Twenty-three years ago along with John Hume we finalised what became known as the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement. It was intended to end the 35 years of terrorist violence that had cost thousands of lives in Northern Ireland and beyond, and to deal with the sectarian community divisions that had allowed terrorism to fester.
For the Ulster Unionist Party, of which I was then the leader, there were unpalatable compromises to swallow. Terrorists were released from prison under a very generous release scheme. Those who had taken part in terrorist activities were encouraged to participate in democracy and indeed some leaders of such terrorist groups became members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and even ministers in the Executive.
Political structures were set up for North/South cooperation – a development of which many unionists were suspicious, believing with some merit that they could be used to lever Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom. Such structures had led to the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement in 1973 between the British and Irish governments. But this time we got the wholly transparent, bottom-up structures, including all the major Northern Ireland parties, right. Massive changes were embedded into the police which had borne the brunt of the terrorist campaign – changes which have proved difficult to absorb. Despite all these compromises, the majority of people in Northern Ireland endorsed the Agreement.
They did so on the basis that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK could not be changed – a commitment I had secured at great political and personal cost from the British government, the Irish government, nationalist leader John Hume, and the leadership of Sinn Féin. All the parties agreed that any such change would require the consent of the people of NI in a referendum. The declaration at the very top of the Agreement stated clearly that it would “be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of the majority of its people”.
Despite strong opposition within my own community who resented the concessions to those engaged in indiscriminate killing, I campaigned for a Yes vote in the referendum on the Agreement, arguing that it made the Union safe and that the future of Northern Ireland was totally in the hands of its people through the ballot box. They put their trust in my assurances and gave me and the Agreement their backing.
That is why I feel betrayed personally by the Northern Ireland Protocol, and it is also why the unionist population is so incensed at its imposition. The Protocol rips the very heart out of the Agreement, which I and they believed safeguarded Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and ensured that democracy not violence, threat of violence or outside interference, would or could ever change that.
Make no mistake about it, the Protocol does not safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. It demolishes its central premise by removing the assurance that democratic consent is needed to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland. It embodies a number of constitutional changes that relate to Northern Ireland.
Firstly, every EU law, regulation and directive made in respect of agriculture, manufacturing, environment, work practices, and other matters will continue to apply to NI even though the rest of the UK is now free of them. The list of EU laws with which NI will have to comply runs to 70 pages and contains hundreds of thousands of regulations.
Secondly, any future laws made by the EU in respect of these areas (covering nearly 70% of our economic activity) will also apply to NI. No Northern Ireland input into these laws will be allowed, so even if the content of EU laws is damaging to us, we will not be able to make representations or to have them changed.
Thirdly, regardless of how damaging future EU enforced laws might be, they will have to be obeyed – otherwise the European Court of Justice will be able to enforce sanctions on the United Kingdom. In other words, a court based in a foreign jurisdiction will supersede courts in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Fourthly, as the UK decides how it wishes to exercise its new freedom from the EU in order to make its economy more competitive in global trade, any new laws it makes to achieve that competitiveness will not apply to Northern Ireland because of the requirement to abide by EU law.
This massive change in the constitutional position of NI is already manifesting itself in economic disruption through physical checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, extensive bureaucratic requirements, a serious escalation in the cost of doing business between GB and NI, and time delays in receiving goods to the point where many GB firms have simply stopped supplying goods to NI.
This political betrayal and these economic costs have already raised tensions in Northern Ireland. So, far from keeping the peace, the Protocol risks a return to violence despite claims from its supporters that it is all about protecting the Agreement. To those who make such claims I respectfully say, “Read the Agreement and then tell me what part of the Agreement is protected by the Protocol”.
The sad fact is that the threat to peace and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland as a result of the Protocol is totally unnecessary. The EU has nothing to fear from the minuscule level of trade that crosses into its territory from NI, and even that trade could be regulated without any need for checks on the border between NI and the Republic.
Through the Centre for Brexit Policy I have already put forward an arrangement that would require the UK and the EU to put in place a system for the mutual enforcement of each other’s regulations that would apply to the small number of firms currently involved in cross-border trade. This would mean that firms selling into the Republic from Northern Ireland, or vice versa, would have to declare on their export documentation that they had adhered to the regulations in the other jurisdiction. If spot checks when the goods arrive or subsequent inspections at the point of sale discovered that the declaration was false, the business would be pursued by the authorities in the country in which it was based, and stiff mandatory penalties would deter any incentive to act unlawfully.
There are these and other mechanisms for dealing with cross-border trade. The question is, does the political will exist to introduce them or is the European Union intent on playing fast and loose with peace in Northern Ireland, damaging its economy and undermining the very basis of democratic decision-making, in order to punish the United Kingdom for voting for its independence from the European Union?
This article first appeared in the The Idea of the Union by J W Foster and W B Smith published by Belcouver Press 2021.