Rebuilding Unionist Support for the Belfast Agreement…

I read the recent LucidTalk poll published in the Belfast Telegraph that showed only 35% of unionists polled would still support the Belfast Agreement “if there was a vote on it today.” A majority of unionists at 54% would not vote for it today, with 11% saying that they “Don’t Know” or are “Not Sure” or have “No Opinion.”

As a pro-Agreement unionist, I am saddened by the results but I accept them. It’s been clear to me for many years that anti-Agreement unionism as articulated by the TUV and Jamie Bryson has gained support. Many of their arguments are valid and should be taken seriously by all. The question is: what will pro-Agreement unionists like me do about it?

For me, it’s not surprising support for the Belfast Agreement has fallen. It is in need of reform. That reform has been talked about ever since I studied the Belfast Agreement when I was at university over a decade ago. It has never come, despite the many Stormont crises that have happened. As we have observed, Stormont can only be put back together so many times.

With 66% of unionists polled supporting a tough stance on the protocol (that the DUP should not re-enter the Executive until there are significant changes to [25%] or complete removal of the Protocol [41%]), creating the conditions for the restoration of Stormont will be difficult but not impossible. Pro-Agreement unionists should use this time now to rethink how Stormont operates while the protocol issue is ongoing. We need to show evidence of changes that can be made to Stormont to give confidence that devolution can work in Northern Ireland.

Five Reforms to Stormont

Recently, I submitted five reforms to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in response to their inquiry on the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement. They can be read here in full detail:

Briefly, they are:

– Revert to the original process as agreed in the Belfast Agreement and supported by referendum of nominating the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

– Rename “First Minister” and “Deputy First Minister” as “Joint First Minister”. Informally, they could both be referred to as “First Minister” for short as there are two First Ministers in practice anyway.

– Replace mandatory coalition with voluntary coalition subject to agreeing a Programme for Government and budget with necessary power-sharing safeguards to command cross-community participation, confidence and support. Although, this should only be done at a politically neutral time and context. It should not be done to bypass the DUP’s protest to the protocol as this would lower unionism’s confidence in the institutions and it could be seen as undemocratic and contrary to power-sharing as the DUP is the largest unionist party of the unionist designation. Questions would also be asked as to why mandatory coalition was not ended whenever Sinn Fein similarly protested over the issue of an Irish Language Act for much longer than the DUP’s current protest over the protocol.

– Agree subject matters and topics where a petition of concern could be used to protect one community or the other (there is disagreement on how to use a petition of concern – its use seems to be open to general interpretation). This might be difficult to do as even bread-and-butter issues can become orange-and-green issues in Northern Ireland. I am aware of the New Decade, New Approach 2020 reforms to the Petition of Concern in reducing its use and returning it to its “intended purpose” though I can’t find any reference to what that “intended purpose” specifically was.

– Agree what is meant by “consent” in relation to the “consent principle” of the Belfast Agreement. There is no clear consensus on what consent is, how it is defined and what it even means or relates to. This is a constant stumbling block in Northern Ireland politics which we are seeing being played out in the protocol issue.

Stormont Works When Everyone Wins

I believe these five reforms should be given serious consideration by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I look forward to reading its report on all the written evidence it has received and considers from various individuals and groups. Both communities need agreed reforms to Stormont in order to believe in it again.

For example, many unionists would point out that as of the May 2022 Assembly election, there are 37 unionists, 35 nationalists and 18 Other by designation. Therefore, it could be argued that the First Minister should come from the unionist designation as it is currently the largest. Would nationalists not make the same argument if the situation were reversed?

This is why the nomination process should be reverted to the one agreed and endorsed by referendum in the Belfast Agreement and both First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be renamed Joint First Minister. This would solve the issue for both communities and we won’t have the First Minister issue featuring in future Assembly elections. Stormont works when everyone wins.

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