By Jamie Bryson
A young UUP activist Michael Palmer has written a response to my article on Slugger which challenged the UUP’s vacuous ‘Union of People’ sloganeering.
It is good for there to be challenging debate, and the more people within unionism writing and discussing competing positions, the better. So, Michael’s engagement is welcome.
I intend to give the article the respect it deserves, by challenging it in robust terms. That is no criticism of Michael, who has had the courage (more than any UUP election candidate or elected representative I should say) to engage with the difficult issues.
Michael begins by setting out how Doug Beattie described the Union of People (‘UOP’) strapline (by, rather unsuccessfully explaining why it wasn’t a strapline) in his UUP conference speech. This makes my point for me; it is a manifesto for consensus based policy building and has no roots in the constitutional fundamentals of the Union.
The UUP fail to understand that in order to be seen as truly ‘progressive’ (and that seems their desire) in the context of Northern Ireland, they will need to continue weakening unionism in order to appeal to those who do not care very much for the Union.
Post-1998 Northern Ireland is structured (thanks to the Belfast Agreement and resulting ‘process’ shamefully delivered by the UUP) in a manner whereby the ‘process’ must incrementally continue advancing to the only finality provided for in the Belfast Agreement (a United Ireland), therefore traditional unionism will always be presented a regressive, because it stands in the way of the ‘process’ progressing to its pre-determined end point.
All the hyper-woke or extreme liberal social policies in the world won’t win the UUP the ultimate endorsement they crave from the twitterati or ‘civic nationalism’. They will, of course, get sporadic applause for being weak on the Union (and we’ll come onto that) and crossing the unionist picket-line, whether that be on the Act of Union, North-South bodies or inevitably when the UUP will indicate they will be Sinn Fein’s bridesmaid to be enablers of a republican First Minister.
On the concluding point (enabling a SF First Minister) it is sheer folly to believe the UUP would do anything other than walk the IRA’s political wing down the aisle. Such is the UUP’s desperation to operate the Belfast Agreement (not even the “subjugation” of the Act of Union or illumination of the fraudulent nature of the principle of consent can weaken their Belfast Agreement Stockholm syndrome) there is nothing- no humiliation for unionism too much- that the UUP wouldn’t endure.
However, no matter how much the UUP dilute the Union in order to try and win over those who wish to dismantle the Union (in short, the UUP are fully fledged implementers of changing everything but the last thing), it will never be enough.
All of this is rooted in the Mike Nesbitt theory of Unionism (and still, I am not completely sure what that is beyond voting for the SDLP) which seems to take the shape of burning traditional unionist values and principles at the stake in an effort to show nationalists how welcoming unionism is.
They are also in the thrall of academics who aren’t ideological unionists at all, but rather are economic unionists. Of course, if you are an economic unionist, then should an economic case at some point favour a United Ireland, then you would become an economic United Irelander in a heartbeat.
This explains the UUP’s confusion on the Protocol. They are in the thrall of this cabal, and so they are falling into the ‘best of both worlds’ trap, willingly closing their eyes to the constitutionally corrosive nature of such an approach.
They have yet to disavow the position of Dr Kyle, which is of course entirely incompatible with Article VI of the Act of Union. Or indeed to put it bluntly the matter of the utterances of Ian Marshall, which verge on sheer idiocy.
And that brings us back to Michael’s article. Nowhere does he engage with, let alone answer, the challenge as to whether the restoration of Article VI of the Act of Union is a ‘red line’ for the UUP, or whether they will live with a ‘solution’ such as that which his article sets out, namely ‘labels’ on NI goods making clear goods are destined for some country called UK(NI), and thus expressly allowing NI to be treated as a ‘place apart’ and as such undermining the equal citizenship principle inherent within Article VI, and indeed which formed the core part of the Ulster Covenant.
Incredibly, Michael articulates the UUP’s position as “opposing a trade border whether it is North-South or East-West”. This is an extraordinary position and I would assume it hasn’t actually been thought through, or more likely couldn’t possibly be meant to mean that which a plain reading conveys.
Opposing a trade border North-South requires implicit acceptance of an economic United Ireland trading zone, which is rooted in a failure to recognise that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are two distinct sovereign territories. It is effectively a blueprint for all-Ireland harmonisation.
I presume what Michael actually meant is that the UUP opposed hard infrastructure on the border, because it couldn’t (I hope anyway) be possibly the case that the UUP are now at the point of opposing a North-South trade border.
However, the real gaping hole in Michael’s response is the singular failure to engage with the salient point, which can be put simply in this way: The core basis of pro Agreement unionism was the principle of consent. In short, unionism should swallow all the unpalatable concessions to republicans, because fundamentally NI’s constitutional position in the Union was safeguarded by the principle of consent.
That core basis of pro Agreement unionism is no longer sustainable. The Court of Appeal has made clear that the principle of consent doesn’t in fact protect the substance of NI’s constitutional position at all. Don’t take my word for it; read the affidavit extracts in the judgment from the UUP’s own former leader who delivered the Belfast Agreement, Lord Trimble.
Michael nevertheless displays what on one level is a remarkable commitment to an Agreement which has been shown- beyond any doubt- to be fundamentally corrosive to the Union. I wonder is there any humiliation which the UUP wouldn’t be willing to endure whilst unionism is being sacrificed on the altar of the Belfast Agreement?
The sheer folly of the position is summed up by the fatal misdirection inherent in the article. Michael believes that operating the Belfast Agreement will sustain the Union; that fails to understand the structure of the Agreement and the ‘process’ flowing from it: it is designed to incrementally dismantle the Union by ever greater all-Ireland harmonisation and dilution of British identity.
This isn’t difficult stuff. A process by its very definition must have a beginning and an end. If you want to look for the end point of the Belfast Agreement ‘process’ you look to its statute, the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The ending is plain, it is found in section 1 (2) of the 1998 Act. The finality is a United Ireland (and of course, a United Ireland is the only finality provided for, there is no finality for the Union).
Finally, I should say something about the other entirely incoherent thread which infects Michael’s response. He displays the complete commitment to the Belfast Agreement, but at the same time wants to end mandatory coalition and reform (in some unspecified way) the petition of concern.
Put simply, Michael on one hand is an evangelist for the 1998 Agreement, but then at the same time wants to remove and change two of its fundamental pillars, namely mandatory power sharing and cross community consent respectively. Whatever about the merits of such a proposition, its wholly illogical when viewed in the context of claiming fidelity to the Belfast Agreement.
I should note, the UUP- via Steve Aiken- are presently involved in litigation over the Protocol arguing for the restoration of cross community consent (section 42 of the 1998 Act) provisions. I’d urge the UUP to therefore be careful about undermining this position by such utterances around wanting to change cross community consent.
In conclusion; the UUP are confusing being liberal on social issues (and there is without any doubt a need for a unionist party to accommodate those who are socially liberal) with being liberal and weak on the Union.
They can pursue the hyper-woke liberal agenda whilst simultaneously remaining firm on the Union.