Arlene Foster: ‘Parity of Esteem’ and ‘Consent’ and How Words Deceive

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by Arlene Foster

Two very slippery concepts which have been constantly in the Northern Ireland political arena in recent years are ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘consent’. These terms mean totally different things to different people, which is why I want to discuss them.

Parity of esteem is the buzz phrase which began to be very widely used around two years ago. The place I personally came across it most was where it was used very effectively – at Queen’s University – as an excuse for dropping the National Anthem at graduation ceremonies.

What does the term mean?  To Dick Spring it means:

‘The balance between two legitimate and equal sets of rights’. 1

Mo Mowlam talks of:

‘Equal respect for traditions and aspirations of both communities’. 2

Arlene Foster

Former First Minister of Northern Ireland

Described in 2017 as the second most powerful woman in UK politics, Arlene Foster made her first appearance on BBC Newsnight aged 17, after her school bus was bombed by the PIRA and she has been involved in Northern Ireland politics since being a student at Queen’s University, Belfast.

A lawyer by profession, she was born in 1970 at the start of the Northern Ireland Troubles and grew up in County Fermanagh where she still lives with her husband and three children.

Since Moving on from frontline politics Arlene now stars in her own political Primetime Sunday television show on GBnews

John Hume meanwhile talks of dual legitimacy. 3

Let’s look at those quotes again. ‘Equal’ and ‘dual legitimacy’ are very telling indeed. Hume, Spring and indeed Mowlam equate the aspiration to Irish unity held by a minority of the community in Northern Ireland with the established legal fact of British citizenship held by all the people of Northern Ireland.

This equation had of course originally been made well before the 1990s. The New Ireland Forum Report of 1984, just prior to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, was based on the belief that the Irish identity of the nationalist community, and the allegiance that flowed from it, was just as legitimate as the Britishness of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. This idea of equality was incorporated into the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. In that document our Government, the British Government, exacerbated and encouraged the view of dual legitimacy, previously expounded by Irish nationalists. The trend continued in the Brooke/Mayhew talks which were conducted on the basis that nationalism and unionism were of equal validity.

The idea, then, of parity of esteem has been about for quite some time, and the interpretation of the phrase as meaning equality between British citizenship and the nationalist aspiration to unity is now so entrenched that it will be very difficult to question it. However, question it we must.

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Mo Mowlam
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Dick Spring

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John Hume

Richard English in the publication, The Idea of the Union 4, stated that for the state to accord equal legitimacy on the one hand to a tradition whose instincts and drive are to support and maintain the state, and on the other hand to a tradition aiming at some form of dismemberment of the state, seems fundamentally incoherent. This is completely true, but is sadly exactly what our Government’s policy is on an integral part of the Kingdom. The simple mistake which our Government has made is to have interpreted equity to mean equality.

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Richard English

As Unionists, and indeed as democrats, we do not and have not the right to object to the legitimate aspiration of a person to Irish unity. However, it is that and only that – an aspiration – and it is no way the same thing as citizenship. I am not suggesting that those who deny their Britishness should be ignored in the hope that they might change their minds; they have the right to express their views and try to push for change. They even have the right to push for co-operation with the Republic, but such co-operation should be carried out on a reciprocal basis, as set out in international law – that is, respect for the territorial integrity of states. I will return to this later.

It is against this background of the interpretation given to parity of esteem that I want to look at the issue of consent.

As with the parity of esteem issue, the concept of consent has been twisted and distorted to suit whoever is using the term. To see just how distorted consent has become, one needs to look at the recent history of Anglo-Irish affairs.

Articles 2 and 3, the parts of the Irish Constitution best-known to the Ulster people, as highlighted by the McGimpsey case, indicate that the Republic of Ireland must, by political efforts, seek to achieve an all-Ireland state. It was indeed declared a constitutional imperative by the Supreme Court in that case brought by the McGimpsey brothers. However, despite the very clear and unambiguous declarations by the Supreme Court, our Government proceeded to implement the Anglo-lrish Agreement of 1985. Our Government was all too aware that the Republic’s Government could only ever work towards an all-Ireland state, and so anything agreed with it would be on that basis.

In the Anglo-lrish Agreement, the issue of consent of the people of Northern Ireland is flagged up. In the consent clause, however, there is a mere declaration that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired a change in that status. Nowhere, not once, does it actually say what the status of Northern Ireland is. This was of course a cause for much alarm among Unionists. If Articles 2 and 3 were still in being, it was obvious to everyone that, as far as the Irish were concerned, Northern Ireland was de jure part of the Irish nation. As Peter Barry, that much loved politician of the time, pointed out, the Anglo-lrish Agreement,

‘is as it must be of course totally consistent with the Constitution and therefore Article 2’. 5

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a total slap in the face to Unionists, not only because the republican analysis had been accepted, but because it signalled to the republicans that their tactics were winning and they should keep on with ‘the war’. The Agreement after all was a sign of weakness on our Government’s part, and the IRA were going to continue to press for more concessions now that they had a foothold.

The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 signalled again the defeatism of our Government and their acceptance of the republican belief, that Irish unification is inevitable. The Frameworks Document last year took the same approach.

Like the Anglo-lrish Agreement before them, the Downing Street Declaration and the Frameworks Document speak of the need for consent to any new arrangements, but having looked at the background to our own Govemment’s thinking on the issue of consent, knowing that Articles 2 and 3 are still in place, and the interpretation given to parity of esteem, one must ask: is it to the pace of unification that the people of Northern Ireland have consent, or is it actual true consent on the issue of remaining, as most of us want, within the United Kingdom? Sadly the former appears to be the case.

John Hume, of course, wrings his hands and says he cannot understand why the Unionists are so worried; after all they have the right of consent to fall back on. However, this is the same man who then goes on to tell us that Northern Ireland cannot be run on a majoritarian basis. Is this not a contradiction?

The Sunday Times columnist, Vincent Browne, certainly believes that it is a contradiction, and he is a friend of John Hume! In a recent article, he reviewed Hume’s new book, Personal Views, and in it he says he is disappointed to discover that Hume is flawed in his understanding of the Unionist people – well, I think we all could have told him that years ago! Anyhow he looks amongst other things at what Hume thinks of what he calls the British guarantee. Hume says:

‘it undermines any hope of political negotiations between the two sides in Northern Ireland’. 6

As Browne correctly points out, the guarantee is merely a recognition of the principle of consent, to which Hume says he is committed.

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Vincent Browne

Hume really needs to be taken to task in all his grand phrases and soundbites. It is, I think, very interesting to note that in one passage of his book Hume refers to the Unionist community as ‘petty people’. I find that grossly offensive and it shows just how little Hume understands, or indeed wants to understand, Unionists.

Martin Manseragh, the head of Research at Fianna Fail, also has a view on consent and how it should operate. In a recent article in Fortnight magazine, 7 he asks if Unionists are serious about consent, or are the wishes of the majority the only thing that is really going to count? Again there is an inherent and obvious contradiction. In the same article he says that an inability to accept a middle ground between integration with the UK and a united Ireland will be damaging to the prospects of the Union in the longer term. An interesting analysis: give away the Union and by doing so you will save the Union! This thinking is way ahead of me. I can’t quite grasp it.

Manseragh states that a new act of self determination for the island as a whole is needed along with self-detemdnation for Northern Ireland. He says that:

‘we should update the understanding of self-determination and align it with current international law and practice. Unionists and the British should broaden their understanding of the principle of consent.’ 8

The trouble with Manseragh’s view of consent is that he has widened it so much that it is stretched beyond recognition. Manseragh puts great store by the fact that he believes international law is on his side. Well, I have news for Manseragh and indeed Hume: international law and the spirit behind it are on the side of the Union.

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Martin Manseragh

Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s 1937 Constitution are against the principles of international law. Throughout the European Union, states are committed to the recognition of each other’s boundaries, all of course apart from the Republic of Ireland and it is to me a great injustice that this should be allowed to continue.

The United Nations Capotorti Report, published as far back as 1979, referred to co-operation on the rights of minority groups. It stated that they should be based on:

‘mutual respect for the principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States concerned and non-interference in their internal affairs.’ 9

This is a pretty clear expression of international thinking which was echoed in 1993 by the Heads of Government in the Council of Europe. The Council, which was addressing the problem of minority rights, set up a framework Convention which again referred to the need to respect territorial integrity and the national sovereignty of states. It states that:

‘any person belonging to the national minority shall respect the national legislature and rights of others, and in particular those persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.’

The Convention clearly points out that minorities have rights, but they also have obligations. Both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are signatories to this Convention. However, this was conveniently forgotten in the Downing Street Declaration and indeed in the Frameworks Document. The Frameworks Document was certainly in line with the New Ireland Forum, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but not with current international thinking on minority rights.’ 10

Thus it is Manseragh and Hume who are wrong about international law and not the ill-informed Unionists.

What is clear to me is that we Unionists need to challenge many of the myths and misrepresentations being peddled at this time, and to lay down some facts.

Firstly, we do not, as some may claim, object to parity of esteem, but we do object to our citizenship being treated as equal to an aspiration. Equity of treatment for the whole community in Northern Ireland certainly, but not equality for citizenship and aspiration. That, as Mr Spock would say, is illogical.

Secondly, in accordance with international law and with other cases (such as in the South Tyrol in Italy), consent should and must be for the people of Northern Ireland, full stop. The recognition of the territorial integrity of states must be paramount in all international policy in this area.

Thirdly, if the exercise of that consent results in what some would call a Unionist settlement, then that is the will of the people of Northern Ireland and must be accepted by all concerned, if they are democrats. But that is a big ‘if’ in Northern Ireland!


1. ‘The Balance of Equal Rights’, Dick Spring TD, Northern Ireland Brief, 1995.
2. ‘Fresh Thinking for a Fresh Start’, Marjorie Mowlam MP, Northern Ireland Brief. 1995.
3. Belfast Telegraph, 23rd August 1994 as quoted in Unionism Restated. Dermot Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist Information Institute.
4. John Wilson Foster et al., The Idea of the Union, Belcover Press 1995.
5. Ibid.
6. Vincent Browne, ‘A Familar Deficiency in the Jumbled Thoughts of Hume’, The Sunday Times, 2nd June 1996.
7. Martin Manseragh, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Fortnight, May 1996, No. 350.
8. Ibid.
9. Robert McCartney, QC, MP.,’A Tale of Two Governments’, The Idea of the Union, p 95.
10. Article 20, ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’, Council of Europe, February 1996.

© Arlene Foster and Friends of the Union. First published November 1996.

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