Belfast Telegraph

We have to be Northern Ireland and just not tribes of Orange and Green - that means being Northern Irish

By John McCallister

"The people of Scotland have spoken. It is a clear result. They have kept our country of four nations together."

So spoke the Prime Minister on the morning after the Scottish referendum. In the days since, a wave of debate over constitutional reform has engulfed the United Kingdom.

This is no bad thing.  Usually talk of constitutional reform is greeted with stifled yawns amongst politicians, press and - if we are honest - the public. This debate, however, is different. Right across the United Kingdom, we understand that this is not some marginal political conversation that will not impact on our daily lives - we understand that this debate about the nature of devolution and our constitution will impact on how we, day by day, are governed.

There are some real challenges in this debate for how we in Northern Ireland do our politics.  Obviously this includes how Stormont works - or doesn't work. If the Assembly and Executive are to receive real tax and fiscal powers, Stormont needs to radically change how it does business.  Above all, this means creating space for the accountability and scrutiny given by an Opposition.

The alternative to this - staying with the dysfunctionality of the current set-up and refusing further powers - would make Stormont the 'sick relative' in the UK, as the other regions grab and use the new powers to drive economic growth and social inclusion.

There is also another important challenge given to Stormont by this debate.  Notice how the Prime Minister describes the United Kingdom - "our country of four nations". To take our place in this debate, in other words, we have to be Northern Ireland - not two tribes, Orange and Green.  That means being Northern Irish.

For nationalists, this means acknowledging that while we live on and shared the island of Ireland, there is a distinct northern identity.  For unionists, it means recognising that saying our identity is 'British' is not enough. We belong to a family nations that together is British.  But each part of the family also has its own identity - and for us that is Northern Irish.

In the days following the referendum result, historian David Starkey pointed to the "the multi-national logic of the Act of Union" and reminded us that "the British Crown, not the non-existent British nation, was the principal focus of emotional loyalty".  Being British, therefore, means being part of the "multi-national logic" of the Union.  It means that unionists should wholeheartely support a regional Northern Irish identity that - as in Scotland - can embrace both unionists and nationalists.

The Scottish referendum has shown that the idea of the Union is stronger than nationalist arguments for separation and fragmentation.  It's now up to those of us in Northern Ireland who are pro-Union to show that our vision of the Union is not about sectarian triumphalism or British nationalism - but is, rather, a pluralist, progressive vision in which Northern Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh know that we are stronger and better together.

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