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Monica McWilliams is emeritus professor in the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University and was a member of the Women's Coalition delegation to the Belfast Agreement negotiations in 1998

North's status under Belfast Agreement is an inconvenient truth

The whole point of the [Good Friday] agreement is that it was a careful and delicately balanced compromise which sought to reconcile a whole range of complex issues, having regard to the contested perspectives of its two main communities, nationalism and unionism. The outcome was a proposition that took account of both - not just one.

This is crisply captured in the very first paragraph of article 1 of the treaty between the British and Irish governments, accompanying the Belfast Agreement, which deals with the status of Northern Ireland as follows: "[The two governments] recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland."

But there is one other vital factor in article 1 of the treaty that has largely been missed in the entire debate about the protocol, namely the way that sovereignty is exercised in Northern Ireland.

Article 1(v) of the treaty makes clear that regardless of the choice that is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland on its status, "the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity of, ethos and aspirations of both communities".

Okay, Shakespeare it is not. But in my view those words are enormously powerful and important. Boiled down, they make clear that this is about taking account in every respect of both traditions and that, yes, a majority decides at any one time whether the UK or Ireland has overall sovereignty in Northern Ireland, but the way that sovereignty is exercised is qualified by this requirement for "parity of esteem and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities" (my italics).

Boiled down even further, it means that Northern Ireland's relationship to Britain, including its constitutional relationship, is not the same as other regions in the UK. It simply is not. I appreciate that inconvenient truth has been ignored and written out of the equation by many unionist leaders and commentators over the last 5½ years since the fateful Brexit vote.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Mar 1st, 2021 at 11:59:55 AM EST

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