Respecting constitutional differences
Sir, – The Belfast Agreement is intended to allow people to inhabit their constitutional and national identities securely and without fear. There is a right to choose to identify and be accepted as British or Irish or both. Constitutional aspirations are supposed to be equally legitimate. But what do we see in practice? Those who argue for their constitutional aspirations are pilloried as “sectarian” or “divisive”. Respectability attaches to those who deny, evade or seek to transcend such questions. Some of this is, of course, well intentioned and significant; people are as complex and as resistant to labels here as anywhere. That must be acknowledged as we move into a more pluralist space. But where this becomes a policy problem is when it collapses a fundamental pillar of the Belfast Agreement; an agreement, remember, that people claim to cherish in all its parts. The impact can be felt by voiceless British citizens abandoned by their own government in the context of a Brexit that will erode their rights, and alienated Irish citizens who, among other things, anxiously watch the potential repartition of the island.
If politics in this region is to be put back together again there is much wisdom to be found in the existing Belfast Agreement. Why do so many want to airbrush its core principles away? To continue to treat people with contempt because they take its constitutional promises seriously is a silly and damaging mistake. Both governments seem prone to this ill-advised stance; they are not alone. It is one of the reasons (not the only one) why this place was allowed to become, and remains, such a political mess. Constitutional differences must be respected as part of any credible project of reconstruction that is serious about sustainable and transformative social change here. That is the core common ground on which a better future can be achieved for everyone. It is what people voted for on May 22nd, 1998. – Yours, etc,
Prof COLIN HARVEY,
School of Law,
Queen’s University Belfast.