Henry Hill: It is past time the Government worked out a British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement
Joe Biden’s latest intervention in the battle over the Government’s controversial Internal Market Bill is a useful reminder of a couple of truths which the Right in this country are prone to forgetting.
The first is that the ‘Special Relationship’, upon which the entire Atlanticist world-view rests, is a fiction. The US does have a unique bond with an island nation off the coast of Europe – but it isn’t this one.
Second, this crisis highlights once again how utterly woeful unionists on both sides of the water have been in developing a proper theory of the Belfast Agreement and selling it to journalists and policymakers either at home or overseas.
What does a ‘theory of the Belfast Agreement’ mean? It means an expansive understanding of what its provisions entail, and even more importantly, what they don’t entail, plus a narrative in which these interpretations make sense.
Over the past four years, both an uninterested UK Government and its unionist allies have been utterly routed when it comes to shaping popular understanding of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. As a result, even as sincere a unionist as Theresa May ended up accepting that Britain was under a treaty obligation to ensure that absolutely no border infrastructure was necessary between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This understandably outraged those who recognised how extraordinarily it would be to have an external party impose an internal tariff border on a sovereign nation, and proved the undoing of May’s deal. Boris Johnson then won the leadership with a vow that he would never accept such a thing. But he was no better equipped to challenge the line being peddled by Dublin and Brussels than his predecessor, so he folded. Now his belated efforts to (possibly) un-fold are causing the Government serious difficulty.
At every turn, the weight provided to the Agreement’s offers to each side are completely different. Quite limited references to cross-border cooperation are spun out into vast entitlements, whilst Unionists are fobbed off with the suggestion that having a broad swath of economic policy set from Dublin doesn’t technically change Ulster’s constitutional status. To imagine the Irish nationalist reaction to the same proposal in reverse – Irish policy set by London – is to see what a nonsense that defence is.
It’s not as if a unionist interpretation of the Agreement doesn’t exist – Lee Reynolds, the Director of Policy for the Democratic Unionists, set one out on this site in 2018. But there has been no concerted effort to sell it. The Government has a potential ally in David Trimble, who actually negotiated it, but has failed to give him any prominent role.
Would such a campaign have been a magic bullet? Of course not. The European Union would still have had every incentive to weaponise Northern Irish issues, and the sort of US politician who goes to bat for the IRA doesn’t really care one way or the other what the Agreement does or doesn’t say. But as with the Prime Minister’s attempt to refuse the Scottish Nationalists a second referendum, having a clear and defensible justification for what you’re doing can be the difference between being perceived as an honourable opponent or an untrustworthy chancer.
If the Government really wants to get ahead of the problem with regards to Northern Ireland, it should finally sit down and work out what the British interpretation of the Belfast Agreement is. Better decades late than never.
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