Independence could be way ahead for Northern Ireland
NORTHERN Ireland is in danger of becoming a forgotten conflict. But to ignore the signs of strain on the Good Friday Agreement would be an act of immense folly by the Prime Minister.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s recent attempted coup within the Ulster Unionist Party damaged David Trimble’s leadership but did not destroy it. Later this week, Mr Donaldson will announce whether he and his band of followers will join the hardline refuseniks of the Democratic Unionist Party in leading a new wave of opposition to the agreement. Meanwhile, devolution remains suspended after allegations of spying at Stormont, while the prospect of fresh elections are undermined by the ongoing trial of the "Colombia Three". Add to that the murder of Johnny Adair’s right-hand man and the recent foiling of a dissident Republican plot to detonate a bomb larger than that used at Omagh and the pressures become clear.
This is not how it was meant to be. The Good Friday Agreement was an astonishing act of political negotiation. Although it necessarily fudged several key issues, it represented the best chance of a lasting peace, and a future determined by ordinary people, not the so-called "leaders" of political parties who have anchored their careers in hate and strife.
The theory behind the Agreement was that creating a peaceful environment would provide its own momentum and make the idea of returning to bombing campaigns unthinkable. Crucially, that period of grace would let democratic government take root and allow parties with alleged links to terror groups to enter the political mainstream.
The current absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly undermines that possibility. It creates a void in which those opposed to the agreement gain credence. The absence of the assembly erodes trust. Compromise becomes synonymous with defeat.
But even when these issues are resolved, there is nothing in the agreement which makes reaching a solution inevitable. The agreement was remarkable in that it successfully parked the constitutional question. The principle of consent was enshrined, ensuring no change to the status of Northern Ireland until the majority voted for such a change. In return, the Republic of Ireland dropped its territorial claim to the six counties in the north.
But that position is sustainable only for the short term. With the Protestant majority being eroded, according to the latest census, the demographics suggest that the political entity of Northern Ireland is living on borrowed time. And that is where the problems really start.
If the majority in Northern Ireland eventually vote for unification with the south, we are faced with an inevitably threatened and bitter Unionist community in the north. Surely even the most optimistic of us would not imagine that the process of unification would be bloodless. Is exchanging one threatened minority for another really going to represent a step forward?
I do not denigrate the Good Friday Agreement. It represented the best possible conclusion of discussions between those with polar opposite views. It bought time and created the breathing space to give democratic politics a chance. But what it could not achieve was a resolution of the Irish question. That, we are all now agreed, is a matter for the people of the six counties.
And it is in that context that an old idea - independence for Northern Ireland - may be worth revisiting. Cabinet papers released a few years ago revealed that this proposal was mooted, and rejected, by James Callaghan when he was Home Secretary in 1969. But in the new Europe of regional, and potentially federal, government, is it an idea that should be considered again?
It is likely that the regions and nations of the United Kingdom will seek a stronger and more direct voice in the European Union. Certainly, that is one key plank to emerge from the recent European Convention. Surely that context creates an opportunity for tackling the Northern Ireland problem in a new way? The answer to the question "Do you want to be part of the UK or the Republic of Ireland?" could be "neither". It is an option which might give the majority of ordinary voters - Catholic and Protestant - a genuine, modern alternative.
By concentrating on how best to co-operate with the regions and nations of the British Isles within Europe, the focus shifts from the poisonous insular world of Northern Ireland politics to more normal issues of trade, employment and inward investment. The growth of a distinct Northern Irish identity may yet prove vital to resolving the constitutional question.
The principle of consent needs to be about more than which threatened minority loses out.
Instead, it can be a positive choice for the people of Northern Ireland - a chance to look at the entire spectrum of available choices and to select that which offers a prosperous and peaceful future, rather than pick one of the two traditional and inevitably divisive options.
It is a resolution in which no side wins. Consequently, it is a solution which no side yet advocates. In the complex world of Northern Ireland politics, that is precisely why it just might work.
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