NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton Harris (UKG photo)
By doing its deal with the DUP to get them back into the Assembly, has the British government abandoned its legally binding pledges in the GFA to act with “rigorous impartiality” in government and place “no external impediment” to the free exercise of the public will in a border poll? Has it instead presented a vision of the Union that will attract the support it claims “would copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional place in the Union?
Pose the questions and most of the answers come back divided on familiar sectarian lines. Fortunately while the DUP are proclaiming a political victory, the nationalist response has been generally muted in favour of paying an acceptable price to restore the Assembly. But criticism of the government’s command paper “Safeguarding the Union” is itself divided. The deal represents a fundamental breach of impartiality; or it’s largely meaningless red white and blue rhetoric to coax the DUP back to Stormont. Which is it? It can’t be both. Leading academic Katy Katyward is for her, scathing:
The deal secured from the UK Government by the DUP runs roughshod over principles that have formed the bedrock for the peace process for over thirty years. The Safeguarding the Union command paper outlining the package claims to ‘copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional place in the Union’. If it were to so, it would usurp the British-Irish agreement of 1998, and the 1993 Downing Street Declaration before it, that:
It is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination.
Equally unwise is the decision to affirm – rather than assuage or challenge – zero-sum notions of Northern Ireland’s status, i.e. those which assume every close link with Ireland comes at a cost to its relationship with Britain. Northern Ireland’s closeness to both Britain and Ireland was realised in new ways by common EU membership. The Protocol was an effort to try to avoid the worst effects of Brexit for the Irish border region, but it does not replicate of the conditions of full EU membership for the island. Thus, the command paper proudly claims that Brexit, with the Windsor Framework, ‘could, in time, result in considerable divergence between Northern Ireland and Ireland of a scale not seen for decades.’ During the Troubles, security forces blew up bridges across the Irish border; 30 years on from the ceasefires, the UK Government has decided to make a virtue of blowing up metaphorical ones.
In a sentence which I had to read a few times fully to understand it, Katy argues that the Tories’ alleged abandonment of impartiality might encourage a future Sinn Fein in government in the Republic to do the equivalent, to the detriment of a unionist minority in a united Ireland. Somehow, that doesn’t quite work, no matter how cynical the opinion of Sinn Fein.
In the Irish Times Newton Emerson sharply disagrees. He identifies a basic unfairness for nationalism to be able to argue for Irish unity while leaving the small minority of unionists on the island alone to defend the Union, while support from Britain would be legally prevented. But there is a basic question the command paper unwontedly exposes. Can such support be little more than rhetorical?
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is fortunate nationalism is not laughing openly at the party’s deal with the British government.
It is not just that the deal’s sea border aspects are “the Windsor Framework in drag”, to quote the Belfast Telegraph’s Sam McBride.
Half of the 80-page command paper contains broader ideas for “Safeguarding the Union” – the deal’s title – that invite ridicule.
Some are sensible enough in themselves, such as strengthening commercial and cultural links between Britain and Northern Ireland. However, they are copied from the 2020 New Decade, New Approach deal to restore Stormont and have already proved a flop.
One genuine achievement is letting Northern Ireland benefit more from UK trade deals. This has been agreed by the UK-EU joint committee of the Windsor Framework. It was announced on Tuesday last week by the European Commission and appeared in the command paper the following day. Approval by EU members should be a formality.
The term “rigorous impartiality” in the Belfast Agreement refers to the administration of Northern Ireland. It does not require the UK to be neutral on its own existence.
“Safeguarding the Union” travelled a remarkable distance to appease the DUP. The claim is in the name. After two years of insisting that the Protocol had no constitutional significance but was purely economic and about trade, they suddenly adopted the DUP’s constitutional case. But looking closely, most of the changes from the Windsor Framework to the DUP deal are about reducing the huge impact of Brexit, imposed on Northern Ireland by a UK majority in the first place, in a fashion the GFA and pre- 2016 Britain and Ireland including traditional unionism never envisaged . And which since for years, successive Tory governments insisted had no constitutional significance. It’s a murky story as yet untold, but the DUP seem to have bludgeoned the Tories from denial to at least tactical acceptance, even though there can be few votes in it for them.
But there is nothing of substance here to undermine the consent principle. Safeguarding the Union indeed affirms it, while pointing out the principle applies to unionists too. The very fact that this is so allows the Tories to declare campaigning support for Union knowing that its influence is both indirect and limited. By raising an East- West Council, they’re promising the sort of badly needed co-ordination for a devolved UK which exists- if currently in abeyance- for north and south in Ireland. That’s about the height of it.
Unlike a government in an election, they cannot try to bribe or alarm their way to victory. The principles of consent and impartiality are glaringly transparent in practice. Any attempt to violate them would be shouted down and the UK government knows it. In this paper they are doing little more than attempting to shift momentum away from the nationalist narrative. And Labour seems to going along with it.
The south is busily marshalling its arguments for a united Ireland with broad unionist “loser’s consent”. The UK should begin a similar exercise in favour of devolved UK, on a broader basis than the Tory right wing, affirming the spirit and letter of the GFA and embracing warmly a developing British- Irish relationship. This “Safeguarding the Union” fails to do in favour of the narrow nationalism that spawned the disaster of Brexit. This is emphatically not the vision of the Union that will attract support for its long term survival.
But on the threat to the GFA , my own view is that for once, Katy is mistaken. I hope she is; but time will tell.. Meanwhile…
The NI Secretary giving a very clear indication that the £3.3bn funding package for Stormont could be added to, particularly the fiscal framework: ‘I’d like to think we’ll see more in this space in the next couple of weeks,’ he told the BBC.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London