UUP’s constitutional illiteracy is a real threat to the Union
By Jamie Bryson
The UUP appear to have been largely taken over by a coalition of social media activists who have become prominent in the party.
It seems these persons, who as will be demonstrated below have no understanding of important constitutional issues, are influencing senior Ulster Unionists such as Doug Beattie and Mike Nesbitt, who have consistently flip flopped on the Protocol.
This isn’t a hardline loyalist view, rather the same criticism has been made by the Newsletter editorial, former Chairman of the UUP David Campbell, former UUP MLA David McNarry and a number of others.
Rather than engage with the points of criticism, the UUP either fail to enter into discussion on the points at all, adopt a victimhood mentality on social media or their prominent twitter party members simply respond with childish (and always vacuous) jibes and snide remarks. They are taking the efforts to model themselves on the nasty party (Alliance) a little far in this regard.
Last April prior to the May 2022 election Doug Beattie, discussing the Protocol with Stephen Nolan, said that the restoration of the Act of Union wasn’t a red line for the UUP. This entirely contradicted the position of UUP’s Steve Aiken who was a party to the Protocol case, and indeed Lord Trimble himself.
Since May 2022 the UUP have led the charge of undermining the collective unionist position of ‘power sharing or the Protocol’, instead demanding a return to the Executive.
It has been patiently explained to the UUP, including being set out in express terms in the judgment of Colton J in Rooney and JR181 (3) that to be in the Executive requires implementation of the Protocol.
The UUP have been asked, repeatedly, whether that is a price they will pay to fulfil their unalterable commitment to an Executive (at any price). No answer has been forthcoming.
There have been some incoherent assertions that they would only do so in parallel to negotiations on the Protocol, but that is entirely circular. The obvious point would be, for how long? And if they say if there was no resolution by date X, and at that point collapsing the Executive would be justified, then surely that brings us back to the point that they must therefore accept that collapsing the Executive is in fact a legitimate tactic (contrary to their pious pronouncements) and rather their objection is truly the timing.
It should be remembered that the UUP walked out of the Executive in August 2015 over the IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan (rightly so) and mocked the DUP’s in-out Ministers strategy (again, rightly so). At what point therefore did walking out of the Executive become an immoral tactic, in the eyes of the UUP?
Last Sunday and Monday we had the spectacle of Doug Beattie and then Mike Nesbitt saying the Protocol did not threaten the Union, with Nesbitt even seemingly suggesting that a belief it did was just a unionist perception.
Less than 24 hours later Doug Beattie u-turned and sought to (somewhat unconvincingly) perform a pirouette whilst dancing on the head of a pin in order to extract from his own words a particular meaning, allowing him to escape through the hatch of claiming his own words were misinterpreted.
Even if we were to give credibility to that clearly ridiculous assertion, that does not address the comments of Nesbitt. Was he too just clumsy with his clear and explicit language?
In truth, it seems again the UUP just haven’t thought this out and opted for soundbites to win social media likes from nationalists and Alliance voters, none of whom will ever vote UUP anyway. This was a criticism made by Cllr Carl McClean who recently left the UUP and joined the DUP.
On Tuesday one of the most active social media Ulster Unionists, Stephen McCarthy tweeted, inter alia, as follows:
“The constitutional Union can only be undone by referendum as per the BA/GFA. The economic Union is indeed threatened by the NIP. The social Union is being sabotaged…”
This appears to completely confuse what the Union is, and instead treat the ‘constitutional Union’ as a separate concept to the ‘economic Union’, and Mr McCarthy’s newly defined ‘social Union’.
Not only is this to adopt nationalism’s interpretation of the principle of consent, but it is in fact entirely contrary to the position of the late Lord Trimble and Steve Aiken (acting on behalf of the UUP) in the Protocol case.
The ‘constitutional Union’ is the Union, defined as a matter of constitutional law as the Act/s of Union. It isn’t a concept which sits separate to the economic Union, rather the economic Union is a core part of the constitutional Union.
Put simply, to change the economic Union is to change the constitutional Union.
In Mr McCarthy’s analysis, a change to the economic Union doesn’t amount to a change to the ‘constitutional Union’, which- according to him- can only change via referendum. This completely fails to understand that the ‘constitutional Union’ is not separate to the economic and political Union, but rather they are what makes it up.
The position adopted by Mr McCarthy is precisely what nationalism’s argument is; namely that the principle of consent found in s1 (1) of the NI Act 1998 is purely territorial and directs itself only to the final formal handover of sovereignty.
Unionism’s argument (including that of Lord Trimble and Steve Aiken MLA in the Protocol case) is that a change to the economic Union (the “subjugation” of Article VI of the Acts of Union) is a change to NI’s constitutional status, and thus should trigger the principle of consent. If the principle of consent does not protect the economic Union, then it is devoid of substance and is in fact purely symbolic.
In short form, the laws which govern NI could be made in Dublin, but so long as Westminster was nominally holding the title deeds to NI, this would be acceptable.
This is the logical end point of Mr McCarthy dividing the constitutional Union and the economic Union, and applying the principle of consent only to his version of the constitutional Union.
So, as often with the ‘new’ UUP (which is rapidly becoming NI21 reincarnated), Mr McCarthy’s argument is not only the absolute opposite of the rest of Unionism (including the UUP in the Protocol case) but it is fundamentally dangerous because nationalism will latch onto it and believe that it is somehow reflective of an element of unionism. In truth it isn’t (or at least I hope it isn’t) but rather Mr McCarthy simply doesn’t really understand the concepts he is promoting.
The Act/s of Union is the Union. That is the ‘constitutional Union’. It is made up of a political Union (Article 3) and an economic Union (Article 6). The principle of consent, if it is to provide true protection for the Union, must guard against any change to any aspect of the Act of Union.
In regards this new concept of a ‘social Union’, this can be quickly dispensed with. The political Union is designed to facilitate democratic debate in which all social views can be respected, and then via Parliamentary democracy turned into laws which command majority support of the people.
In Mr McCarthy’s concept, is ‘the social Union’, for example, pro-abortion or pro-life?; is it pro-same-sex marriage, or against it?
It isn’t difficult to see how the concept collapses under the most elementary scrutiny. If the social Union exists with overriding social values, then it is obvious that there must be constitutionally enshrined social values which ground that.
That in fact is a sure-fire route to creating dis-Union because if the concept of the Union identifies itself with one social cause over another (for example, pro-abortion and disavows religious beliefs), rather than the democratic process making such laws and standards, then this excludes from the Union (in this hypothetical scenario) those of religious belief, because the Union would not reflect their values.
The social values of the Union are moveable and are made by Parliament. There isn’t some higher or distinct ‘social Union’, rather those issues are addressed within the political aspect of the Union (Article 3 of the Acts if Union).
As always, Unionist Voice is an open platform if anyone from the UUP wants to actually engage with the substance of the issues and set out their case. I suspect, however, that exposure of the constitutional illiteracy which underpins their utterances will simply be met by childish jibes. That, in of itself, reaffirms that which should now be obvious.
They just don’t get it.