1 September 1997
Consent is last refuge - a tool to keep union
By Gerry Adams MP
President of Sinn Fein
The conflict in Ireland undeniably has its roots in the policy of successive British governments to maintain the "union" of Great Britain and Ireland. Formerly with all of Ireland and since partition with the six counties. That policy found political and constitutional expression in the Act of Union 1800 and the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Subsequent constitutional legislation had the aim and effect of bolstering the union. The resulting "settlements" were unilaterally imposed by British parliaments and enforced by the triumvirate of legislature, courts and armed forces.
Therefore, British policy in relation to the "union" lies at the heart of the conflict. All other politics rotate around that central issue. And until such time as that policy changes the political arguments and debate which revolve around it are in essence academic exercises.
Regrettably, in the real world the tragic consequences of the playing out of these politics are anything but academic. They have blighted the lives of the people of Ireland for generations. They have blighted the reputation of successive British governments although, equally regrettably, they appear oblivious to that. And they have prevented the normalisation of relationships between the peoples of these islands.
The British government has declared that it has no "economic or strategic interest" in Ireland. That is good to hear. Unfortunately it has no effect on the root issue involved. We have not heard a British government say that it has no "political" interest in Ireland. Frankly, it would be wrong for them, indeed impossible, to hold such a position. They have a responsibility, a major one, and must therefore have an interest. But more precisely we have not heard a British government say, or act in such a way as to make anyone believe, that they have no political interest in maintaining the union; or that they have any active interest in addressing the issue which, as all evidence shows, has blighted us for generations.
The current set of politics very much in vogue is the issue of "consent". This tempts me to paraphrase Dr Johnson - "Consent is the last refuge of a scoundrel!". By that I mean that for the British government "consent" is the last refuge; a camouflage behind which it is attempting to conceal the reality that British policy is for maintaining the "union". It implies that their policy could be otherwise. It suggests that ending the union is a matter for people in Ireland. When in fact the triumvirate of legislature, courts and armed forces act in every conceivable way to maintain the union.
If I am wrong let them say so. Let them tell the Irish people that they have no interest in maintaining the union. That their preference is for the people of Ireland to reach a national consensus on the society which suits our needs best. That it is for the people of Ireland alone to reach agreement on this and to determine the agreements involved without British interference.
Let them through words and deeds demonstrate that they have no interest in maintaining the union. Let them set the scene in which the politics of consent becomes a tangible political concept with which to come to grips through discussion and dialogue and not another bank of hot air which seeks to deny rather than provide substance.
Otherwise consent, as designed by Westminster, will remain the bogus deceit it was intended to be. A tool of British policy for maintaining the union. For British policy on the 'union' and 'consent' are inextricably linked. One serves the other.
So abused has the issue of consent become that it is in fact, and in its effect, the unionist veto on progress of any kind; the unionist veto dressed up in democratic garb, as was acknowledged by the New Ireland Forum Report in 1984 which stated "this has been extended from consent to change in the constitutional status of the North within the United Kingdom into an effective unionist veto on any political change affecting the exercise of nationalist rights...
This fails to take account of the origin of the problem, namely the imposed division of Ireland which created an artificial political majority in the North". Therein lies the nub.
The British government imposed partition. Partition adversely effects every man woman and child in Ireland. Partition has locked nationalists in the six counties into a statelet to which they owe no allegiance. Disempowerment and a sense of abandonment resulted. Partition ties unionists to an insular and exclusive view of themselves which has been negative in historical and contemporary terms and provides little hope for future prospects. The consequence of this is that unionists have resisted every effort, however minimalist, to establish equality. Unionism rejects any suggestion of change to the status quo. And if British government blessing for this is not always forthcoming, indulgence usually is.
As long as it is sustained partition will continue to have a detrimental effect on future generations.
The veto bestowed on the unionists and guaranteed by British government policy has inhibited political movement in Ireland for almost 80 years. It is clearly a failed policy and has perpetuated the cycle of conflict, of repression and resistance.
How we establish a democratic agreement has to be viewed in this context.
The consent of nationalists in Ireland to the partition of Ireland was never sought. It has never been freely given. Consent as applied by the British government and the unionists is a coercive measure. It is a veto which forces nationalists in the north to live in a partitionist, undemocratic statelet. It is a veto which forces nationalists in all of Ireland to live in a partitioned country. As a result national and democratic rights are denied and the demand that nationalists acquiesce to unionist domination and the status quo are upheld. This perversion of consent means that it applies only to unionists and becomes a political instrument for bludgeoning nationalists into accepting a unionist outcome to negotiations. No duty or responsibility is placed on unionists to seek the consent of nationalists to anything, other than to the continued division of the people of Ireland.
This abuse of the concept of consent - the veto - demands that the majority of the people of Ireland underwrite the denial of their own national and democratic rights; that they comply with the undemocratic carve-up of Ireland on the basis of an arbitrarily determined sectarian head-count. In addition it utterly inhibits the dialogue necessary for political progress, and removes the incentive which would otherwise exist to seek a political solution.
This situation is the antithesis of the positive potential of dialogue as a tool of persuasion in seeking consent as a means to the achievement of the agreements required of a lasting democratic political settlement.
Consent is an important matter in the search for agreements which are for the Irish people alone to democratically determine. Consent must be universally applied to the people of Ireland. Universal application precludes any sectional approach. That is to a section only of the people of Ireland, north or south, unionist or nationalist. It must not be abused in an attempt to ward off agreement whether in the form of a veto, as a camouflage of a British government policy objective to maintain the union, or as a coercive measure against nationalists to further deny national and democratic rights. Consent cannot be reduced to a matter of arithmetic.
The British government, which created and sustains the unionist veto, must recognise and accept the need for a radical policy change. What is required is a new and imaginative approach which sees consent as something which must be negotiated for and agreed.
The seeking of real, democratically expressed consent throughout the island needs to be viewed as a positive and pro-active enterprise and not used as a device to prevent agreement.
According to the Collins dictionary consent means "harmony in opinion, agreement". Sinn Fein seeks agreement. In April 1993 John Hume and I agreed that: "everyone has a solemn duty to change the political climate away from conflict and towards a process of national reconciliation, which sees the peaceful accommodation of the differences between the people of Britain and Ireland and the Irish people themselves." We accepted that the "task of reaching agreement on a peaceful and democratic accord for all in this island", was our primary challenge. And we recognised that any agreement, "is only achievable and viable if it can earn and enjoy the allegiance of the different traditions on this island, by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation".
Republicans therefore are for consent; we are for agreement; we are for national reconciliation; we are for equality and democracy and justice. However, one of the lessons of conflict resolution is that reconciliation and agreement is only possible among equals, in a situation where all views are accorded validity and respect. This equality does not yet exist.
Clearly, there is a huge gap of distrust between nationalists and unionists. It must be bridged and foundations constructed on both sides of the chasm, with each moving toward the other in a spirit of goodwill and growing trust.
Consent must be a matter for persuasion and of political will. It cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula or to who has more votes within this manufactured statelet. If nationalists in the next election, or the one after that, were to secure one vote more than unionists would that resolve the conflict? Would unionists acquiesce to nationalist demands for a unitary state? I think not!
Consent must equal agreement. If it is to be a genuinely positive and enabling factor in securing an agreement, which is for the people of Ireland alone to determine, then it has to mean seeking consent in an all-Ireland context. In this context the requirement of democratic consent becomes a positive influence.
The role of the two governments, but particularly the British government, must be to facilitate the achieving of that agreement. The reality is that there is no simple way, no single key or magic formula which can bring peace. That is the challenge facing all of us. It is our collective responsibility to make a success of the peace process in which we are engaged. Everyone's task is to remove the causes of conflict and to build a genuine Irish democracy based on agreement.
There is no going back to the abuses and bitterness of the past. There will be no return to Stormont rule. Sinn Fein is prepared to do business with the British government and the unionists in the talks which will commence on September 15th.
Sinn Fein has always stressed the need for unionist involvement in the peace process. Peace is not possible without them. Efforts to marginalise or ignore or to exclude the political opinions of others do not work. It is also undemocratic. So, every effort must be made to involve the unionists. How do we do that? We must constantly seek to engage with unionists and encourage them to recognise that the pursuit of a true peace requires participation and partnership. Dialogue is the means by which the old taboos, antagonisms and fears can be banished and replaced by new ideas, new language and new accommodations agreed.
And of course dialogue is a two-way process. We actively listen but we also seek to inform. So unionists need to see that Irish nationalists and republicans are forced to live in a British statelet which treats us as second class.
I would appeal to unionists to engage positively and practically in the search for a lasting peace, by removing obstacles to inclusive dialogue and joining with the rest of us in consolidating the peace process, in planning the process of negotiation, in managing the change which is inevitably coming, and in securing an agreement which threatens no ones civil, religious or cultural rights and meets our diverse needs.
We are prepared to meet, to negotiate and to reach agreement, to come to a democratic accommodation with unionism.
The measure today of a healthy society is its ability to accommodate diversity and to guarantee the rights and liberties of all, especially of minorities. Unionist agreement and positive involvement in formulating the direction of that kind of society is essential.
Sinn Fein has consistently argued that everyone, and particularly the British government, has a responsibility to persuade the unionists that their best interests lie in the creation of an agreed and stable Ireland. The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has set out the Irish governments view that a United Ireland is its preferred longer term option. The Irish government should therefore have a strategy for effecting a change in British government policy of maintaining the union and of winning unionist consent for a United Ireland.
A lasting peace in Ireland needs to gain unionist consent and allegiance to new political structures in the same way that nationalist consent, agreement and allegiance to new structures is required if we are to have a lasting peace. This clearly requires an end to all vetoes, to all preconditions and any attempts to impose a predetermined outcome to the exercise of national self-determination.
Achieving this will not be easy. The road ahead is strewn with difficulties and dangers for all of us. I am convinced that with political will we can succeed. If peace is the objective of all, then the political will of all is required to achieve it.
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