This is Unionism’s last chance to right the wrong of 1998
By Jamie Bryson
It should come as no surprise that a thumping majority of unionists would now no longer support the Belfast Agreement. There have been many of us pointing out the fundamental and obvious flaws for many years, but credit for making our anti-Agreement arguments irrefutable goes to those who designed and imposed the Northern Ireland Protocol.
That pernicious arrangement which, among other things, “subjugated” the very foundational basis of the Union and treats NI as part of the territory of the European Union, exposed the ‘consent’ principle as a fundamental fraud and deceit.
Pro Agreement unionism built their entire argument around the principle of consent, and argued that purported ‘safeguard’ protected against any change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, save for a referendum for that purpose.
But the Protocol- and the Allister et al litigation- has exposed that the principle of consent is in fact merely symbolic. You can change everything but the last thing about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, the last thing being merely the final formal handover of sovereignty. Put another way, you can incrementally dismantle the Union, but so long as Westminster nominally remained sovereign, this is permissible.
As John Larkin KC pointed out in Allister et al, if you can hand law making and judicial powers to Brussels without offending the principle of consent, then so too could such powers be handed to Dublin. Is there any unionist who seriously thinks that would be tolerable?
I would go further and point out that not only is the incremental dismantling of the Union permissible within the framework of the Belfast Agreement, but it is also in fact a necessary component of the Belfast Agreement ‘process’ which operates from the overarching ethos that unionism must give, and nationalism must get, and this perpetual cycle must continue until a majority vote for a United Ireland.
Of course, when the Union is being incrementally dismantled with ever increasing all-Ireland harmonisation, the intent is to ensure that when the time comes, it is but a small step to a United Ireland, given in practice that has already happened. The de jure sovereignty becomes irrelevant, or put another way, purely symbolic.
This analysis was accepted by Lord Trimble, who made clear that the Protocol had exposed the principle of consent as a betrayal.
That being so, what now is the basis of pro Agreement unionism? What argument can they possibly mount?
Having put all their eggs in the principle of consent basket for 25 years, they have- in truth- no credible path to now pivot and try to make some new argument.
That won’t, of course, stop some of the most Stockholme syndrome pro Agreement unionists, like monkeys swinging branch to branch as each breaks, from trying to find some intellectually incoherent argument to cling to their precious Belfast Agreement.
The UUP day and daily continue to promote this incoherence, but notably cannot- and will not- engage with the exposure of the principle of consent as a deception. They know that if they were to do so, they would leave themselves totally exposed and having to inevitably accept that they have not a single credible argument to refute that which has become patently obvious.
Writing in Saturday’s Belfast Telegraph Alex Kane provided a perceptive analysis as to unionism’s transition to being anti-Agreement. He also highlighted that anti-Agreement unionism and loyalism will see the recent poll results as encouragement to push on towards ending the Belfast Agreement- in its present form- once and for all.
He is absolutely right, and I make no secret of it. I should also point out that number seven of the DUP’s key tests directs itself to the consent principle being reformed. The leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, wrote a detailed argument on this website last year on this very issue.
Therefore, as a matter of the most compelling logic, even fixing the Protocol does not fix the fraudulent deceit at the heart of the principle of consent.
If I put it like this; if pro Agreement unionism’s argument for the 1998 Agreement is based upon the ‘gain’ of the principle of consent, then given that has been- beyond any doubt- shown to be a deceptive snare, then what argument does pro Agreement unionism have left?
In truth, it is only the UUP within unionism who incoherently seek to cling like a sycophantic puppy to the Belfast Agreement, throwing out every buzzword and cliché in the book in an effort to dissemble and conceal the truth: their Agreement is a fraud, and now the majority of unionism see it as such.
To the credit of many others (PUP, Loyalists, Kate Hoey etc.) they have now recanted and disavowed the Agreement.
It is extremely welcome that a majority of unionism has now accepted the reality of how corrosive the Agreement is to the Union, and every vestige of British identity, and this should lead to the inevitable conclusion that power sharing- in its present form- is gone.
Unionism must be intellectually honest and ideologically pure. The 1998 Agreement has been a noose around the neck of unionism, and this is our last best chance to break free. There is no credible argument in favour of restoring the Belfast Agreement institutions- save for a strengthening of the principle of consent- even if the Protocol is removed.
This is our chance to right the wrong of 1998, we must now forsake it.