The 1998 Belfast Agreement is merely like the opening part of ‘Lord of the Rings’

Lee Reynolds said the Belfast Agreement was 'no barrier' to a hard border in 2001, when Irish officers enforced foot-and-mouth movement restrictions ' such as these gardai, pictured on March 13 that year halting traffic on the main Belfast-Dublin road
Lee Reynolds said the Belfast Agreement was 'no barrier' to a hard border in 2001, when Irish officers enforced foot-and-mouth movement restrictions ' such as these gardai, pictured on March 13 that year halting traffic on the main Belfast-Dublin road

I have a close relative whose political views are liberal and feminist.

When the Belfast Agreement and the 1998 referendum is discussed, people are genuinely surprised when she tells them she voted ‘No’. When asked for an explanation her reply is simple: she read it. She is genuinely surprised by the number of ‘Yes’ voters who hadn’t read it.

Lee Reynolds

Lee Reynolds

It would be helpful for the political discussion if many more were to carry out this simple act. They would come to appreciate that much that is proclaimed or tweeted about the agreement is not actually in it.

First, they will appreciate that the Belfast Agreement was not a full and complete agreement. There were a series of issues to be dealt with later – for example, police reform (given to an independent commission), and the number and focus of cross-border bodies. Others were dealt with in obscurantist language that led to significant problems as the process developed: primarily decommissioning. Others were not addressed – namely justice for victims.

The agreement also had within it the recognition that it would have to change with review mechanisms for each strand of the agreement.

In textual terms it was Book One – ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ – with the main characters and a broad framework established, but there were many trials and unforeseen challenges ahead on the journey before it would become the full ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Second, if the reader researched political events in Northern Ireland, they’d appreciate the agreement has been added to – initially by the cross border bodies agreement, then by Trimble’s mini-deals to restore devolution.

It has also been changed and further added to since by the St Andrews Agreement, Hillsborough Castle Agreement, then the Stormont House Agreement. It is hard to claim something as complete and inviolate that in the subsequent 20 years has seen so much addition and change.

Guess who else has changed the terms of the Belfast Agreement? The Irish Government. They amended the rights to Irish citizenship; after initially allowing anyone born on Ireland to be an Irish citizen, they changed it due to unforeseen issues with chain migration.

For those who want to research deeper, they will discover the Belfast Agreement was no barrier to the Irish introducing a hard border enforced by police and troops in 2001 during a foot and mouth outbreak nor from running regular immigration operations.

The UK leaving the EU was not envisaged in 1998, so the document does not deal directly with that scenario. The past precedent is to deal with a new scenario with a new agreement, as was required when the difficulties with welfare reform arose.

Furthermore, there is a pre-existing cross border body dealing with EU matters – the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). A new agreement could consider re-purposing that body.

A reader will discover that rather than being an impediment to the situation, the agreement has structures that can help manage the issues around the UK leaving.

The Agreement established the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council (made up of Northern Ireland Executive ministers and Irish Government ministers) and the British-Irish Council (made up of the national governments, devolved bodies and Isle of Man and Channel Islands), and British Irish Inter-governmental Conference (made up of the two national governments).

In the text, it identifies three specific relationships and bodies on EU issues: the Assembly and our national government (Strand One); the North-South Ministerial Council (Strand Two); and the British-Irish Council (Strand Three).

The British-Irish Intergovern-mental Conference (whilst it doesn’t contain explicitly reference to the EU) works on non-devolved matters with a commitment to work on the ‘totality of relationships’ and ‘promote bi-lateral co-operation at all levels’.

The institutional framework for managing future relationships already exists in the new context of the UK not being an EU member, and nationalists boycotting the Assembly is preventing two of them from operating properly. Crucially, both the Assembly and North-South Ministerial Council have vetoes and safeguards.

The EU proposals on a sea border would breach the Belfast Agreement, as they would effectively end the first mechanism – the Assembly and national government relationship.

The EU placing itself in the position of the UK Government would fundamentally shift the relationships in the North-South Ministerial Council, and would not accept any vetoes or safeguards.

• Lee Reynolds is DUP’s director of policy and its group leader in Belfast. PART TWO of his platform piece continues at this link, when he talks of the spectre of terror in the context of Brexit.

This piece first appeared yesterday on www.conservativehome.com