From a unionist viewpoint the legitimacy of Irish nationalism is not rejected in the sense that it is entitled to wish for a united Ireland, though unionism does not accept the validity of the nationalist argument. The unionist and nationalist viewpoints have equal legitimacy as viewpoints but they are entirely different in law. Northern Ireland is accepted by international law as part of the UK, whereas the nationalist viewpoint has the status of a legitimate right to wish for a change in Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. The section of the Agreement entitled ‘Constitutional Issues’ deals with these different aspirations. It is very carefully worded in order to demonstrate that each party acknowledges and respects the concerns and aspirations of the others.
The British and Irish governments made a commitment that, in the new British–Irish Agreement replacing the Anglo–Irish Agreement of 1985, they will firstly ‘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.’ Secondly, they will ‘recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.’ Thirdly, they will ‘acknowledge that while a substantial section of the people in Northern Ireland share the legitimate wish of a majority of the people of the island of Ireland for a united Ireland, the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union....’ The other parties to the talks endorsed that commitment.
Additionally, in paragraph five of the section of the Agreement entitled ‘the Declaration of Support’, the parties ‘acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement. It is accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements – an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North–South Ministerial Council, implementation bodies, a British–Irish Council and a British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland – are interlocking and interdependent and that in particular the functioning of the Assembly and the North–South Council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other.’ From a unionist point of view these bodies do not take away from the current position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom but from a nationalist perspective they provide opportunities for cooperation based on mutual benefit and allowing for their identification with the whole island of Ireland.
In order to make these arrangements function each identity group has to have confidence in the commitment and goodwill of the others. The Agreement therefore included a system of checks and balances so that if one part of the Agreement does not work the other parts will also cease to apply. For example, Ministers are expected to sit on the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly and to take part in the North–South Ministerial Council established to ‘bring together those with executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland and the Irish government’ and ‘develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland’. Some politicians will embrace this dual role as a reflection of their commitment to good government. Others may find one or other of these bodies difficult, but they do not have the option of only taking part in the one which fits best with their own sense of identity.