Analysis: British government needs to make clear its commitment to the principle of consent
WHEN Peter Brooke said in 1990 that the British government had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland, it was a watershed moment.
His words gave impetus to the nascent peace process and helped pave the way for the Downing Street Declaration, the IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement some eight years later.
Up until that point, British governments of all hues had been seen by Irish nationalists as being partisan and having 'skin in the fight'.
While the then secretary of state's words unnerved unionists, they were also designed to remove the IRA's raison d'être, namely to force the British out of Ireland through violence. The statement effectively signalled to republicans that their dispute was no longer with an imperial power that had ruled through coercion for centuries but with the north's unionist population.
It in turn led to a paradigm shift for the Republican Movement, which went on to accept the principle of consent, adopting an unarmed strategy along the way.
Political progress in the years since has been slow and arduous but the number of lives lost as a result of violence has been small in comparison to the previous decades.
Any shift in the British government's stance which saw it move from its professed neutrality in the outcome of border poll would be hugely significant and may well destabilise the north after more than quarter of a century of relative peace.
Jacob Rees Mogg disputes what Peter Brooke said and believes the British government should "have an interest as keeping our whole country together as a United Kingdom". As leader of the House of Commons, the MP for North East Somerset is a member of Boris Johnson's cabinet and a politician of significant influence within the Conservative Party.
Such comments, while ill-advised and inflammatory, could ordinarily be dismissed as politicking, however, given the British government's recent record, alarm bells are already sounding.
This is an administration that in recent weeks has rowed back on its commitments to an international treaty, while its figurehead Boris Johnson is adept at bending both the truth and the rules to fit his ever-shifting narrative. You wouldn't put anything past him.
The Conservative and Unionist Party is entitled to campaign to secure the Union and the British government can be expected to undertake initiatives that will help promote the United Kingdom. Yet that does not mean selfishly disregarding the wishes of a majority of people in the north if they democratically choose to a constitutional alternative. For the avoidance of doubt, the British government needs to make a clear commitment to the principle of consent.