Daltún Ó Ceallaigh


based on the forthcoming book


 Towards Ireland United? - The Belfast Agreement and the Future


(published in Irish Democrat April/May 2002)


The booklet that was delivered to each member of the electorates in the six and twenty-six counties of Ireland in connection with the referendums of 22nd May 1998 was entitled Agreement Reached in the Multi-party Negotiations. In fact, there were two documents contained in this.

The first consisted of the final draft of an accord produced by George Mitchell on Good Friday 1998. This was either verbally endorsed at a plenary session that day or taken away by participants for consideration. There was no formal signing up to it. The second document was an Agreement actually signed by the Irish and British governments, which included, as Annex 1, the Mitchell text.

One of the initial parts of both documents contained the pseudo-principle of northern majority consent in regard to the issue of whether or not the six counties could legitimately remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland. The so-called ‘principle’ has always been a sham because of the reality that the six counties were the first and biggest gerrymander in 20th century Ireland. That is why republicans have always refused to accept consent as so defined in relation to the national question. In other words, the difference is not in respect of consent as such, but rather the democratic constituency for its determination.

Ireland was alright as a unit of government for unionists and the British so long as their ascendancy therein was assured. However, once democratic politics began their irresistible rise in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the wagons had to be circled and as big a laager as possible formed for anti-democratic and pro-imperialist elements, even if that meant subordinating a substantial nationalist minority within the laager, i.e. including them without their consent.

But what, it may be asked, was the practical implication of the republican position? Namely, to seek to create a state of affairs in which the British were either induced to begin a process of withdrawal or declared an intention of doing so, with consequent influence on unionists. The repudiation of the pseudo-principle of northern majority consent and the exertion of pressure on the British to, among other things, in turn pressure unionists did not mean that, simultaneously, efforts should not be made to convince the latter that an all-Ireland polity was the best compromise in a divided society. Thus the northern majority consent might nonetheless be secured in practice or at least unionist opposition diminished. The former is not now as ambitious as it sounds, especially if one recalls that one is talking not about a majority of unionists but, at most, of the electorate which would involve no more than a shift of about 7% in current terms in voting patterns and could draw upon different subjective and class reactions among the unionist population. Indeed, less than 7% may be required, given increasingly lower unionist voter turnout. And, in time, the 7% could be overtaken by nationalist demography alone.

The allegation of paradox here regarding pressure and persuasion has often been made by naïve or disingenuous commentators who do not grasp, or purport not to, the real world of politics wherein these factors are not contradictory but complementary. For example, some unionists may be so disenchanted by the withholding of support by the British that they might actually be persuaded to accept a reasonable all-Ireland alternative to the Union.

During the Ard-Fheis shortly after the agreement, Gerry Adams spelt out the Sinn Féin position: “When the vote was taken [on the agreement] I did not vote ... We cannot and we will not recognise as legitimate the six county statelet.” At a press conference on 7th May 1998, he made it clear “that the Good Friday document is not a political settlement” and that the associated “referendums do not constitute the exercise of self-determination.”  Around the same time, he was also reported as saying that “The leadership was calling for a Yes vote in the context of our absolute rejection of partition, of the unionist veto and of British rule … ”. Notwithstanding the unambiguous, definitive and documented position of Sinn Féin on this point, attempts are constantly made to attribute a surrender of republican principle concerning it to that party.

To begin with, this arises from a failure to distinguish between a stance of seeking the practical implementation of the agreement in its immediate institutional and legal aspects, on the one hand, and a continued rejection of the partitionist philosophy underlying the first substantive section about Constitutional Issues, on the other.

A recent attempt to undermine the republican position of principle involved no less than Adams himself. In the Irish media on 4th February 2002, he was widely quoted as saying: “I don’t think we can force on unionism an all-Ireland state that doesn’t have their assent or consent and doesn’t reflect their sense of being comfortable.”  Within days the SDLP intervened to give the impression that it was now more nationalist than Sinn Féin. Its new Leader, Mark Durkan, said that his “party upheld the agreement requirement for a simple majority in the North to determine the issue [i.e. a united Ireland]. It appeared Mr Adams was creating a new yardstick with his reference to a Unionist majority.”  He later returned to the essential point here. “There can be no higher threshold for a united Ireland than there is for a United Kingdom.” 

However, the Sinn Féin newspaper, An Phoblacht, painted a fuller and different picture of Adams’ stance. The report of the American visit, during which Adams’ remarks had been made (extempore), confirmed them, but also informed as follows: “Asked by one participant if unionists had a right to secede from a United Ireland, Gerry Adams said no. The Sinn Féin President pointed out that legislatively, constitutionally and under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government is obliged to legislate for a united Ireland if a majority of people in the North vote for that option.” It further quoted him as saying about his reference to consent: “ ‘This is not about a veto. Unionists have no right to secede from a United Ireland.’ ”

 One did not have to go far to reconcile all these comments when one also read Adams as explaining: “ ‘We need to look at ways in which the unionist people can find their place in a new Ireland. We need to look at decentralisation. We need to look at what they mean by their sense of ‘Britishness’.’ ” If one is to assume consistency rather than contradiction (especially in the same breath), what Adams was initially reported as saying, when combined with his other remarks and placed in context, seems to point to a sensible desire to institute a form of united Ireland which is agreeable to unionists (devolutionary etc) rather than to a concession which rowed back even on the Good Friday Agreement! Lest there be any doubt whatsoever, Adams returned to the issue the following week in An Phoblacht. Then, he stated about the “context of constructing a new Ireland in which British Government jurisdiction has ended” that it was republicans’ “responsibility to ensure that unionists are open to accepting this development.” But, again: “Some may believe that this provides unionism with a veto. It does not. The unionists no longer have a veto over Irish unity.”

Indeed, if one proceeded more meaningfully from the statement, what the Dublin Government could usefully do would be to invite submissions towards the drafting of a Green Paper on what the exact shape and specific nature of a united Ireland might be. By definition, this would go well beyond the broad brush strokes of the New Ireland Forum and the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Moreover, such a project might be surprisingly valuable in helping some unionists cross the bridge from a United Kingdom to an all-Ireland perspective. Instead of this, some commentators, in seeking to misrepresent the modern republican position, are just shoring up unionist intransigence.

          Finally, here, it is necessary to address the comparison of Good Friday ’98 with Sunningdale ’73. Was it actually a case of republicans eventually accepting what was on twenty-five years earlier? The simple and accurate answer is ‘no’. I have previously dealt with this question to an extent in certain important constitutional and political respects in my book Irish Republicanism, but there are other differences which might be highlighted here. They include the Equality Commission, Human Rights Commission, Joint Committee of HRCs, Commission on Policing, Review of the Criminal Justice System, Civic Forum, and an all-Ireland Consultative Forum.  Moreover, the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated in northern Irish law, the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of the Council of Europe has been ratified, a Bill of Rights is being completed, and an all-Ireland Charter of Human Rights is to be considered by the HRC Joint Committee. It has also been observed by two academic lawyers from Queen’s University that “the agreement also includes what we suggest is a group right that takes the ‘minority rights’ and protection beyond negative or positive non-discrimination rights.”  A particularly important contrast between the ’73 and ’98 accords is that, in respect of the Assembly and the all-Ireland Council, each is a condition of the other;  thus the possibility of the second being shelved in favour of the first, as happened in 1974, no longer exists.

          As one political scientist has put it, the remark about Good Friday being ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ is “as misleading as it is diverting, since the Agreement is a much more subtle and inclusive bargain than was reached at Sunningdale … ”  Also a European Studies expert has said: “ … there are … significant differences between them [Sunningdale and Belfast], both in terms of content and the circumstances surrounding their negotiation, implementation, and operation.” The depiction of the Belfast Agreement as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’ is in fact the arrogant, stupid and embittered mantra of an outmanoeuvred nationalist bourgeoisie. More pertinently, it has been observed: “In one sense, it could be argued that mainstream unionism could only lose in the talks and the question was really how much would be lost.”  

          Peter Mandelson at least understands what is developing. “The struggle in Ireland is far from over”, he has said, “the cause of Irish Republicanism has not been abandoned, merely directed onto a new path to achieve its objectives.” Of Sinn Féin, in particular, he has observed: “It has been putting in place the conditions for long-term political success.” 



Back to homepage