Issue 1 - 2023 front

4 September 1997 Edition

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Unionists should consent to talks

Three Unionist MPs have now come out publicly against the UUP sitting at the talks table with Sinn Féin. The three - Ross, Smyth and Thompson - are part of an old guard who are finding it increasingly difficult to come to terms with a changing world. But their views are not unrepresentative. There is an air of crisis within Unionism as the talks approach and not only the old guard are getting cold feet.

Unionists are clinging to two issues as the tide of change sweeps on. The first - decommissioning - has long ago been recognised by everyone else as a very dead, very red herring. It was a stalling device which has outlived its usefulness. It can no longer hold up talks.

The other issue is consent or, more accurately, the unionist veto. Under the glare of logical argument it too is being seen as a block to progress. Unionists and loyalists are defining consent as simply the exercise of Unionism's numerical majority. It is a sterile definition by which they aim to retain the status quo. In other words, a veto.

It is how the Unionists have always defined their position - by reference to their numbers. Indeed, that was the basis for drawing up the state's boundaries in the first place.

Meanwhile, as Unionists cling to their veto, others are coming to see the issue of consent in the way in which republicans define it; as a fluid concept in talks. Of course a negotiated settlement needs consent. No lasting agreement can emerge without it. But consent is not exclusively a Unionist perogative. Their mindset must begin to recognise that there are other people on this island. They must enter talks in a spirit of trying to persuade people of their position, of winning people's consent instead of standing firm against change.

Above all, as Unionists discuss their approach to talks, they should recognise the inevitability of face-to-face talks with Sinn Féin. They cannot say no for ever. They should say yes now.

An Phoblacht
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