Councillor Lee Reynolds is Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionist Party.
I have a close relative whose political views are liberal and feminist. When the Belfast Agreement and the 1998 referendum is discussed, people are genuinely surprised when she tells them she voted No. When asked for an explanation her reply is simple: she read it. She is genuinely surprised by the number of Yes voters who hadn’t read it.
It would be helpful for the political discussion if many more were to carry out this simple act. They would come to appreciate that much that is proclaimed or tweeted about the agreement is not actually in it.
First, they will appreciate that the Belfast Agreement was not a full and complete agreement. There were a series of issues to be dealt with later – for example, police reform (given to an independent commission), and the number and focus of cross border bodies. Others were dealt with in obscurantist language that led to significant problems as the process developed: primarily decommissioning. Others were not addressed – namely justice for victims. The agreement also had within it the recognition that it would have to change with review mechanisms for each strand of the agreement.
In textual terms it was Book One – The Fellowship of the Ring – with the main characters and a broad framework established, but there were many trials and unforeseen challenges ahead on the journey before it would become the full Lord of the Rings.
Second, if the reader researched political events in Northern Ireland, he or she would appreciate that the agreement has been added to – initiallty by the Cross Border Bodies agreement, Trimble’s mini-deals to restore devolution. It has also been changed and further added since, by the St Andrews Agreement, the Hillsborough Castle Agreement and then the Stormont House Agreement. It is hard to claim something as complete and inviolate that in the subsequent 20 years has seen so much addition and change.
Guess who else has changed the terms of the Belfast Agreement? The Irish Government. They amended the rights to Irish citizenship. The broad terms meant that the agreement had become a very easy path to Irish citizenship and chain migration, so they changed it. The agreement required them to establish and maintain two equality and human rights institutions, but they amalgamated them in 2014.
For those who want to research deeper, they will discover the Belfast Agreement was no barrier to the Irish introducing a hard border enforced by police and troops in 2001 during a foot and mouth outbreak nor from running regular immigration operations. Neither did it prevent the Irish introducing a sea border. Longstanding access to Irish coastal waters for Northern Ireland fishermen was ended, and the Irish government has refused to bring forward the necessary legislation for the past two years. In typical unreciprocated generosity, Irish fishing boats continue to have access to coastal waters around Northern Ireland.
The UK leaving the EU was not envisaged in 1998, so the document does not deal directly with that scenario. The past precedent is to deal with a new scenario with a new agreement, as was required when the difficulties with welfare reform arose. Furthermore, there is a pre-existing cross border body dealing with EU matters – the Special EU Body (SEUPB). A new agreement could consider re-purposing that body.
A reader will discover that rather than being an impediment to the situation, the agreement has structures that can help manage the issues around the UK leaving. The Agreement established the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council (made up of Northern Ireland Executive ministers and Irish Government ministers) and the British-Irish Council (made up of the national governments, devolved bodies and Isle of Man and Channel Islands) and British Irish Inter-governmental Conference (made up of the two national governments).
In the text, it identifies three specific relationships and bodies on EU issues: the Assembly and our national government (Strand One, Paragraph 31); the North-South Ministerial Council, or NSMC (Strand 2, Paragraph 3 (iii) and 17); and the British-Irish Council, (Strand 3, Paragraph 5). The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference works on non-devolved matters with a commitment to work on the ‘totality of relationships’ and ‘promote bi-lateral co-operation at all levels’ (BIGC, Paragraph 1 and 2).
Therefore, the institutional framework for managing future relationships already exists in the new context of the UK not being an EU member, and nationalists boycotting the Assembly is preventing two of them from operating properly. Crucially, both the Assembly and NSMC have vetoes and safeguards in their operation
This means the EU proposals on a sea border would breach the Belfast Agreement, as they would effectively end the first mechanism – the Assembly and national government relationship. The EU placing itself in the position of the UK Government would fundamentally shift the relationships in the North-South Ministerial Council, and would not accept any vetoes or safeguards.
A reader will also discover that the Belfast Agreement provides for someone born in Northern Ireland to enjoy British Citizenship, Irish citizenship or both (Agreement between Governments, Article 1 (v)). Therefore, no one born in Northern Ireland loses access to EU citizenship if they wish to have it, through their right to an Irish passport.
A reader will also discover the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK. This can only be changed by a majority in Northern Ireland and a majority in the Republic of Ireland voting for it – with Northern Ireland voting to leave the UK, and the Republic of Ireland voting to take Northern Ireland (Annex between the Governments, Constitutional Issues, Paragraph 1 (i-iv)). Did this create an opt-out for Northern Ireland from a UK constitutional decision? No. This argument was taken to the Supreme Court and rejected.
So why the outrage and claims to the contrary?
First, the Belfast Agreement as a document contained more Irish nationalist worldview than Unionist, which is why Irish nationalist enthusiasm for it was almost total, while it split Unionism down the middle. In the referendum, the pro-Agreement Unionist arguments and pro-Agreement nationalist arguments were different. In its implementation, the nationalist interpretation predominated, and the predictions of anti-Agreement Unionists were validated.
This is why the mantle of Unionist leadership transferred from the Ulster Unionist Party to the Democratic Unionist Party. Their winning slogan of ‘It’s time for a fair deal’ resonated with disillusioned Unionists, and ultimately resulted in the 2007 St Andrews Agreement. This and subsequent agreements maintained an operating Executive and Assembly for ten years, unlike the first ten years of the political process.
As the Agreement had this early skew of both text and implementation, Irish nationalism is especially defensive of it. The claims of something breaching the Belfast Agreement, and its misrepresentation as a complete agreement, are not new to Unionist ears. We’ve listened to it for 20 years and still made progress.
Second, the biggest lies you tell are the ones you tell yourself. Irish nationalism was able to imagine that the new relationships, and a direction of travel, meant something more and different that it did. Brexit, a UK-wide decision that approximately 85 per cent of Irish nationalist referendum voters opposed (though with a poor nationalist turnout) was a clear shock to that worldview.
Third, nationalism had its worst Assembly election in 2016 (driven by a nationalist view that the Unionism was driving the agenda), Sinn Fein mishandled their ministerial choices, ended up floundering and hadn’t expected the rise of a hard left party, People Before Profit, that took seats in their heartlands – nor the main nationalist party, the SDLP, going into opposition.
Sinn Fein’s counter-strategy to these developments was a plan to bring the Executive down within two years on a platform which would rally nationalists to them. Thus, hurting PBP and preventing the SDLP from bedding in as an opposition. Subsequent talks and a list of demands would enable them to show they were driving the agenda. They did not use Brexit as the basis: Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness had agreed a common approach to this in September 2016. Instead, the basis used was the fallout from the handling of a Renewable Heat Scheme.
Fourth, the Irish government is seeking to use Northern-Ireland specific EU harmonisation to create ever increasing differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This goes against the Belfast Agreement’s requirements that any cross-border harmonisation was to be on a mutually agreed basis only. This is why the EU’s interpretation of a Northern Ireland-specific backstop is a breach of the agreement and clear and ever-growing danger to the Union.
Fifth, and most importantly, what is taking place isn’t about the Belfast Agreement at all. It’s about stopping Brexit by portraying Leavers as anti-peace, reckless and uncaring. However, it is Remainers who are invoking the threat of violence. Disgracefully, it is Remainers who seem to be willing a return to violence to validate their view, despite no increase in terrorist violence since the 2016 referendum. It is a further example of their anti-democratic tendencies. The response of any democrat to threats and actual terrorism should be to reject it and oppose it.
Unionism has had to stand against both for decades. We aren’t going to change that – and it is shameful that some are trying to instruct us to.