The UUP’s Union of the People argument is loose ground upon which nothing permanent can be built

Jamie Bryson is a unionist activist, editor of Unionist Voice and head of Unionist Voice Policy Studies. He works in public relations and law.

The UUP have developed a slogan they have labelled a ‘Union of People’. It is superficially attractive, but in substance is constitutionally corrosive.

A Union of people (‘UoP’) is not rooted in any entrenched constitutional law, principles or values, but rather is a moveable buzz-phrase which resolves itself to taking the form of an ever-changing collection of ideals and policy positions, arrived at by recourse to the latest fashionable consensus.

Thus the ‘Union’ it directs itself too isn’t in fact the structure- underpinned by constitutional law, conventions and traditional fundamental values- of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but rather is a broad, vague and ever changing concept (and I think bestowing it with the credibility of a concept probably gives it more substance than it in fact possesses).

And thus, the fundamental characteristics of the actual Union offers no impediment to the UUP, because their slogan envisages a Union based not on an entrenched constitutional structure (such as the Act of Union), but rather upon constantly evolving fashionable consensus of those identifying with this project.

The UoP slogan roots the UUP on shifting sand, therefore nothing sustainable can be built upon it. Whereas the actual Union is anchored firmly in the Act of Union and our common law values and traditional principles.

To take one example; if the UoP decided (and that’s perhaps misleading as it seems the project is driven by a top-down policy decision making- which is fundamentally liberal as a benchmark) that the Union-subjugating Protocol offered “opportunities”, then the fundamental constitutional conventions, structure and characteristics of the Union would not be an impediment.

That is so because the UoP slogan isn’t rooted in such fundamental constitutional principles such as the Act of Union, but rather is simply a moveable collection of fashionable consensus-based policies.

In short, this UUP ‘Union’ is simply whatever the consensus of the UoP (or their leaders) want it to be.

That, it seems to me, is an entirely constitutionally corrosive idea and this can be seen already by the UUP’s confused position on the Protocol. That comes about because the Protocol conflicts with the fundamental principles of the actual Union, but that is something entirely different than the UoP idea, which is driven by developing fashionable consensus around policies, rather than being anchored in any fundamental principles, constitutional or otherwise.

This is a matter of concern, given that the UoP slogan seems to be a cloak under which the UUP believe they can evade constitutional landmines which are exploding all around them.

In 1998 David Trimble (now Lord Trimble) set out the basis of pro Agreement unionism. Speaking about the principle of consent, he said:

“Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom has been secured. The Act of Union, the fundamental piece of legislation defining NI’s place in the UK remains firmly in place. The Act of Union is the Union.”

In the recent High Court case Lord Trimble further averred that save for the purported safeguard of the principle of consent, unionism could never have signed up for the 1998 Agreement.

And so, now that the Court of Appeal has ruled that in fact the principle of consent does not guard Northern Ireland’s constitutional position (evidenced by the fact the Act of Union has been “subjugated” without engaging the principle of consent), it- by Lord Trimble’s own yardstick- renders pro Agreement unionism impotent.

The UUP have thus far evaded these fundamental questions, instead taking refuge in repeating the slogan UoP. But I imagine the non-twitter unionist electorate will not be blind to the seismic constitutional change which has been imposed upon Northern Ireland (In Friday’s Irish News Alex Kane, a relatively moderate unionist referred to it as “salami slicing the Union”) without consent.

It follows that the position set out by Lord Trimble in 1998 is demonstrably unsustainable. The principle of consent has been shown to be a fundamental deception and when it comes to NI’s place in the Union, you can change everything but the last thing, the last thing being the final formal handover of sovereignty.

And in exchange for unionism securing the principle of consent in relation to the last thing, the requirement is to operate the institutions of the Belfast Agreement which are designed to change everything.

That in my view is an act of constitutional self-harm, and neither the UUP- nor anyone else in unionism- can close their eyes to that which has been put in lights by the Court of Appeal, namely that the principle of consent is not the safeguard it was said by pro Agreement unionism to be.

Rather than trot out stylish slogans such as Union of People, which are devoid of any substance, I would prefer the UUP to confront the fact that the sole basis for pro Agreement unionism (as set out in the quote from Lord Trimble) is unsustainable and therefore to justify why they continue to pledge undying allegiance to the constitutionally corrosive Belfast Agreement?

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