By Billy Hutchinson
In 1998 I was one of the loyalist negotiating team in the talks which led to the Belfast Agreement. In the past number of years I have written extensively (including on this website) on lessons we can learn from that experience. I do not intend to repeat those points in this article.
As to how the Agreement has worked out, with the benefit of hindsight and far removed from a time-frame in the proximity of a brutal conflict, I believe we made our decision for the right reasons. We wanted to give peace a chance. However, due to bad-faith on the part of Tony Blair, secret deals with the republicans and in recent years the unbalancing of the Agreement and removal of safeguards for unionism, as a way of imposing the Protocol and Irish Sea border, it is clear unionism/loyalism have been betrayed.
The anger remains palpable in grassroots unionist and loyalist communities, and I do not see any circumstance whereby a deal which simply makes cosmetic or technical changes but left the Irish Sea border in place would ever be sellable.
It is now clear that in 1998 the political text and spin around what the Agreement would do, was belied by what- as a matter of law- it actually ended up doing. That is a matter of profound regret: I am on record as saying if we had known then what we know now, we could never have persuaded loyalists to call the 1994 ceasefire and, in the majority, to support the 1998 Agreement.
The greatest example, identified in recent years prior to his passing by Lord Trimble, was that the principle of consent was presented in the political text and much public spin as meaning a cast-iron protection against any diminution of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the Union, but in the legal text- as we discovered in recent years with the subjugation of the Acts of Union- it in fact turned out that, legally, it meant much less.
In the coming days and weeks loyalism will have a role to play. Unlike 1998 it won’t be a role which is internal to the talks, but nevertheless the loyalist voice is an important one and I have no doubt that there will be an effort to persuade loyalism to adopt a position favourable to the proposed deal.
I write this without having seen any deal, therefore I do so without prejudice. However, it does appear to me that there is a clear reluctance on the part of those proponents of accepting a deal to open it up to scrutiny. I have read multiple detailed papers, articles and public contributions by those who say the deal cannot possibly achieve what it will purport to have achieved, but- as yet- I see nothing which commits any opposing view to writing, and opens it to scrutiny. Why not?
That concerns me. Loyalists will be faced with elements of political unionism in the Assembly coming along and presenting, in the most favourable light, the proposed deal. It will be presented as achieving things which, as we have learnt in the past, may not in fact be achieved at all. If its proponents cannot commit their position to writing and tackle the arguments made against them, that is telling.
That is why I believe a key lesson from 1998 is that rather than taking any political text, or assertions of politicians, at face value, there should be an open and frank consultation process and public debate on every aspect of the deal and, most crucially, there should be independent credible legal opinion commissioned and published which scrutinises the various claims and provides a firm legal answer.
It would seem to me that the appropriate person to provide such an opinion, given he was entrusted by all unionist parties to lead the legal challenge against the Protocol, is Northern Ireland’s former Attorney General John Larkin KC.
If what is being proposed cannot survive public scrutiny or the commissioning of a legal opinion to ascertain whether the Acts of Union are actually restored and the Irish Sea border is removed, then that will provide a complete answer as to the credibility of the deal, and those promoting it.
In equal terms, as touched on above, those who advocate the deal should be able to commit their position to writing, setting out clearly what they say to that which has been committed to writing by those opposed to the deal. Let all sides publish their arguments in detail.
There should be no effort to evade scrutiny and public debate, and there is an onus on all those who feeling strongly to play their part in the debate.
I put my name, as then leader of the PUP, to the join Unionist Ulster Day declaration of 2021. That was a solemn pledge of unalterable opposition to the Protocol. In my mind, that means no unionist should or could put their hand to accepting or implementing the Protocol, in any guise.
In 2024, I still stand firmly behind the commitment I made. My word is my bond, and I have given it to my community and those who I represented at that time. I won’t go back on it, and nor should anyone else.
The advice which I would give, from personal experience, is that loyalists should ask Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to commission and publish a legal opinion from John Larkin KC or someone of equal stature, which sets out clearly and unambiguously whether what is proposed restores the Acts of Union and removes the Irish Sea border, or not. It is only with such a legal opinion that any deal could have credibility.
If no such legal opinion is forthcoming, then that really ought to provide a complete answer.
Billy Hutchinson is President of the PUP, former PUP leader and served as an MLA and Belfast City Councillor. He was a key loyalist negotiator during the 1994 ceasefires and Belfast Agreement in 1998. He has written about his political and personal journey, including his time spent as a UVF life sentence prisoner, in the critically-acclaimed book ‘My Life In Loyalism’.