reminds us that many people seem to have forgotten this and analyse the political situation as if the consent provisions in the GFA were merely staging posts on a longer journey towards a united Ireland.

John Bruton put this point in his landmark lecture in Princeton in 2001. He noted the British Government undertook, in the Downing Street Declaration, to introduce legislation to facilitate a united Ireland if that became the wish of both north and south. There was, however, no provision for a possible reversal of that decision, once it was taken. In skewering the lazy parallels often made with Palestine, South Africa or the Basque region, Bruton also made the crucial point that the lack of any “final status negotiation” is a problem with the GFA as well. It is provisional rather than permanent and that deprives it of the full commitment that some should give it. This sense of being on a slippery slope sliding in one direction only is part of the continuing insecurity of unionists to this day. The suggestion that Cameron's openly unionist analysis is somehow at war with the need for British neutrality only makes sense in the context of Bruton's observation that British leftists and Irish nationalists see the GFA as undermining unionism itself.

This contempt for the democratic legitimacy of unionism gradually tore Trimble to pieces, and this is why the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister find themselves coddling an unlovely coalition of former PIRA commandos and the political wing of the Free Presbyterian Church.

One other point should be made about the next Tory government: there is an important tradition within British Conservatism which has played an honourable role in Irish affairs. There is no reason why a future Prime Minister Cameron cannot draw on these roots and bring a new coherence to Ulster unionism by encouraging the current debate about a future UUP-DUP merger.

He might achieve the greatest prize of all; giving us a united Northern Ireland for the first time.

John-Paul McCarthy is a history tutor at Exeter College, Oxford

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