Leading Article : Ulster should say `yes'

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The Independent Online
Yesterday's proposals for a constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland are of historic importance. No one can say whether they will lead to the earnestly desired outcome of a peaceful and stable life for the people of Northern Ireland, but there is a decent chance that they will. Their imaginative approach may even resonate in other, yet more violent ethnic conflicts on the eastern rim of Europe, not to mention in large tracts of Africa and Asia. The framework document offers ways to recognise apparently opposing national identities without reopening the explosive issue of where borders should lie.

If the thinking contained in the document could be made real in new political institutions and practices, the achievement would rank with decolonisation and entry into the Common Market as milestones in the United Kingdom's constitutional progress since the Second World War.

If Northern Ireland could be successfully reformed, while remaining within the Union, the process would also challenge those who argue that devolution in Scotland and Wales will inevitably lead to the break-up of Britain. Flexibility and constitutional innovation would be recognised for what it is: a policy that can preserve rather than destroy the integrity of the United Kingdom, a necessary part of the powers of adaptation that all successful nations require.

The principles of consent and a mix of constitutional checks and balances that underlie the proposals also offer an invigorating cocktail which the rest of Britain may wish to sup. If Northern Ireland can have proportional representation, a more consensual form of government and a charter of rights, then why can other citizens living in Britain not also enjoy such democratic innovations?

We must all hope therefore that the people of Northern Ireland will examine the framework document with a judicious eye. After more than 25 years of violence, no one needs to tell them that the price of failing to negotiate or of supporting an unjust, poorly underpinned peace is high and unremitting.

So what do the proposals amount to? In essence, they represent an attempt to reconcile the aspiration of most Roman Catholics for an Irish identity with a largely Protestant desire to secure the Union with Great Britain. For more than 70 years, these aims have been regarded as mutually exclusive. Catholics sought a united Ireland, sometimes through violence, and so alienated Protestants. Unionists have abhorred any notion of a united Ireland, fearful that it would kill their culture. So they monopolised power, abused their majority position and refused to think constructively beyond the political status quo.

Yesterday's proposals aim to take the core issue of the maintenance of the Union out of political debate; anyone who signs up to the framework proposals must accept that the Union may survive for all time. It can be abolished only with the consent, through a referendum, of the people of Northern Ireland. Equally, the framework document seeks to satisfy nationalist hopes with a plethora of cross-border bodies and the prospect that nationalists might still secure, by persuasion and the political process, their dream of a united Ireland.

In practice, unionists would have primacy within a Northern Ireland assembly, elected by proportional representation. But nationalist influence would be ensured by a system of committees covering departments of government and by in-built minority rights to veto legislation. A triumvirate - presumably James Molyneaux, Ian Paisley and John Hume or their successors - would oversee fair play. Cross-border institutions, bringing together northern and southern politicians to discuss matters of joint interest, would prevent Roman Catholics once more becoming isolated in a state from which they felt alienated. The quid pro quo would be an abandonment by the Irish Republic of its territorial claim to Northern Ireland.

There are sticks as well as carrots. The unionists would not be able to have an assembly unless they accepted the north-south links. There are also hints that if unionist politicians fail to co-operate, they might find that cross-border institutions are developed without them.

Boiled down, these ideas are at least 20 years old, reflecting Britain's now longstanding recognition that unionist hegemony can never deliver political stability. So why should they work now; where they failed in the past?

The fresh ingredient is peace. The cessation of violence suggests that extreme nationalists may have achieved a maturity that recognises the impossibility of bombing their way to a united Ireland. Also, the longer peace lasts, the greater is the chance that a beleaguered unionist community will open itself to dialogue and change. Anecdotally, there are signs that some people are becoming more flexible. They may surprise their political representatives. Those politicians who would try to wreck progress must recognise that the framework document could win majority support in a referendum even if some unionists oppose it. The Protestant community effectively retains a veto over Northern Ireland's constitutional status, but not over all political change.

John Major and John Bruton, the Irish premier, have thus designed a framework that will shock those unionists who fear that any change is another step down the slippery slope towards a united Ireland. Ulster unionists and their Powellite associates at Westminster will argue that the integrity of the United Kingdom must take precedence indefinitely, whatever the people of Northern Ireland desire. They also see any concession to the nationalists as a concession to violence. In both respects, they thus condemn Ulster to the half-life it has led for a quarter of a century.

They also shudder at the thought that beyond the tired nationalist agenda lies a different, European model. Like the EU, the cross-border bodies will involve some authority being pooled at a higher level. But the purpose is to build confidence between communities rather than to subordinate one to the other. Just as Britain has the right to prevent and ultimately stay out of a European federal superstate, so limits can be set on cross- border institutions. A united Ireland would be created only in the highly unlikely event of its constituents willing that outcome.

Since 1989 and the fall of communism, even the longest running and apparently most intractable problems have shown themselves capable of solution. Now, at last, it is Ulster's turn to find a settlement. This framework may have to be completed in a hurricane of rhetoric or worse, but it is the only workable structure available. It has been there in one blueprint or another for two decades: these are ideas whose time has come.