Whether or not there is a new government this weekend, the howls of protest about the supposed interference of pesky Northerners in “our” political business in the Republic has been very revealing about the extent of the partitionist mindset. Senator David Norris wondered earlier this week if “I am the only one who thinks it extraordinary that a group of 800 UK citizens from the North of Ireland, who are members of the Green Party, have the right to dictate what government we have in the Republic?”
It seems he is not alone; a narrative about a relatively small group of Northern Green Party members deciding the fate of government formation “here” has been well aired. Norris’s declaration is nonsense. It is the elected TDs of Dáil Éireann who will vote on the nomination of a taoiseach and “dictate” government formation and how the respective parties reach the decisions their TDs implement is their own business.
Norris’s sweeping assertion about the citizenship of the Northern Green Party members is also ridiculous. As he should be well aware that under the Belfast Agreement of 1998 the government of the United Kingdom and the government of Ireland recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose and confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.
The addressing of citizenship in 1998 was about confronting an issue that had been contested since the 1920s in Northern and Southern Ireland, holding out the prospect that citizenship would no longer have to be bound up with narrow concepts of “loyalty” to one group or territory.
The Irish Constitution also stipulates that it is the entitlement of “every person born in the island of Ireland to be part of the Irish nation”. Furthermore, the Constitution states “it is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland”.
One of the Northern Green’s most trenchant opponents of the draft government programme for government is John Barry, professor of green political economy at Queen’s University Belfast. Barry is an Irish citizen.
Clare Bailey, the leader of the Northern Greens, does not identify as unionist or nationalist in the Northern Assembly, but as “feminist”. The deputy leader Malachai O’Hara’s background is in cross-community development and LGBTQ rights; you will not see him flying national flags but rainbow ones.
We should be at the stage where we can move past a 'them and us' characterisation of the relationship between North and South
Eamon Ryan suggested last year “You can be Green and unionist, you can be Green and nationalist, you can be Green and feminist, you can be Green and European”. It is also worth pointing out that residents of the Republic who are British citizens are eligible to vote in Dáil elections and that if you are an Irish citizen in Northern Ireland you have the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
Weight of our history
It is true that citizenship on this island is complicated by the weight of our history, the bloody, contested births and evolutions of both states and Anglo-Irish relations, but we really should be at the stage where we can move past lazy compartmentalisation and a “them and us” characterisation of the relationship between North and South.
There was much understandable and justifiable noise made in the last few years about the urgent need to preserve the soft Border we have and emphasise the degree to which citizenship on the island has become something that has transcended the Border, but the hard mental border, it seems, is still very much with us.
It is also notable that the draft programme for government is deliberately cautious about Irish “unity” and does not refer to it by using that word, preferring more neutral assertions about the need “to work towards a consensus on a shared island” and a “future in which all traditions are respected” as well as a desire to “enhance, develop and deepen all aspects of North-South co-operation” and working with the Northern Executive to deliver cross-Border infrastructural projects.
Indeed, Ryan was publicly hostile to the idea of a Border poll at the end of last year, stating that it would be “divisive and counterproductive.”
As for climate change, it, no more than viruses, does not recognise borders. The draft government programme advocates the exploration of “how bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement can ensure there is a joined-up approach to environmental issues on an all-island basis” and seeking to develop “an all-island strategy to tackle climate breakdown and the biodiversity crisis”.
Surely recent experiences would suggest matters of shared, critical importance need to be tackled on an all-island basis.