Daltún Ó Ceallaigh responds to Frank Millar’s article in ‘The Irish Times’ of 25 October2002 on ‘NI Accord: back to the drawing board?’ [refused by that newspaper]


Frank Millar’s article is both confused and misleading as regards the content and implications of the Good Friday Agreement in the matter of consent and how that criterion affects the governance and future of the North. There are three levels to be considered: the constitutional position; devolved power-sharing; and cross-community decision-making.

          It is quite apparent from the Agreement and implementing legislation, as well as accompanying parliamentary speeches, that in practice the constitutional position will, as previously, be determined by a simple majority vote. In stating that the need for consent implies “a right to withhold it”, Mr Millar clearly has in mind, in the first instance, unionists’ endorsement of power-sharing and/or cross-community decision-making and, in the second, their acceptance of the outcome of a plebiscite on partition. However, his observation could logically apply at all three levels, including nationalist toleration of the present United Kingdom. 

          But the whole point of the Agreement was the interlocking nature of various commitments. Unionists got simple majority rule in respect of maintenance of the Union, provided it was administered on a cross-community basis. If they withdraw their consent to the cross-community approach, the consequence is that they undermine the constitutional concession from nationalists that they have always sought. The two areas cannot be compartmentalised.

          As for the future and any constitutional change, Mr Millar writes that “republicans and nationalists still adhere to the principle of consent by a simple majority - and not the principle of dual consent from which the agreement derives its operational imperative.” This is wholly misleading. It needs to be stressed that this stance is not in contradiction of the Agreement, but flows specifically from it in Section 1(iii) under ‘Constitutional Issues’ and elsewhere.

        Despite the fact that the “principle of dual consent” in the Agreement has only got to do with power-sharing and certain decision-making, Mr Millar avers that “if the consent of a majority of both communities is required to run a mere Stormont administration, it is plainly nonsense to suggest the emergence of a simple nationalist majority would be sufficient to effect a change of sovereignty and statehood.” That may be his opinion, but, as we have seen, it is not what the Agreement lays down. If there is an implication in the Agreement in this regard, it is that, should a change of sovereignty occur by simple majority vote, the same power-sharing and cross-community provisions in the North ought to continue to operate in a United Ireland, as Mark Durkan has also recently noted. In other words, just as they are now necessary to reconcile nationalists to a United Kingdom, they would, in reverse circumstances, be expected to assuage unionists in relation to a United Ireland. Interestingly enough The Sunday Business Post reported last weekend that Some republicans fear British officials may be softening up their Irish counterparts for a rowing back of Blair’s commitment to pull out of Ireland if a majority in the North want to reunite the country. Already, in anticipation of the census figures, senior unionists are talking in terms of ‘dual consent’ for any change of sovereignty, the sources noted.”

          The real problem concerning constitutional change, therefore, is not “dual consent”, but double standards. Nationalists have to acquiesce in a simple majority as long as it ensures a United Kingdom, but once it presages a United Ireland it is deemed insufferable for unionists.

          Mr Millar also remarks that “there remains the issue which has contributed to the erosion of unionist support for the agreement: Sinn Féin's repeated assertion that it marks but a transition on the road to Irish unity.” Naturally, there should be no anxiety about nationalist confidence being eroded by the UUP’s constant assertion that the Agreement ensures the Union in perpetuo. Double standards again resolve the difficulty.

          Alternatively, there is an attitude which would suggest that people should articulate freely what they think the Agreement can and should mean, rather than suppress such aspirations and interpretations in deference to the allegedly immature sensitivities of their opponents.

          Then history could be allowed to decide.


Daltún Ó Ceallaigh is author of the book ‘Irish Republicanism: Good Friday & After’.


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