By Jamie Bryson
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has consistently sought to undermine the unionist position in regards resisting the Protocol by effectively ‘crossing the picket line’ manned with the message that it is ‘power sharing or the Protocol’, and demanding unionism return to the Executive.
Throughout the process the present UUP leadership has displayed a remarkable misunderstanding of the relevant constitutional issues, with the leader in April 2022 stating that the restoration of the Acts of Union was not a “red line” for the UUP.
This is despite the late Lord Trimble, the leader of pro Agreement unionism in 1998, being clearly on record as stating, “the Act of Union is the Union”. He is plainly right about that, but how does that sit with the UUP’s present position that the Act of Union is not a red line?
I am not at all clear on the UUP’s position in this respect. Do they disavow their former leader’s constitutional analysis of the Act of Union, or their present leaders contention that the Act of Union is not a red line?
It must be one or the other, unless of course their position is that in truth they are content with the subjugation of the Act of Union, and thus the Union. If that is their position, they should say so.
But more fundamentally there is a dishonesty about the UUP’s present position in regards returning to Stormont. They have all the hyperbolic language criticising other unionists, and they are quite clear they’d be back to Stormont tomorrow, but have hitherto managed to escape facing up to the fundamental consequences of the position they advocate.
We have lots of abstract waffle about ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’, lots of fine words about their noble intentions (well received by nationalists and Alliance, of course), but when you peel that superficial layer back, they are without any intellectual substance on this issue.
The High Court ruling issued today (15 December 2022) makes clear that being in the Executive entails a statutory obligation to implement the Protocol. That being so, then any unionist who wants to return to the Executive must accept that the price of that is to implement the Protocol.
And we all know what the Protocol does; it subjugates the Act of Union and leaves NI “more in the EU.. than UK” (see Court of Appeal in Allister et al); and we now know via today’s judgment in the challenge against Edwin Poots brought by republican activists that it also ensures “the UK is no longer a unitary state” and that the words ‘United Kingdom’ in the relevant regulations are to be read as ‘Great Britain’, with Northern Ireland instead treated as the entry point into, and thus part of, the EU.
Are the UUP willing to pay that price in order to return to the Executive?
They ought to face up to that fundamental question and give an honest answer: if being in the Executive requires the implementation of the subjugation of the Union, is that a price the UUP will pay?
Moreover, the UUP are the key champions on the Belfast Agreement. As accepted by Lord Trimble the basis upon which unionism was persuaded was that the principle of consent guarded against any constitutional change. It is simply not credible to argue that the subjugation of the Union itself or the destruction of the UK as a unitary state is anything other than constitutional change. If that isn’t, what is?
There has therefore either (i) been a fundamental breach of the principle of consent; or (ii) the principle of consent does not in fact protect the substance of the Union at all, and thus unionism was deceived in 1998.
In either of those two scenarios, and the Court’s has thus far held it is (ii), the fundamental basis (as set out by Lord Trimble) for pro Agreement unionism has been shown to rest on a deception of unionism.
That being so, how can the UUP continue to support an Agreement when the core basis upon which they advocated for the Agreement has been exposed as a deceptive snare? How do they propose to square that circle?
It is time for some intellectual honesty from the UUP. We have had enough of the abstract waffle; it is time to deal with the substantive issues. If they are Protocol implementers in practice whilst symbolically expressing their opposition, then make that case and be honest about it.
But one thing is beyond dispute: you can not claim to be unalterably opposed to the Protocol whilst simultaneously agitating for a return to an Executive, the price of which is to implement the Protocol and thus the subjugation of the Union.