Northern Ireland

PLATFORM: Ray Bassett

Ray Bassett
Ray Bassett

FOR many years, the old dominant political parties in the Republic, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, demanded that the republican movement accept the principle of consent, whereby constitutional change to the status of Northern Ireland could only come about with the agreement of a majority of the electorate.

The principle of consent was duly enshrined as a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). There was no major dissenting voice at the end and unionists rightly regarded this as a major win for their side.

Since the present orange/green split in Ireland in the mid-19th century, for the first time all sides had agreed on a democratic and peaceful way forward.

Now 20 or so years later, elements of the Dublin establishment have woken up to the fact that the political balance in the north has shifted with the decline of the old unionist parties.

People in power in the south have sniffed the air and realise that a new united Ireland with seven million (five million in the south and two million in the north) could be an existential threat to their position of dominance.

All indications are that both these old parties would receive minimal support north of the border and could find themselves marginalised in the new re-united Ireland.

Without a blush of shame, both these parties have jettisoned one of the main provisions of the GFA in the glorious pursuit of self-interest.

The GFA states unambiguously that the British and Irish authorities “recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland''.

As somebody involved in the GFA negotiations, I can assure all that the use of “a majority” was deliberate to remove any question of doubt.

Some in the Republic have decided to try to change the terms of the GFA while at the same time publicly proclaiming their absolute determination to uphold that agreement.

Countless declarations of loyalty to the GFA were deployed throughout the Brexit process to try to thwart the democratic outcome in the United Kingdom.

Now some of the leading southern Irish politicians want the unionist community to sign up to a united Ireland before a referendum can be held.

Let’s be crystal clear about that. Unionism is all about avoiding a united Ireland and will never be happy to endorse it, regardless of the terms.

To ask for unionist support for unity is essentially to place an impossible obstacle in the way.

It would be far better for those seeking to avoid a referendum to be honest and openly declare that they favour partition.

The call for unionist consent is also an attack on another core principle of the GFA, namely the concept of parity of esteem.

It is saying that a nationalist vote is not equal to a unionist one and harps back to the old gerrymander days of the Brookeborough period.

I have listened to Fine Gael politicians speak at length on the referendum and totally ignore one community in the north. They spoke exclusively about the fears of unionists.

While it is laudable to consider unionists' interests in the actual working out of post-unification arrangements, it is entirely wrong and dangerous to openly oppose democracy on the core issue of the sovereignty of Northern Ireland.

Of course, the southern mainstream media, widely known for its conservatism, will not hold this open exhibition of double standards to account.

However, I have no doubt but that the general population will see through it and it will fail.

:: Ray Bassett is a former Irish ambassador to Canada and joint secretary to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.