Ciara Brannigan argues that the right for six-counties representatives to speak in the Oireachtas is a small step towards unity
THE NICE man of unionism, Dermot Nesbitt, has popped up in recent weeks to wag a scolding finger at the Republic over plans to allow elected northern representatives to participate in the Dáil.
Blithely ignoring the fact that the Republic can invite whomever it pleases to address Oireachtas committees, Nesbit used a lengthy piece in the Irish Times to claim that such plans are a sign of bad faith and bad neighbourliness. They are also, apparently, a breach on international law, an attempt to interfere in the "domestic" agenda of the UK etc.
Let's be clear about what these modest proposals actually consist of. northern MPs will be invited to speak to certain Oireachtas committees on issues relating to the north. That's all.
For many republicans these modest proposals go nowhere near far enough and Gerry Adams jumped the gun when he initially declared that the taoiseach had assured northern MPs of speaking rights in the Dáil. It was an uncharacteristic climb down for Sinn Féin to admit that the sight of the TD for West Belfast addressing Dáil Éireann was not going to happen. Not yet anyway.
Give recent unionist reaction to a re-routing of one Orange parade in west Belfast one can only imagine what their reaction would have been had the Oireachtas plans been any more ambitious! Mr Nesbit failed to grasp the real point behind the speaking rights debate. It's not about unionists - it's about nationalism and about beginning to heal the artificial division which has divided Irishman from Irishman on our island.
Having elected northern representation - however limited - in the Oireachtas is a step towards unity. It is a small step, but progress nonetheless. And in that, it is of much more importance for nationalism - unionists are outside the tent peeing in.
Speaking rights are a common sense way of building the unity to which all nationalists and republicans aspire. More importantly it is peaceful - not a shot fired in anger.
By engaging with and participating in the Oireachtas, northern nationalists become re-engaged with the political life of our country. We defeat the border by ignoring it and working positively with our fellow countrymen. This will be threatening for some - not just unionists. There are many in the Republic with legitimate concerns about 'representation without taxation' for their northern cousins. Ireland has always been a deeply parochial society and there will always be the self-defeating begrudger mentality among some in the Republic to any 'nordies'having their voice heard in our national parliament.
Speaking rights will be for all northern MPs - not just Sinn Féin (as some newspapers and unionists would have you believe). Never fear, the SDLP will ride in on the coattrails of this deal, which was the product of negotiations between the republican movement and Dublin.
Sinn Féin's attention is firmly fixed upon gaining political strength in the Republic and consolidating what gains it has already made. This has obviously been taken as a threat by the southern establishment with the incessant waffle of justice minister Michael McDowell revealing how rattled some of the partitionist parties have become. The Progressive Democrat's talk about being "true republicans" is testimony to their commitment to delusional politics.
But truth be told, northern participation in the Oireachtas, however limited, is part of a smart, confident and clever move by republicanism. The success for republicans, for now, lies in engaging with what has been called the "most successful part of the republican project" - the state in the south and west of the island.
It is intriguing how unionists have reacted with more wearying outrage to the speaking rights discussion. This is constitutional nationalism - non-violent progress towards a united Ireland. Of course unionists have a right not to participate in this - that's why they're called 'unionists'. But to condemn nationalists for working to achieve nationalist goals is absurd.
Politics is about out-manoeuvring your opponent. Dermot Nesbit can talk plenty about his aggrieved sense of "neighbourliness" but unionism has always shown precious little good will towards the Republic. So why should northern nationalists worry if their participation in the Irish state irks unionists? Let unionists worry about their strained and seemingly unrequited love affair with their state of choice - Britain.
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Copyright © 2005 Ciara Brannigan