IS SOVEREIGNTY MORE IMPORTANT THAN RECOCILIATION? DOES THE IRA ARMY COUNCIL STILL EXIST?
We can best avoid conflict by ensuring that authority is exercised legitimately and constitutionally, with due regard for minorities.
For example, those pressing for an early border poll will need to reflect on whether a poll on unity, passed by 52% to 48%, might recreate conditions for conflict in the north eastern corner of this island. Precedents elsewhere suggest this is not an insignificant possibility. The possibility of such a poll taking place arises from one the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement which allows the UK Secretary of State to call such a poll id he/she thinks there is a prospect that the poll might approve unity.
But even if there was a majority for unity overall, there would be parts of Northern Ireland where the majority of residents might be strongly opposed and might reject the outcome. Policing such areas would be a major challenge, as we have seen on a smaller scale in the past.
The underlying spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is one which seeks reconciliation between people and less emphasis on territorial sovereignty. Unfortunately Brexit has brought sovereignty back to the centre of the debate.
DO ALL PARTIES ACCEPT THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT?
It was hoped by many that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement would remove the risk of renewed conflict around sovereignty.
But many who complain that others are not fulfilling their obligations under the Agreement, are failing to fulfil some of their own obligations.
For example,the Agreement recognises that
“ 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;”
By refusing even to use the term “Northern Ireland”, and also by refusing to take their seats in Westminster, Sinn Fein is , in effect, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of that part of the Good Friday Agreement. Their abstention is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Union for the time being.
REFUSAL TO TAKE WESTMINSTER SEATS CASTS DOUBT ON FULL ACCEPTANCE OF 1998 REFERENDA
It has created a precedent that will not be forgotten.
Sinn Fein should ask itself how it would feel, if after a border poll narrowly approving unity, unionists then decided to imitate Sinn Fein and refused to take their seats in the Dail, or even went further and attempted to set up a breakaway parliament in a unionist part of the North.
Of course, Sinn Fein is not alone in its selectivity about the Good Friday Agreement.
IS THE UK GOVERNMENT IMPARTIAL?
The UK government is obliged by it to be impartial between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland on the constitutional question. The Agreement says that that
“whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, (in a border poll) the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions “
With her talk about the “precious Union”, Prime Minister May was hardly being rigorously impartial between unionism and nationalism, and the same applies even more to the Johnson Government.
One must also ask the question……….if unity was carried in a border poll, would the government in Dail Eireann be able to be impartial between unionists and nationalists in the North?
Given the growth in support here for Sinn Fein, and recent poll data rejecting possible compromises on issues like the flag, this is a legitimate, if not necessarily an urgent, question.
Legitimate authority is crucial for civilization.
The wars of the 1919 to 1923 period were about the legitimisation of the authority of this state.
Legitimacy was underpinned by Cosgrave’s handover of power in 1932. It was confirmed by Eamon de Valera, on the losing side in the Civil War, obtaining the support of the Irish people in 1937 for a new Constitution, which endures to this day.
THE IRISH CONSTITUTION IS THE SOURCE OF LEGITIMACY, AND ITS WORDS MATTER
This Constitution affirms that the only legitimate authority that can use force on behalf of the Irish people is Dail Eireann.
Article 15(6) of the Constitution is crystal clear. It says
the right to raise and maintain military or armed forces is vested exclusively in the Oireachtas. No military or armed force, other than a military or armed force raised and maintained by the Oireachtas, shall be raised or maintained for any purpose whatsoever.
These words of our Constitution were very much in my mind when, as Taoiseach in the 1990’s, I pressed for the decommissioning of arms by paramilitaries as a condition for the legitimation of political parties associated with them. This was, for me, a matter of constitutional principle.
The current Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, recently suggested that his party no longer completely excludes the possibility of serving in government with Sinn Fein, a party associated with the Provisional IRA.
DOES THE IRA ARMY COUNCIL STILL EXIST? WHEN WILL IT BE WOUND UP?
Any TD contemplating the possibility of supporting Sinn Fein participation in government, needs to ensure that Article 15 (6) is rigorously enforceable, and actually enforced.
This is not a trivial technicality.
An independent review, submitted to the UK Government in 2015, found that , at that time in Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA and its leading decision making body, the Army Council, continued to operate , “albeit in a much reduced form”, and that, while it was not a security threat, the army council continued to oversee both the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein.
Perhaps this is no longer the case seven years later? But we will need firm evidence of that.
I hope the Taoiseach, and the security institutions of this state, will satisfy themselves as to whether the Army Council still exists. We cannot have a party in government which is associated with an armed group, whose very existence defies Article 15 of our Constitution.
This Constitution is arguably Eamon de Valera’s greatest political achievement. So Micheal Martin, as his successor as Fianna Fail Leader, should be scrupulous in ensuring that the terms of the Constitution are respected
The voters of this state should recognise the value of what we have created here on the basis of our constitution….a state whose authority rests on sound and unambiguous democratic principles, that does not need to engage in double speak .