Peter Robinson: We must make Northern Ireland function as best we can while winning support for the Union

As we sit on the cusp of the centenary of Northern Ireland’s creation, we also hear voices question the longevity of the constitutional link with Great Britain because of the Brexit arrangements and, in particular, the Northern Ireland protocol, writes PETER ROBINSON.

By Peter Robinson
Friday, 18th December 2020, 9:08 am
Updated Friday, 18th December 2020, 9:54 am
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and former first minister of Northern Ireland, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter
Peter Robinson, the former DUP leader and former first minister of Northern Ireland, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter

There have been many moments across the decades when the future of the Union was, with justification, being weighed in the balance and in peril.

Admittedly, there have been others when it seemed to face a threat that like a winter morning shadow appeared so much larger than the frame that cast it.

So, which is it this time? Is it a real danger or an evaporating anxiety?

The Belfast Agreement’s constitutional guarantee appears limited, writes Peter Robinson. The only constitutional change it specifically addresses requiring consent is whether people support the Union. No opportunity is offered to stem changes that could progressively diminish the quality of the Union

At its lowest level a settled and agreed unionist position would recognise that the prime minister’s deal does nothing to benefit Northern Ireland’s place within the Union or its economy, and few could argue that treating Northern Ireland differently and less satisfactorily does not leave a feeling of being belittled and degraded and in constitutional terms it sets us out as a place apart.

Naturally, devolution allows the devolved regions to vary on many departmental issues, but this issue has constitutional implications of potential significance and consequence.

In strictly legal terms the Belfast Agreement’s so-called constitutional guarantee is framed in a way that appears limited, and probably deliberately so.

While it boldly declares that — “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people” — the only constitutional change it specifically addresses is the choice of whether people prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland.

On the face of it no opportunity is offered to stem or stop constitutional changes that have the potential to progressively diminish the quality and stability of our existing Union.

It allows the people of Northern Ireland to determine the final step – to stay or go — but appears to do nothing to constraint an incremental dilution of the Union on either economic or constitutional grounds.

There is, nonetheless, an apparent breach of the Sixth Article of the Act of Union but, in truth, this issue will be won, or lost, in the political arena and posturing in the courts with a legal challenge would neither be wise nor of value.

I admit that Brexit’s Northern Ireland protocol sticks in my throat. If I could stop it or wish it away I would.

In economic terms the protocol’s impact is a matter for speculation or at best evaluation, but it will be properly judged in the longer term.

My immediate reaction to the economic repercussions of the protocol is negative particularly because of the confusion and additional bureaucracy it is expected to require which may choke some businesses here.

In constitutional terms — no less so.

On balance the protocol does not endanger the Union directly or immediately, but it is easy to see that handling a key matter for Northern Ireland in a manner distinct from Great Britain and in line with Republic of Ireland adds to an ongoing constitutional metamorphosis, but the long-term effect of this latest element is still hard to accurately determine.

It does not account for events still possible and those as yet unknown.

At the time of writing there is no Free Trade Agreement (FTA) agreed between the UK and the EU though it is unthinkable that sometime in the future an agreement will not be reached.

If it is, then Northern Ireland would be trading with the EU on the same basis as Great Britain whereas without free trade GB’s diverging from the EU, under the protocol would also mean a trading divergence with NI.

An FTA would not remove the regulatory divergence which should be at the top of any unionists’ list to whittle down and remove.

Moreover, it does not account for the energy and persuasiveness of unionists to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Is that not what Craig and Carson did in working what was undoubtedly a deal which had the hallmark of a transition to a united Ireland into an entity that is celebrating its one-hundredth birthday?

To reluctantly quote that much used and insufferable phrase; “we are where we are.”

The most valuable use of our time is to make the best of the hand we have been dealt rather than carping over the result after the whistle has been blown.

Don’t waste time trying to change the past; work diligently to change the future. We must make Northern Ireland function as best we can while winning support for the means to strengthen and maintain the Union.

Seek operational improvements, engage in damage limitation, offer better alternatives, get the best terms and arrangements for our businesses, ensure continuity of supply, hold the government’s feet to the fire and always look for the opportunity to tip the scales in the right direction.

In Northern Ireland’s centenary year some may want to ignore and others simply acknowledge one hundred years of its existence, but I want to celebrate it.

Isn’t it remarkable how those who demand respect, tolerance and acceptance of their identity and culture unashamedly withhold those same values from others? According to Sinn Fein the centenary of Northern Ireland’s birth is not something to celebrate.

They seem oblivious to the painful irony that they with tedious regularity celebrate the activities of terrorists who brutally engaged in a campaign of ghastly murders leaving in their trail a field of death.

The opponents of unionism may not see UK membership as something to celebrate but they have nothing better to offer.

Unionists should take care not to undermine their own case for the Union by overstating the damage done to it by the protocol and leading the criticism of our present place within it.

There is no doubt that the better option of remaining within the UK will still be preferred by most people even though, in part, some will feel we are being treated, in a manner akin to Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God.

Peter Robinson is a former DUP leader and first minister of Northern Ireland

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