As part of the attempt to present leaving the EU as impossible or overwhelmingly complex, Northern Ireland is added to the Brexit mix: a threat to peace; a threat to the Belfast Agreement; an insoluble problem of the border. As the smallest part of the UK, how much interest people take in our affairs is limited. There is a human desire to see that everyone here can live in a peaceful atmosphere. However, too many have tried to take advantage of this limited knowledge and desire for peace through misrepresentation of the Agreement, and some are trying to turn events to their own political advantage. First, there is the nature of the Belfast Agreement. Peace agreements take two forms – the instrumental and the constitutive. An instrumental deal achieves agreement on a limited number of issues with the hope that this consensus builds a forward momentum that will see resolution of the outstanding issues. The second is constitutive were a full agreement is reached.
The Belfast Agreement was an instrumental agreement. It did not cover all issues or achieve full agreement on them all. Examples of this within the text were the exact number and nature of cross border bodies was not fully agreed and the issue of police reform was handed to an independent commission. An example of a key and far-reaching issue that it didn’t deal with was legacy issues and justice issues for victims of the violence, with full agreement still not reached in 2018.
What it did settle was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Thus, every voter in Northern Ireland had a vote of equal value to a voter in Scotland, Wales and England in the referendum vote – all equal, special privileges for none – as upheld by the Supreme Court.
The second is the Belfast Agreement has never been treated as inviolate or complete. It has been changed and augmented. The DUP entered government on the basis of the St Andrews Agreement with changes to how the Assembly operated central to it. The devolution of policing and justice required the Hillsborough Agreement. One of the topics in recent talks is about changing the petition of concern mechanism. Change has not been limited to the aspects affecting Northern Ireland.
The Irish government changed the citizenship rules it committed to and abolished one of the organisations it was required to establish. The Irish government is presently considering changes to the election of their President and Seanad that could be considered questionable under its commitments in the Agreement. Simply put, when the Belfast Agreement was drafted leaving the European Union was not a consideration. Therefore, attempting to invoke it for a scenario it did not envisage is primarily an exercise in spin. Politics in Northern Ireland has had to deal with situations that were not envisaged in 1998 as it did with the issue of welfare reform and the PIRA murdering a man in Belfast in 2015. It is relevant to the political discussion and the DUP Leader, Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA, has pointed out that the infrastructure the Agreement created provides the basis for future partnership.
The third is the role of the European Union in the peace process. Following an internal initiative from a senior Ulster born official in the Commission, that was built upon by the Northern Ireland MEPs, the EU introduced its Peace Programme. It predated both the political negotiations and the agreement and has continued to this day (if in an ever reducing form).
However, when it comes to the Belfast Agreement itself what is most noticeable is its absence. The references to the European Union are so minimal it’s hard to describe them even as the bare minimum – and certainly there is nothing about the Single Market or Customs Union. It has been entertaining to watch the intellectual somersaults of pro-Remain academics trying to explain the EU’s absence; apparently it was all so pervasive it’s there even when it isn’t there – just like the Emperor’s new clothes. The important external political influence that was exercised on the process came from America and in particular, President Bill Clinton.
The attempts to insert the European Union are another example of the re-writing of history that has become too common with peace in Northern Ireland. The instrumental nature of the Belfast Agreement means that implementation, namely interpretation, is a fundamental political task and where the Ulster Unionist Party often fell down, for example on the decommissioning of weapons.
This is where parties try to bend an agreement to their interpretation of it and to take advantage of events. The central success of David Trimble, then UUP leader and later supporter of a Leave vote, was around the issue of All-Ireland harmonisation and cross border institutions in the Belfast Agreement. He had learned the lesson from the Unionist rejection of the Sunningdale Agreement, though did go on to make a series of his own that would prove his undoing.
At a crucial stage in the talks Trimble met Blair about the draft that included an Annex A (List of cross-border bodies) and Annex B (list of areas of co-operation). The combined effect of the list would have made a Northern Ireland Assembly essentially an empty vessel, it would have existed simply to act as a conduit of powers to the cross border bodies and limit the work of the departments.
Annex B was removed and Annex A cut back substantially (and further paired back in post-Agreement talks). These substantive changes were key in securing Trimble’s endorsement and the then majority party of Unionism endorsed the Agreement. After the vote to leave the EU, Irish nationalism has essentially pulled out the 2018 versions of Annex A and B with an EU stamp on them. They are using the Remainers to fulfil their own and old agenda. So it is ironic that those Remainers who claim to be protecting the Belfast Agreement are actually endorsing proposals and thinking that would have made it impossible to achieve in the first place.