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A View North: Consent’s ascent a big step toward democracy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Gerry Adams’s recent remarks in New York acknowledging the necessity of getting the consent of the Unionist population before a United Ireland could come into being has caused something of a stir back in Ireland. The citizen of any Western or Western-style modern democracy might wonder what the fuss is about. Consent, after all, is the basis for modern democratic states. Without the consent of the governed, the government has no right to exist. But what Adams’s words have done is once more highlight the fact that the role of consent in Ireland’s history is a novel one and one with which clearly not everyone in the country has yet grown comfortable.

Even before modern democracies were created, consent at some level was required to rule, even in most monarchies where the warrior class (later the aristocracy) expected to be consulted. A Roman C’sar (master of the greatest empire the world has ever seen) consulted the Senate, and later the Roman army, in order to appear legitimate in the eyes of the people he ruled. The rise of democracy corresponds to the widening of the circle of consent, from small sections of the society to adult males with certain property qualifications to adult males with none, and, finally, in the 20th century, to adult females. The transformation took many centuries, during which time Ireland was undergoing a different historical experience. It was being conquered and colonized by England, making it the only European nation to have undergone the trauma of colonialization that was later to be visited upon many African, Asian and American peoples. Needless to say, consent did not come into it. Empires are not built upon consent but upon force.

It is no surprise then that force, rather than consent, should play such an important role in Irish history. This helps to explain its persistence in Irish politics to this day, when, despite the taking root of democratic institutions, there are still groups of individuals who believe that they have the right — thanks to history — to resort to force to bring about the changes they deem necessary.

The republican movement points to history to justify its use of violence. The Irish people were not asked for their consent when the British imposed partition in 1920. The Catholics of Northern Ireland were not asked for their consent when they found themselves on the wrong side of that partition.

By that time, Britain had concluded that it could not effectively govern the 26 counties without the consent of the inhabitants. Nor could it force the majority population in the northeast corner of the country into a unified state without their consent. What you had in effect was a double secession: Irish nationalists seceded from the British Empire and the Unionists seceded from the independent Irish state being established in Dublin. Which brings us back to Adams’s remarks when he was in New York recently.

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The question about consent arose when Adams was speaking at a discussion on the Irish peace process held at the World Economic Forum. After talking about the inevitability of a United Ireland, he was asked if he accorded the Unionists the same rights of secession as the Nationalists. He explained in reply that the “assent and consent” of Unionists would be needed.

While this was welcomed by most people as a blast of political realism (which happens more easily to Northern Ireland’s politicians when they are out of Northern Ireland in a place where political pragmatism is the norm), though some Unionists were cynical and some nationalists alarmed by the reply. Unionist skeptics point to a still well-armed IRA as proof that republicans are talking consent but ready to call in a higher authority if they think it is needed. Traditional republicans, in a sense, agree with them, except that they see that higher authority — the IRA’s “right” to wage war — as a legitimate one which should not be abandoned. As far as they are concerned, consent is a luxury republicans cannot afford.

It must be said that even mainstream Provisionals probably deep down agree with them. But they have been trapped in a political process from which it is too late to disentangle themselves. In the meantime, they must live with contradictions, such as their leader advocating the need for Unionist consent while his followers sit on top of 80 tons of weapons meant to render such a need irrelevant.

Of course, there are other contradictions which thrust themselves upon out attention as time goes by. On a recent UTV television show, “Insight,” devoted to the controversy over the Omagh bombing and the subsequent police investigation, Sinn Fein Vice President Pat Doherty found himself under fire. Asked to justify his party’s refusal to cooperate with the police north or south of the border in their attempts to track down the guilty, he said that republicans could not trust them. So they would continue to advocate to their members not to give information about the incident, the single worst attack in the history of the Troubles, even if it means that the perpetrators go free. Yet, at the same time, Sinn Fein leaders, including Doherty and Adams, continue to attack the police for their failure to conduct a proper investigation. (More recently, Adams has said it should be left up to the individual to decide whether to pass information to the police.)

There is another contradiction here. Sinn Fein refuses to endorse the new Police Service of Northern Ireland by not allowing party members to sit on the Police Board. But, at the same time, Sinn Fein has ministers in the government of Northern Ireland passing laws. And who is enforcing those laws? The Police Service of Northern Ireland. If Sinn Fein does not trust PSNI, why is it involved in the law-making process at all?

Perhaps Anthony McIntyre, the ex-IRA man turned academic, has the more consistent approach. In a recent issue of The Blanket magazine, he says that he would not help (if he could) the authorities in their investigations into the Omagh atrocity because if he did he would then feel obliged to answer (if he could) their questions about atrocities such as the Enniskillen bombing 11 years earlier.

“Whether we like it or not it was we who were in the Provisional Republican Movement who produced the Omagh bombers,” he wrote.

(Visit Jack Holland’s website: www.jackholland.com.)

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