A reader of the 1998 Belfast Agreement will discover that it provides for someone born in Northern Ireland to enjoy British Citizenship, Irish citizenship or both; therefore, no-one born in Northern Ireland loses access to EU citizenship if they wish to have it, through their right to an Irish passport.
A reader will also discover the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK. This can only be changed by a majority in Northern Ireland and a majority in the Republic of Ireland voting for it – with Northern Ireland voting to leave the UK, and the Republic of Ireland voting to take Northern Ireland (Annex between the Governments, Constitutional Issues, Paragraph 1 (i-iv)). Did this create an opt-out for Northern Ireland from a UK constitutional decision? No. This argument was taken to the Supreme Court and rejected.
So why the outrage and claims to the contrary?
First, the Belfast Agreement as a document contained more Irish nationalist worldview than Unionist, which is why Irish nationalist enthusiasm for it was almost total, while it split Unionism down the middle. In the referendum, the pro-Agreement Unionist arguments and pro-Agreement nationalist arguments were different. In its implementation, the nationalist interpretation predominated, and the predictions of anti-Agreement Unionists were validated.
This is why the mantle of Unionist leadership transferred from the Ulster Unionist Party to the Democratic Unionist Party. Their winning slogan of ‘It’s time for a fair deal’ resonated with disillusioned Unionists, and ultimately resulted in the 2007 St Andrews Agreement. This and subsequent agreements maintained an operating Executive and Assembly for ten years, unlike the first ten years of the political process.
As the Agreement had this early skew of both text and implementation, Irish nationalism is especially defensive of it. The claims of something breaching the Belfast Agreement, and its misrepresentation as a complete agreement, are not new to Unionist ears. We’ve listened to it for 20 years and still made progress.
Second, the biggest lies you tell are the ones you tell yourself. Irish nationalism was able to imagine that the new relationships, and a direction of travel, meant something more and different that it did. Brexit, a UK-wide decision that approximately 85 per cent of Irish nationalist referendum voters opposed (though with a poor nationalist turnout) was a clear shock to that worldview.
Third, nationalism had its worst Assembly election in 2016 (driven by a nationalist view that the Unionism was driving the agenda), Sinn Fein mishandled their ministerial choices, ended up floundering and hadn’t expected the rise of a hard left party, People Before Profit, that took seats in their heartlands – nor the main nationalist party, the SDLP, going into opposition.
Sinn Fein’s counter-strategy to these developments was a plan to bring the Executive down within two years on a platform which would rally nationalists to them. Thus, hurting PBP and preventing the SDLP from bedding in as an opposition. Subsequent talks and a list of demands would enable them to show they were driving the agenda. They did not use Brexit as the basis: Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness had agreed a common approach to this in September 2016. Instead, the basis used was the fallout from the handling of a Renewable Heat Scheme.
Fourth, the Irish government is seeking to use Northern-Ireland specific EU harmonisation to create ever increasing differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This goes against the Belfast Agreement’s requirements that any cross-border harmonisation was to be on a mutually agreed basis only. This is why the EU’s interpretation of a Northern Ireland-specific backstop is a breach of the agreement and clear and ever-growing danger to the Union.
Fifth, and most importantly, what is taking place isn’t about the Belfast Agreement at all. It’s about stopping Brexit by portraying Leavers as anti-peace, reckless and uncaring. However, it is Remainers who are invoking the threat of violence. Disgracefully, it is Remainers who seem to be willing a return to violence to validate their view, despite no increase in terrorist violence since the 2016 referendum. It is a further example of their anti-democratic tendencies. The response of any democrat to threats and actual terrorism should be to reject it and oppose it.
Unionism has had to stand against both for decades. We aren’t going to change that – and it is shameful that some are trying to instruct us to.
Lee Reynolds is DUP director of policy and its group leader in Belfast. This two-part article (of which today’s is part two) first appeared on Wednesday at www.conservativehome.com