From Irish Political Review—October 2005

See No, Hear No, Speak No Evil

Dermot Nesbitt is a moderate Unionist MLA for South Down, that heartland of the Protestant Fur Coat Brigade whose traditional routes in the marching season lead them to the Bahamas, the Balearics, to any field that's foreign enough and far enough away. His moderation is clearly evidenced by his having supported David Trimble in supporting the Belfast Agreeement for a few months a few years ago. His moderation, in respect of the death throes of the demoralised, leaderless mass of his fellow unionists, is expressed as a post-modernist lack of drama in which nothing is seen with startling clarity, nothing is heard in quadrophonic sound and nothing is said at all at all as the Loyalists of North and West Belfast burn Loyalist North and West Belfast to the stumps. Apocalypse Non. Noh played out in Orange kimonononos. Not to put to fine a point on it, Dermot Nesbitt is a Norn Ironist.

So Dermot Nesbitt is just the unionist boy for the anti-national Irish Times, which really likes Northern Prods as little as it likes Northern Taigs, to trot out in opposition to the heretical notions of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (or Sinn Féin as the Irish Times prefers to call it). Duly trotted out, Dermot dully performed.

Also Sprach the sprat, in an imperative mood, under the categorical headline, SF MPs Must Not Be Allowed To Speak In Dáil:—

"I never cease to be amazed at the chasm in understanding of some nationalists towards the unionist position. I witness an Irish Government that is seemingly prepared to act both outside international law and against its own Constitution to placate the demands of aggressive nationalism. And then we, as unionists, are supposed to act as good neighbours…

"…Speaking rights seems an insignificant development, but it is an important litmus test. What is the Irish Government's view of good neighbourliness? I say to members of Dáil Éireann: according to international law such a development would represent interference in the domestic affairs of the UK…

"Thirty years ago the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe adopted proposals for promoting better relations among states. Known as the Helsinki Final Act, it laid down principles that subsequent international agreements have followed. Importantly, it stipulated that states should refrain from 'any intervention, direct or indirect, individual or collective, in the affairs falling within the domestic jurisdiction of another state'…

"Put simply, the Irish Government would be in breach of its international obligations if it unilaterally succumbed to Sinn Féin's pressure to allow speaking rights in the Dáil…

"…The Irish Government said that it might establish a Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in order 'to make recommendations on ways in which agreement and trust between the two traditions in Ireland can be promoted and established'.

"The forum met and commissioned studies…

"…Both studies considered the Council of Europe's National Minorities Convention to be particularly relevant to Northern Ireland…

"[According to the Minorities Convention]…Individual states are responsible for implementing rights appropriate to their minorities and are accountable to the council for implementation. No other state can interfere in this implementation. The council has already reported on both Irish and UK implementation recommending, respectively, better provision for Travellers and improvement of Irish language provision. It will monitor progress.

"Where does this leave Irish nationalists and Sinn Féin in particular? It seeks 'basic rights and entitlements'. It sees no reason why Northern Ireland MPs 'should not be afforded the opportunity to represent' their voters in the Dáil. If this development occurs, it is completely outside international law, against Ireland's Constitution and makes a mockery of the Irish Government's commitment to the Council of Europe.

"Subscribing to these international norms is unpalatable to many. However, forsaking them is potentially disastrous for good neighbourliness. Members of Dáil Éireann, the choice is yours: choose wisely."

Well then, I can only assume that Mr. Nesbitt will be taking the twenty-six counties and the two and a bit kingdoms (queendoms? realms?) to the Tribunal of International Right Thinking over that hideous crime, the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Talk about one state interfering in another State's implementing rights appropriate to its very own minorities. Shocking breach of international norms. Something should be done about it.

But something was done about it. The Good Friday Agreement was done about it. Which is only to say that the right of the Irish Republic to interfere, on behalf of the Catholic minority living in Northern Ireland, in the affairs of the United Kingdom is enshrined in international law. The Council of Europe hasn't complained about it so far. Perhaps no-one has seen fit to inform it of the irregularity. International Norm is a notoriously casual, laid back kinda guy.

And the Irish Government's Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Oh Dermot, that's not really a great precedent to be drawing attention to in just this context. The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution noticed just that precedent and had this to say about it:—

"Furthermore, the New Ireland Forum and the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation also broke suggestive new ground. While they were set up as platforms for consideration of issues arising out of the Northern Ireland conflict, and not to examine a wider range of public policy matters, and while they were appointed, not elected, they did nonetheless bring public representatives from throughout the island together in a structured fashion, and facilitated serious and constructive debate."

It was, as the Committee recognises, an argument for the value of bringing together Northern and Southern representatives in a deliberative assembly. The proceedings of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation were a harbinger of the Committee's own recommendation that Northern representatives should contribute to Dáil debates (with the whole house constituted as a Committee) on Northern Ireland and Good Friday Agreement matters. Dermot, no doubt relying on the Irish Times for his knowledge of cross-border matters, wouldn't be in any position to know that, since the Irish Times is doing its damnedest to suppress such dangerous knowledge.

Which leaves just this of Mr Nesbitt's argument: that in allowing Adams and the like of him to speak in Dáil Éireann, said Dáil would be going "against Ireland's constitution". He provides no evidence for that rather stark opinion and fails entirely to understand that the Irish establishment is drawn reluctantly but irresistibly to the Committee's recommendation precisely because it can be implemented without any fuss about a constitutional amendment. There is an altogether justified concern that the measure is indispensible to preserving the Irish Constitution in its current form. The All-Party Committee drew attention to the constitutional danger as follows:

"The committee has also noted a number of recent comments on the matter by senior Sinn Féin figures, including newspaper articles by the Northern Ireland Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness MP MLA (Irish News, 19 July 2000, and Irish Examiner, 10 August 2000). Mr McGuinness suggests that 'the matter might be specifically approached in terms of what requires a constitutional amendment and what does not'.

"In relation to the latter category possibilities not requiring a constitutional amendment he suggests that 'the minimum that could be expected is that the standing orders of the Dáil be altered by that body to allow Northern Westminster MPs (18 in all) to attend and speak at certain debates ... Debates on the work of the North/South Ministerial Council and the all-Ireland implementation bodies would be obvious examples...', as would debates on international issues.

"He goes on to propose that 'the existing Northern presence in the Seanad should be provided for as of right and through some mechanism of electoral choice', with 'a more realistic number' of representatives. He notes that Northern senators could participate in Oireachtas joint committees and joint sessions of both Houses.

"Mr McGuinness also advocates that citizens in the North should have the right to vote in certain referendums, though he admits that 'in the jurisdictional circumstances which prevail at present, it is understandable that such a right should be confined to issues which affect all citizens on the island ... it is accepted ... that Irish citizens in the North could not reasonably anticipate having a vote on something which would exclusively impact upon those living in the twenty-six counties, eg an item to do with taxation...'.

"Mr McGuinness believes that 'a constitutional amendment to allow for votes in presidential elections would be more straightforward. But the same urgency does not attach to this because there is not likely to be another election until 2004, if even then.' He adds that 'constitutional moves may also be required to take involvement in the Dáil to the voting stage or to have northern deputies directly elected to it, depending on the exact proposals; changes in electoral law would undoubtedly be necessary'."

These constitutional waters are murky and shark infested. The All-Party Committee which produced the 2002 Report was far from being a Jacobin body; it didn't contain a single Sinn Féin member. Its report is a minimalist document. Its recommendation is the bottom line. All else is mare incognita:—here be sharks. With big teeth.

Bather Beware.

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