This week, the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement turned twenty-four years old. So far, its young life has been turbulent, by anybody’s standards. The agreement created a devolved executive and assembly, but their operation has been interrupted repeatedly by political crises followed by hothouse talks.
At the same time, few people in Northern Ireland deny that the province has remained more stable and peaceful since it was negotiated. Parties that take opposing views on Northern Ireland’s constitutional question often claim to be protecting the Good Friday deal, even though they interpret its provisions very differently.
Threats and violence undermine the cause
Thanks to the Northern Ireland Protocol, though, the future of the power-sharing institutions at Stormont is more uncertain than it has been at any time since their establishment in 1998. In February, the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as first minister, due to his party’s opposition to the Irish Sea border. A divisive, angry election campaign is now underway, against a backdrop of street protests and security scares.
Recently, the police said that the UVF, a loyalist paramilitary group, hijacked a van that was then used to create a hoax bomb alert at an event attended by Dublin’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney. The Ulster Unionist Party’s leader, Doug Beattie, who is making a pitch for so-called “progressive” or “middle ground” voters, subsequently pulled his party out of anti-protocol protests, claiming they were “raising the temperature” on Ulster’s streets.
Last weekend, participants at the latest rally were forced to remove one of Mr Beattie’s election posters from beside the stage at the event in Lurgan, after it was decorated with a noose. Rival unionists in the DUP and the TUV condemned this crude attempt at intimidation, but another speaker described the UUP leader as a “traitor”.
Threats and violence undermine the cause that they are presumably intended to assist, but they show clearly that the protocol is increasing tensions and undermining stability in Northern Ireland.
The merits of the Belfast Agreement were disputed bitterly by unionists after the deal was signed. Many of its opponents were appalled by the release of paramilitary prisoners, the dismantlement of Northern Ireland’s police force — the RUC — and the inclusion of Sinn Fein ministers in regional government. They argued that pro-Union people did not get enough from the deal to justify these moral compromises.
In contrast, the agreement’s unionist supporters, like the UUP leader David Trimble, pointed out that it removed Dublin’s territorial claims over Northern Ireland, which previously formed part of the Republic’s constitution. The agreement bound nationalists to the government of a state whose existence they opposed and, most of all, it required them to accept the “principle of consent”, which determined that the province should remain part of the United Kingdom, so long as a majority of its people preferred that outcome.
It is the protocol’s seeming effect on the consent principle that has done most to undermine unionist confidence in the Belfast Agreement and create anger on the streets. Earlier this year, the Appeal Court in Belfast ruled that this provision governed only the formal constitutional position of Northern Ireland, which it said had not been changed by the Irish Sea border.
They may unwittingly preside over the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement
The former Labour minister, Baroness Hoey, echoed the reaction of many unionists in the Belfast News Letter. “When it comes to NI’s place in the Union (this means) you can change everything but the last thing…If you had told me, or I suspect Lord Trimble, that the principle of consent was… merely symbolic… there is no way I would have supported the Belfast Agreement in the first place.” These constitutional concerns are compounded by a steady drip feed of revelations about the practical consequences of the protocol. The latest bombshell is that EU rules for Covid tests, rather than British law, will govern the testing regime in Northern Ireland, endangering supplies of testing kits and putting any future response to an outbreak of the disease in doubt.
The rules in countless aspects of everyday life in Ulster will soon be determined by Brussels rather than Westminster, as “grace periods” designed to minimise disruption to the economy come to an end.
Many unionists believe that Northern Ireland has been shoved unceremoniously on to the window ledge of the Union, in order to appease nationalists who claimed that checks and infrastructure were unacceptable at the existing land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
After the ballots are cast on the 5th of May, the DUP will have to decide whether it goes back into government with Sinn Fein, potentially after losing a bruising election campaign to its republican rival, which is leading in most opinion polls. The largest party will take the first minister’s post and, although the deputy first minister’s role has “co-equal” powers, the symbolism would be significant.
The DUP will face this dilemma at a time when unionist scepticism about the effectiveness of power-sharing, and the safeguards offered by the principle of consent, is more acute than at any time since 1998.
If the government and the EU do not effectively address Ulster unionists’ concerns about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, they may unwittingly preside over the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement. That would be a grim irony, given that both sides initially claimed that the protocol was intended to protect the 1998 deal.
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