Parity of esteem: A unionist perspective

I have been a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement since its inception.

I believe many of the mechanisms contained therein are sensible and necessary to manage the divided society we live in, and I accepted the principle of consent as a reasonable compromise in pursuit of a peaceful and democratic society.

Nonetheless, while I have been a fierce advocate of the Agreement, I certainly won’t dismiss every criticism levelled at it.

Mandatory coalition, for example, has led to a situation where Stormont has lain dormant for three years, a position that has become less and less palatable given the grave problems in our health service and education system.

The petition of concern has also caused considerable controversy in recent years. The mechanism was a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement, designed to ensure that “key decisions” would be made on a cross-community basis. This was implemented in response to the concerns of nationalists around the majoritarianism that plagued our society for decades.

However, the mechanism has more recently been condemned as “undemocratic” with detractors pointing to decisions being blocked on issues such as same-sex marriage, welfare reform and ministerial accountability.

The Belfast Telegraph on Friday said that reform of the petition of concern remains “one of several key sticking points” in the current talks process.

However, while it has unarguably had its difficulties, these are nothing compared to the problems likely without it.

The flag protests showed us first-hand how controversial decisions that disregard cross-community consent can lead to anger, resentment, protests and even violence; particularly those decisions that relate to identity.

In a 2013 article, Sinn Fein stated “Equality and parity of esteem should threaten no-one.” However, they also acknowledge that parity of esteem means different things to different people. It is these differences that can open up divisions and cause problems.

Reform may be a popular demand, but majoritarianism can manifest itself in so many different ways and areas that it is difficult to decide where exactly the petition of concern should begin and end to ensure adequate protection for all.

The question of whether cross-community consent should extend to Brexit is another question that has attracted debate in recent months.

It is difficult to think of a more significant “key decision” than a change to our constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom, something that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will achieve with a vengeance.

The argument made by nationalists and others is that Brexit itself did not attract cross-community consent, so why should cross-community consent be required for whatever Brexit deal we may have to live with?

At first glance this is a compelling argument.

However while concerns around a hard border on the island of Ireland have been central to the Brexit negotiations, concerns around a border down the Irish Sea have largely been confined to social media and the occasional mention in the House of Commons.

A violent response has been predicted by some, but even if this does not arise it is not unreasonable to suggest this will impact the peace process given that trust is such an integral part of any political settlement.

With Loyalist communities having been marginalised and the so-called ‘peace dividend’ failing to reach many of these same communities, it wouldn’t exactly take Bran Stark to see how this could tip us over the edge.

As a supporter of the Belfast Agreement since its inception I have found it difficult enough to weather that position through the notorious side-deals, comfort letters and royal pardons, notorious killers being set free, unionist culture almost criminalised and Stormont left dormant for three years as Sinn Fein pursue their own agenda.

Many in the unionist community will continue to support peace, but we are limited by realities on the ground in terms of the arguments we can make and the persuasive effects they will have.

This may not suit Boris Johnson, Leo Varadkar, Michel Barnier and their new Brexit deal, but no community in Northern Ireland should be excluded from these decisions.

Parity of esteem is intrinsic to the Good Friday Agreement that the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland signed up to, and which is now enshrined in international law.

The question remains: what kind of a society do we want to build?

While the petition of concern should not be used to stifle genuine concerns around rights and accountability, we shouldn’t need to be reminded of the danger of returning to old ways. Without parity of esteem at all levels there is always the danger that history could repeat itself.


Photo by veve is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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