Ex-UUP minister: Unionists are missing a key factor in SF’s arguments about rights

Dermot Nesbitt said that international law is important to the debate about an Irish language act
Dermot Nesbitt said that international law is important to the debate about an Irish language act

A former unionist minister has urged unionists not to dismiss Sinn Fein’s frequent references to rights – but to engage with such arguments.

Dermot Nesbitt, a leading liberal unionist until his retirement a decade ago, said that the unionist parties were making a mistake in failing to respond to republican arguments in the terms in which they are now presented.

Mr Nesbitt, who was standing talking to the lawyer and unionist politician Edgar Graham when he was murdered in cold blood by the IRA in 1983, said that unionists should look to international rights law when they formulate their response to republican demands, such as the call for an Irish language act.

Speaking to the News Letter, the former commissioner at the Equality Commission said: “Since the end of the Second World War an array of international agreements and conventions have been drawn up at both European and global level in order to establish guidelines and regulations on the rights and obligations of residents within states and on obligations of states towards them.

“It is indisputable that the overwhelming consensus that has emerged from these agreements is that the best deal for all, and the best hope for stability, is to be found in respect for the territorial integrity of existing states while offering maximum guarantees – internationally defined – to all.

“This does not deny the right of those who seek separation from the UK, as contained in The Belfast Agreement.

“The approach, including both by the UK and Irish governments, should not be a willingness to accommodate demands of ideological republicanism. Rather, it must be to follow the principles of international human rights law that are endorsed elsewhere in Europe and wider afield.”

Mr Nesbitt said that “with rights come obligations” and added: “While the right to have the Irish language recognised to the extent of having a separate act – as constantly articulated by Sinn Fein – is wholly reasonable and, more importantly, is in accord with international law, it is a reasonable position and in accord with international law to ask that Sinn Fein complement its approach by respecting the national constitution and acting without prejudice to the territorial integrity of the UK.”

The former South Down MLA also highlighted the Council of Europe’s latest report on the UK’s protection of national minorities.

It recommended that as an immediate action the government should “adopt appropriate legislation protecting and promoting the Irish language and take measures to ensure progress on language rights of persons belonging to the Irish minority”.

However, Mr Nesbitt drew attention to the words just after that widely reported call, which said that the government “should engage in a dialogue to create the political consensus needed for adopting legislation”.

Mr Nesbitt said: “One aspect that is needed to provide this political consensus and made clear by Council of Europe documentation is the requirement to respect the national constitution. Sinn Fein members cannot do what they prefer, rather they must do what international law directs.”

Referring to the ongoing debate about the Irish language act, Dermott Nesbitt said that Sinn Fein’s demand for such legislation was in accordance with international law – but that Sinn Fein has obligations to fulfil.

He drew attention to the Council of Europe’s ‘Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ document, which was ratified by the UK in 1998.

That convention states that “every person belonging to a national minority has the right to use freely and without interference his or her minority language, in private and in public, orally and in writing”.

However, Mr Nesbitt highlighted that another section of the convention says: “Nothing in the present framework Convention shall be interpreted as implying any right to engage in any activity or perform any act contrary to the fundamental principles of international law and in particular of the sovereign equality, territorial integrity and political independence of States.”

Mr Nesbitt said: “Sinn Fein’s perspective regarding ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ for those living in Northern Ireland is not in accord with international accepted consensus.

“Mindful of Sinn Fein’s perspective of, for example; not taking their seats in Westminster as it has no right to legislate for any part of Ireland; ‘two flags or no flag’ position; and not accepting the minimum respect for the name ‘Northern Ireland’, it is reasonable to argue that these positions are not in accord with the Framework Convention.

“Overall, Sinn Fein does not uphold the basic tenants of international human rights law – in particular respect for the territorial integrity of the UK – that have the primary political objective of stability.”

He drew attention to Gerry Adams’ comment on the Andrew Marr Show in March that “I consider the position of this island to be totally and absolutely illegitimate and amoral”.

Mr Nesbitt said that comments such as those “illustrate how far Sinn Fein acts outside international law by showing no respect at all for the state called ‘United Kingdom’”.