By Jamie Bryson
In 2022 unionism, for the most part speaking with one voice, finally said ‘enough is enough’. A line was drawn in the land, and the unionist community- perhaps 25 years too late, saw the Belfast Agreement for what it is: a fundamental deception, with a nationalist bias hardwired into its DNA.
It took the Protocol to expose the fundamental frailties, most notably that the principle of consent- that which pro Agreement unionism sold as the big ‘win’- was in fact a deception. The Protocol (notably the Allister et al case that flowed from it) which subjugates the Union exposed that when it comes to the Northern Ireland’s place therein, you can change everything but the last thing; the last thing being merely the final formal handover of sovereignty.
Lord Trimble candidly set out prior to his death that the principle of consent was the sole reason he was able to secure support within unionism for the Agreement.
Loyalist leaders such as Billy Hutchinson and Jim Wilson have said this year- in contributions on this website- that if they had known in 1994 and 1998 what they know now about the principle of consent, and the fact it is in fact merely symbolic, that the loyalist negotiating teams would never have been able to secure the loyalist ceasefire, and that they as political leaders in loyalism could not have recommended endorsing the Belfast Agreement.
The question therefore arises: given unionism and loyalism now know that the principle of consent (which was sole basis upon which pro Agreement unionism supported the 1998 Agreement and power sharing) is a fraudulent deception, on what basis can even pro Agreement unionists argue for continued support for the Agreement and unionist participation in the institutions flowing from it?
In addition, we have seen the narrative that cross-community consent is a fundamental and sacred pillar of power sharing in Northern Ireland shredded. Again, evidenced by the Protocol, it is clear that in truth the real narrative is that majority rule was bad so long as unionist were in the majority, but when nationalists along with their little helpers in Alliance can band together to form a majority, all of a sudden there is no such objections.
In reality, cross community consent really means nationalist consent. The first time unionism reached for the safeguards, the safeguards were disapplied in order to ensure the continued imposition of a Protocol which at its core is a reward for nationalist and Irish Government threats of violence.
The whole Belfast Agreement deception can be illuminated by reference to the Protocol. In order to placate nationalists who said they could be no land border, unionists were expected to absorb the constitutionally abominable Sea border.
Unionism must give, nationalism must get.
It is no surprise therefore that the majority of unionism- indeed all of unionism other than the UUP- has realised the jig is up in regards pretending the Belfast Agreement is anything other than a vehicle to- with or without our consent- drive us all the way to a United Ireland.
Those in loyalism who took huge risks for peace (Billy Hutchinson, Jim Wilson and others behind the scenes) have candidly- both publicly and privately- thrown the hands up and withdrawn support for the Agreement. They, to their credit, have not sought to keep arguing for an Agreement which it is plain to see is so fundamentally flawed and inherently imbalanced against unionism.
That takes courage. It takes courage to admit that something which you argued for, and in some cases risked your life to try and persuade your community to endorse, has turned out to be a deception.
I have all the respect in the world for those who have refused to give cover to the Agreement any longer, and who have instead admitted they- and all of pro Agreement unionism/loyalism- were betrayed in 1998.
It is worth reading the contributions on this site by both Billy Hutchinson and Jim Wilson which reflect the views of many of those around them both in 1994, 1998 and now. They explain why they genuinely believed they were doing the right thing and wanted to do all they could to secure peace. That noble motivation has to be acknowledged.
Jim Wilson put it this way in his video interview for Unionist Voice earlier in the year: “if you ask me now did we get it wrong, yeh, we did. But back then, no. We did it for the right reasons. We didn’t want to see anymore bloodshed or our young people going to prison.”
But the fact remains that the Agreement was based upon flaws and ambiguities, and every ambiguity and interpretation of the Agreement has been, and continues to be, resolved in favour of nationalists.
It is no wonder unionism and loyalism can no longer support it, and that is true even if the Protocol is removed. The fundamental deception which has been seen can not be unseen. Fixing the Protocol doesn’t fix the Agreement’s flawed nature.
That is why when I hear Doug Beattie and the UUP waxing lyrical over the Belfast Agreement, I wonder how they have ended up in such a state of delusion. The UUP’s basis for arguing for the Agreement has been exposed as being a fraud. Lord Trimble himself prior to his death said as much. The principle of consent doesn’t do what they believed it did, and no one can credibly argue otherwise.
So, if that proposition is accepted, then upon what basis do the UUP now argue for the Agreement? Do they just close their eyes and pretend not to have seen that which is staring them straight in the face?
In equal terms the UUP have set themselves apart from the unionist family and berated those who have taken a principled stand refusing to return to power-sharing whilst the Protocol remains.
As the High Court ruling in the Poots case recently demonstrated, the price of being in the Executive is to implement the Protocol.
Therefore, the simple question every unionist ought to ask their local UUP representative is this:
Given the price of Stormont is implementing the Protocol, is that a price the UUP would pay?
And if they talk about negotiations in parallel, ask them this:
For how long would the UUP pay the price of implementing the Protocol, or do they have no time-limit (i.e they would implement it in perpetuity, hoping one day it might be removed, but doing nothing if it isn’t)?
And then remind them that Lord Trimble said (correctly) “the Act of Union is the Union”.
That being so, and given the Protocol “subjugates” the Act of Union, then ask them this:
On what basis can a unionist party implement (for any period of time) the subjugation of the Union whilst still claiming to be protecting the Union?
These are questions the UUP wont and can’t answer, because they have no answer.
In 2023 I hope the party of Carson and Craig come back to the unionist family and join the rest of us (DUP, TUV, PUP, Loyal Orders, LCC, Coalitions, bands) in standing against the Protocol.
But more importantly, anti-Protocol unionism must remain strong. There can be no backsliding and no compromise.
It is power sharing or the Protocol, never both.