By Jamie Bryson
It was a privilege to join fellow unionists across the United Kingdom last week at the launch of the Centre for the Union in the Westminster Parliament.
I was honoured to join Ian Paisley MP, Ethan Thoburn Director of the Centre for the Union, Paul Girvan MP, Jim Allister KC MLA, Jim Shannon MP, Baroness Hoey, Ben Habib and Lord Moylan as a speaker at the prestigious event attended by a range of influential political, civic and academic figures.
It was a timely event, coming as it did during the Protocol challenge being heard in the Supreme Court last Wednesday and Thursday.
In that case the Government argued that the Act of Union, the very foundation stone of the United Kingdom which is described in Halsbury’s statutes as “the statutory warrant for Northern Ireland’s continued incorporation into the United Kingdom”, was “disapplied” by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Dr Tony McGleenan KC, on behalf of the Government, outlined how they dislike the word subjugation and prefer the language of disapplication. Put simply, it appears the Government think unionists are that dense that using a less emotive word will somehow conceal the constitutional assault on the Union which they- via the pernicious Protocol- have facilitated.
There was unanimity at the Centre for the Union event on this issue. The Acts of Union is a red line for every self-respecting unionist, and if the Government believe that playing on words will somehow fool unionism into accepting second-class British citizenship in Northern Ireland, then they are living in a fool’s paradise.
In my contribution I put the matter like this: is there anyone who believes that Parliament, created by Article 3 of the Acts of Union, could constitutionally abolish that provision (and thus itself) and instead usher in, for example, authoritarian rule?
I suggest that most people would respond by pointing out that our Parliamentary democracy is a fundamental constitutional bedrock which could not be removed.
But Parliament is sovereign, why could it not legally abolish itself?
If you follow Parliamentary sovereignty to its logical conclusion, it could. But it would not be constitutional. There may be times when something is legal, but unconstitutional.
And so, if Article 3 of the Acts of Union could not be constitutionally abolished or disapplied, why is Article 6 of the Acts of Union to be afforded a lesser status?
There is no coherent answer to that point. And if the Supreme Court say Parliament by implication disapplied Article 6 of the Acts of Union, then in exercise of Parliamentary sovereignty they could legally engage in such constitutional vandalism, but that doesn’t make it any less unconstitutional.
In my contribution I further sought to emphasise the imbalance in Northern Ireland in relation to lobbying and influencer organisations. The nationalist/republican community have a whole industry of surrogate organisations (Relatives for Justice, CAJI, Pat Finucane Centre, Ireland’s Future etc.) not to mention how they have infiltrated large sections of our most influential sections of the professional class (law/media/academia) and used that status to advance and credential nationalist/republican objectives.
There is little by way of comparison in the unionist/loyalist community. That has to change, and so too must the lens through which we view the Union.
The principle of self-determination has come to be viewed as applying to constituent parts of the United Kingdom, rather than to the Union as a whole. Put simply, small geographical parts of the UK (Northern Ireland and Scotland) have had bestowed upon them the right to dissolve the Union by the merest of majorities.
It should not be the case that any one constituent part of the Union has right to bring it to an end unilaterally. The principle of self determination in relation to the Union should be a principle equally applicable to the whole United Kingdom.
In practice, that means that we should view the Union through the prism of one country, with different states therein. Any vote to dissolve the Union, should be a matter for the whole Union.
The development of devolution has damaged the constitutional unity of the United Kingdom, and all those who value the Union should work to undo that grave error.
It was heartening last week to hear all the speakers at the event share a commitment to not only maintaining the Union, but strengthening it. Inherent within that commitment must be, and certainly from the DUP, TUV and all self-respecting unionists is, a clear message that there will never again be Belfast Agreement power-sharing in Northern Ireland until the Protocol is removed.
On Thursday evening, another significant social gathering took place in the Cavalry and Guards club. A fantastic evening, hosted by Ben Habib, and attended by a range of influential unionists from across the UK, with a strong Northern Ireland contingent mixing in with those from GB including many former Brexit party MEPs and candidates, and well-known broadcasters, journalists and commentators.
There was a special moment in the evening. The host, Ben Habib, delivered a rousing speech which was met with applause throughout. But then, at the end, he passionately urged Sir Jeffrey Donaldson- who was in attendance- to “stand firm”. The roof nearly came off with cheers and applause.
Unionism has not been defeated by the Protocol, but rather it has galvanised unionism not only in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom.
All who value the Union stand behind Sir Jeffrey, Jim Allister and all those (both at Westminster and elected to the Assembly) who continue to stand firm in resistance to the Protocol.
As Jim Allister KC put it so succinctly from the outset: if we do not kill the Protocol, it will kill the Union.