Photo by Charles McQuillan

Nationalists in neutrality’s clothing

If UK ministers are not at liberty to defend the Union, then Northern Ireland is not genuinely British

Artillery Row

According to the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Louise Haigh, the Labour Party would be neutral in any referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. She told GB News that the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement requires the government, and national political parties, to remain silent during any “border poll” campaign.

This confused remark contradicted Haigh’s leader, Keir Starmer, who told the BBC earlier this year that he would publicly support Northern Ireland staying in the UK. She also showed limited understanding of the Belfast Agreement, endorsing a hardcore nationalist interpretation that places more emphasis on the document’s supposed “spirit” and “context” than its actual content.

Haigh did not quote the text, of course, but asserted, “It is not my job to be a persuader for the Union. That was an important principle that led up to the Good Friday Agreement.” She then mangled language from the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, a staging post in the lead up to an IRA ceasefire, which said that the government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”.

The clause is intended to ensure fair play and an impartial approach

This vague form of words may have comforted republican terrorists at the time, as they contemplated explaining the failure of their campaign of bombing and murder to disgruntled supporters, but it had no legal force and was deliberately ambiguous. The phrase was misquoted by Ms Haigh, but the lack of a comma in the original between “selfish” and “strategic” left open the possibility that the government had an unselfish strategic interest in Northern Ireland, or that it had selfish interests that were neither strategic nor economic.

Perhaps Haigh was thinking of the clause in the Belfast Agreement that reads, “It is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts and without external impediment, to exercise their right to self-determination on the basis of consent.”

Experts at the Working Group on Unification Referendums of the Island of Ireland, convened by University College London, recently analysed the legal significance of this wording: “These requirements would not be met if, for instance, either government engaged in or permitted widespread bribery or threats, campaigns of gross information, or partiality among public broadcasting organisations.”

The clause is intended, in other words, to ensure fair play and an impartial approach to administering the poll. It is specifically not intended to prevent “politicians or parties in the government from campaigning, as already happens routinely in referendums in both jurisdictions. Nor would they (the rules as per the agreement) stop the governments from setting out plans for what would happen if the vote went one way or the other”.

Terms like “neutrality” and “honest broker” were bandied about

The idea that the UK government is legally prevented from campaigning against the break-up of its territory is therefore entirely bogus. The argument that it is morally prohibited in light of the “spirit” or “context” of the peace process, is even more silly. Indeed, this notion is fuelled by separatist assumptions that Northern Ireland is not genuinely British and that its future is not any of the UK’s business.

This way of thinking is not confined to a future border poll either. When the Conservatives tried to organise properly in Northern Ireland by making an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists or later expanding their own organisation, terms like “neutrality” and “honest broker” were bandied about by nationalists and political rivals in Great Britain. There is a similar reaction whenever the government dares to express an opinion on Northern Ireland’s politics or threatens, God forbid, to spend money directly in the province.

Ironically, this attitude shows contempt for the “principle of consent”, which is supposed to be at the heart of the Belfast Agreement. The text acknowledges that “the present wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly… Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish”.

If this principle means anything, then voters in Northern Ireland are entitled to be governed from Westminster, have a direct relationship with the government and have a say in its politics. The idea that ministers can act only as impartial arbiters in the province, and the notion that they are not at liberty to defend or promote the Union, consigns people in Ulster to second class British citizenship. It implies that the principle of consent affords Northern Ireland only a nominal place in the United Kingdom.

The Tories now appear to be divided on whether they should act decisively

When David Cameron became prime minister, he told Stormont, “I will never be neutral in expressing my support for the Union.” His successors, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, both used similar language. Unfortunately, May and Johnson then undermined these sentiments by supporting an Irish Sea border, after saying initially that they could never agree to such a profoundly un-unionist arrangement. Just like Haigh, they accepted bogus claims about the Belfast Agreement.

An Ulster unionist cynic might suggest that the Conservatives’ rhetoric on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position always had more to do with the rise of Scottish separatism than the party’s commitment to oppose Irish nationalism. The Tories now appear to be divided on whether they should act decisively to restore the province’s integral place in the UK, by removing aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol that separate it from the rest of the country. Lord Frost’s pro-Union instincts are tempered by whatever electrical fault affects Michael Gove’s brain.

In contrast, Keir Starmer has the challenge of articulating a pro-UK position from a Labour Party that is traditionally sympathetic to regional nationalism and whose previous leader was an IRA enthusiast. The party’s off-shoot in Wales has just announced an agreement that puts it formally in-hoc with separatists. Yesterday, Haigh received support from the execrable former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain: one in a long line of dependably pro-nationalist Labour ministers (Peter Mandelson was one honourable exception).

Starmer’s own unionism may be genuine. His party’s instinct, though, is still to act as a glorified referee in Northern Ireland at best, and, at worst, to encourage the break-up of the Union.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover