Letter: Northern Ireland: self-determination in a divided society

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The Independent Online
Sir: 'Self-determination' is being bandied about again as an axiomatic principle to which general obeisance can be expected. Sinn Fein wants self-determination of the Irish people. Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination, according to the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (on which various organs of the UN Human Rights Commission and numerous non-governmental organisations have been working). The Palestinians seek self-determination, and so on.

The Sinn Fein example neatly illustrates a main difficulty of self-determination, namely that the outcome of any act of self-determination is generally decided when the constituency is defined (which can only be done by existing powers in the light of their various interests). Self-determination for the Irish people sounds like a principle to which no one could object. But it implies accepting that the Irish people (ie the population of the whole of Ireland) is the constituency to be consulted.

Similarly, in the Western Sahara the outcome of any vote will be determined by whether, for example, the descendants of those who moved out to escape Spanish rule, or others who fairly recently moved in, should have the vote. And remember that the population is traditionally nomadic across frontiers.

As for indigenous peoples, in very few, if any, cases, would self-determination be a reasonable prospect, if this is taken to imply the option of full independence and sovereignty.

The Palestinians, on the whole, seem to be wisely content with, initially, a quite limited interpretation of self-determination - limited both geographically and in respect of the powers to be conferred. Could others consider the Palestinian example?

Yours faithfully,


London, W8

5 October