I was in England last week for some of the celebrations attending the State visit of Ireland’s President Higgins to the United Kingdom.
Although Ireland and the United Kingdom have lived in peace beside one another since 1921, and have both been members of the EU since 1973, this was, remarkably, the first state visit by an Irish Head of State to the United Kingdom.
The Treaty of 1921, which brought the Irish Free State into existence, accepted the fact of continuing UK jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. The Irish constitution of 1937 also accepted this fact too, but asserted a right to reunification of the national territory which was deemed to include Northern Ireland. My understanding is that the existence of this territorial claim, which was not pursued in any serious way as a legal claim, was an obstacle in the minds of some Irish leaders to normal state to state relations. They seem to have felt that reciprocal state visits at head of state level would have constituted full acceptance, as of right, of UK jurisdiction in Northern Ireland.
This barrier was removed in 1998, sixteen years ago, when the relevant articles ( 2 and 3) in the constitution were removed by a referendum vote of the Irish people, as part of the package of measures that made up the Good Friday Agreement.
The coverage of the visit in Ireland was enormous and focussed on President Higgins and the queen and their many visibly cordial interactions throughout the visit.
Unfortunately, in sections of the media in Britain, much attention was focussed on the attendance of Martin Mc Guinness, a former member of the IRA, who now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland ( which remains in the United Kingdom) at the dinner in Windsor Castle. To my mind, it is unexceptional that Mr McGuiness would receive and accept such an invitation, given the office he willingly holds.
What remains exceptional is the fact that members of Mr Mc Guinness’ party, Sinn Fein, put forward members to be elected as members of Parliament in Westminster, who then refuse to take their seats there(although they draw their pay and allowances). If they attended they could work to affect the legislation that governs their constituents. That is what MPs do.
It seems that, in some way, Sinn Fein do not attend because they do not accept the jurisdiction of the UK Parliament (although they are happy to receive and spend money raised and voted by that Parliament).
If that is the case, they are not accepting the will of the Irish people, who accepted the Good Friday Agreement in full, including the change in articles 2 and 3 and the renunciation of any refusal to accept UK jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, unless and until the people of Northern Ireland itself decide to join a united Ireland.