… or an attempt to avoid ‘stupid’ questions about the party’s stated commitment to campaign against the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination. Those are the options from a comparison between the commitments on Irish unity Sinn Féin presented to the people of Ireland in their manifesto for February’s General Election, and the ones presented in the slim-lined version to the people of Northern Ireland ahead of this month’s Assembly Election. It’s the latter option, by the way.
When, in February, David compiled his list of what the Southern parties have planned for Northern Ireland, I commented that, on Sinn Féin’s commitment “to campaign to raise public support for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity”, we’d been here before. During the 2011 Assembly Election, in fact. When questioned about the party’s 2011 Assembly manifesto call for a ‘referendum on Irish unity’, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd explained on Radio Ulster
Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd told BBC Radio Ulster that this vote would be on an all-island basis.
Asked if a referendum result for unity would be binding despite the Belfast’s Agreement’s requirement for consent in Northern Ireland, Mr O’Dowd said: “An all-island referendum would have precedence.
“The people of Ireland have a right to choose their own destiny. That is my view.”
He also stated: “Surely the people who live on the island of Ireland have a right to decide the destiny of what political future and make-up the island of Ireland has.”
That was soon followed by the party’s hasty retreat to “within the confines of the Good Friday Agreement”.
We will campaign to raise public support for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity, allowing the people to have their say.
Fast forward to last week, and the same, re-worded, Sinn Féin commitment to a different electorate, in a different country [pdf file].
Build support for island wide referendums on Irish unity; [added emphasis]
A superficial reading, which is all the party expected, of that Northern Ireland manifesto commitment might suggest compliance with the Good Friday Agreement’s principle of consent – and the requirement for a majority vote in referendums north and south. But that would be wrong. It is the same commitment as the previous one, but re-worded to allow for the question of a united Ireland to be asked more than once – hence the use of the plural, referendums. Confirmation of this can be found on the Sinn Féin website, where the party policy is clearly stated
Continue to campaign for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity – allow the people to have their say.
As I pointed out in 2011, the right of self-determination of the people of Northern Ireland to decide the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is not an optional extra. It is the fundamental building block on which the 1998 Agreement, and all subsequent agreements, is based.
1. The participants endorse the commitment made by the British and Irish Governments that, in a new British-Irish Agreement replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they will:
(i) recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland;
(ii) recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish,accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland; [added emphasis throughout]
(iii) acknowledge that while a substantial section of the people in Northern Ireland share the legitimate wish of a majority of the people of the island of Ireland for a united Ireland, the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people;
(iv) affirm that if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish;
[What happened to “let no one interfere” with the “indigenous” deal? – Ed] Well, it’s tactics, not strategy. A combination of looking over their shoulders at groups like the 1916 Societies and their ‘One Ireland One Vote’ campaign, and a growing realisation that there is little chance of a united Ireland vote in a Northern Ireland referendum in the foreseeable future.
But there are consequences to the Sinn Féin policy commitment “to campaign for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity”.
Now when the party president, Gerry Adams, calls on “the British and Irish governments [to] fully implement the Good Friday and subsequent agreements”, he’s also saying, ‘apart from the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination – on which that agreement, and all subsequent agreements, is based, can we change that’?
And when someone from Sinn Féin, in this case Gerry Kelly, tells the still-violent republican groups that “There is a political strategy in place which the vast majority of Irish republicans and nationalists, along with the overwhelming majority of the people on this island, have endorsed”, what they are also saying is that ‘but we don’t believe that strategy is adequate and we want to change the frame of reference within which the constitutional question is asked to remove the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination – despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people on this island have endorsed it’.
The irony is that, having been endorsed by referendums in Ireland and in Northern Ireland in 1998, to remove that fundamental principle of consent – from the Irish Constitution, for example, as well as UK legislation – would require successful referendums in Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
And the prospect of a referendum in Northern Ireland repealing the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination – is even less likely than a united Ireland vote in a Northern Ireland referendum in the foreseeable future.
The contrast with the new SDLP’s leader Colm Eastwood’s comments on Irish unity and making Northern Ireland work is stark.