Agreement 25 Conference – Key Takeaways…

Peter Lockhart is a law student at Queens

The Agreement 25 conference has helped cast Queen’s University, and by extension Northern Ireland, in an extraordinarily positive light. There was a tangible sincerity about the effort and care international actors have invested in this place. The following is my take on the key takeaways from the last three days.

Day 1

The highlight of the first day, and arguably the highlight of the entire conference, came in its first hour when Senator George Mitchell, in his first public appearance for three years due to a debilitating leukaemia diagnosis, gave a quite phenomenal speech. Despite much of its content simply recounting old memories, as he cast his mind back to those fraught negotiations in the 1990s and recounted the key players and their various roles, Mitchell’s speech was a testament to the power of great oratory. His speech was forthright, witty, vulnerable and highly personal, and as someone in the room it is hard to convey the profound effect his words had on the audience.

Many speakers afterwards noted the speech may indeed go down in history and though these are grand claims, it is easy to see why they have been made. Whilst its primary impact should be understood holistically, Mitchell made some oblique references to the current stalemate. The most notable was his allusion to what he called ‘the hundred percenters’, those in the talks who saw any compromise as weakness and therefore denied the essential essence of 1998, which of course was a function of compromise.

The DUP were charged with having a number of hundred percenters in their ranks by Mark Simpson during the party leaders panel the following day. It is perhaps understandable that they would rebuke this – their members claim with some validity that it was their stubbornness which got the two main actors on the protocol, the EU and the UK government, back round the negotiating table. If it worked once, perhaps it will work again. My own sense is that this would be a misguided tactic, however understandable. The original protocol faced much opposition from within the Conservative Party as well as the DUP and other unionist parties, particularly from the once-influential ERG. That influence since lost, the Windsor Framework seems to be much more widely supported, as the parliamentary vote indicated, making it unlikely such a tactic could work a second time.

Day 2

There were more dry eyes in the house on the morning of the second day of the conference admittedly, as the theme turned from reflection to renewal. NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris’ speech will not go down in history, nor was it designed to, though it was highly significant as an indicator of the sea-change in the UK government’s treatment of NI unionism. Boris Johnson’s promise that a sea border would exist ‘over my dead body’ has, like many of the ex-PM’s promises, turned out to be nothing more than disingenuous opportunism as part of a wider strategy to attain and consolidate power.

Contrast that with the speech by the Secretary of State and it is easy to understand why some unionists are angry at a UK government which they feel should have their interests at heart. His words contained due reverence to the key players in the Agreement, before he addressed current unionist concerns directly, and seemingly disagreed with all of them. He strongly refuted the narrative that the Agreement was “all about wins for nationalism” and “did not achieve great things for unionism”. This narrative holds sway amongst certain sections of unionism, and to address it directly shows a surprising awareness of such sentiments, albeit in direct opposition to them.

Even more incendiary was Heaton-Harris’ instruction that those who want the union to continue, “should put the union first, restore the devolved institutions and get on with the job of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.” This alludes to the fundamental division within unionism currently and is unambiguous about which side the UK government is on. To frame these comments with reference to the likes of Trimble, Ervine and Paisley Sr., and to therefore suggest that the DUP is currently at odds with unionism’s historical figureheads, will no doubt incense many who support the DUP’s withdrawal from Stormont, as evidenced by the vehement criticism on Twitter immediately after the speech from the likes of Nigel Dodds, Gavin Robinson and Mervyn Gibson. Such criticisms are hardly constructive, but do demonstrate the prevailing sentiment among the DUP and their supporters that they are universally misunderstood, including by the UK government.

To be clear, the Heaton-Harris speech was nothing new under the sun, but the combination of the setting and the unambiguous nature of his words is significant in terms of its incongruity with the current DUP position, which appears increasingly friendless.

The other significant moment from day 2 came during the panel involving the leaders of the five main parties except for Jeffrey Donaldson, with Emma Little-Pengelly in his place for the unenviable task of defending the DUP’s current tactic of refusing to operate the Agreement institutions at a conference designed to celebrate said agreement.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Little-Pengelly was the only one whose remarks did not receive a round of applause and barbs against her party’s position, most notably from Naomi Long on why they did not see this coming when they advocated for Brexit (always a fair point), were cheered gleefully by those in attendance. In response, the Lagan-Valley MLA pointed out that with respect, she was not there to “bow down to Presidents and Prime Ministers… I speak for our voters”. Putting aside the populist overtones of this stance, it is an understandable position to take given the nature of the conference and the obviously unpopular stance her party has taken.

All leaders spoke openly on their recollections of the past and their aspirations for the future, which was welcome, but meaningful conversation about the present was logjammed by the ambiguity of the DUP’s current position. Unless I have missed something, no one within the party has made clear exactly what they are seeking from the UK government in response to their concerns, though Little-Pengelly made reference to an ‘existing pathway’ back into Stormont, claiming “the ball is in the UK government’s court”.

There may well be strategic value in retaining this ambiguity and not setting out their demands overtly, but it is hard to imagine the content of such demands. New legislation which copper fastens the union in some form? A total removal of the sea border? Ian Paisley Jr. made reference again yesterday to the idea of a qualified majority for a border poll, which was widely rejected as totally impossible given the guarantees in the Agreement, though this perhaps provides an insight into the kinds of waters the DUP are fishing in.

Day 3

The focus of the panels on day 3 was almost entirely predicated on the idea that Northern Ireland’s future can be economically supercharged by its unique position straddling the UK and EU markets. The problem with this narrative is that it seems there is a significant amount of political heavy lifting to be done before such realities could materialise. Jeffrey Donaldson derided the conference as ‘the Queen’s bubble’, claiming that they will not be brow-beaten into consensus. Indeed, it appears that the harder the rest of the political establishment pull, the tighter the DUP/unionist knot will become.

Echoing the sentiments of the NI Secretary of State the day before, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s speech and subsequent comments implied the UK government has run out of patience with the DUP. Like Heaton-Harris, Sunak claimed to be unashamedly unionist, and they were united in their assessment that power sharing was ‘the only show in town’. Indeed, Sunak even presented the DUP with the binary of ‘back my Brexit deal, or face a united Ireland.’ This is countered by an equally unhelpful binary from those who oppose the Windsor Framework, the claim that returning to Stormont would provide tacit approval to the suppression of the Acts of Union, specifically Article 6.

Both of these are false dichotomies in my view. The DUP are wrong to boycott the institutions, but it is a stretch to say that such tactics will, even indirectly, lead to a united Ireland and unionists know this. The claim that power sharing amounts to approval of a dismantling of the union is equally misguided. The Acts of Union preceded the creation of, entrance into, and subsequent secession from, a European continental trading bloc, which has been the root of the entire fiasco we currently face. Constitutional puritanism in the face of this is both unhelpful and mistaken.

Overall, we saw a conference which emanated hope and optimism. At the same time, the current impasse was a key theme, and the DUP were front and centre of most of the discussions despite very few of their members in attendance. The conference should be remembered for its testimonial to one of the great heroes of 1998, on likely his last visit to Northern Ireland; for the ongoing commitment of those from outside NI to maintaining and improving its society and economy; and for a clear indication from the UK government of its commitment to power-sharing going forward, despite suggestions in recent years that its commitment to a hard Brexit might trump all others no matter the cost.

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