The absence of any unionist voice in defence of the Belfast Agreement appears to be creating space for the advancement of nationalist demands beyond the carefully balanced constitutional arrangements that were agreed by unionists in 1998.
Two issues in particular are currently being pursued by nationalists.
The first is a demand that UK citizenship law be amended to disapply its current application to people born in Northern Ireland.
This is part of a campaign being led by Emma de Souza and supported by Sinn Féin and many others. The argument being advanced relies on the provision in the Belfast Agreement that people in Northern Ireland may identify as ‘Irish or British, or both’.
Nationalists are arguing that the law should now be changed so that people born in Northern Ireland should no longer automatically be British citizens, but should instead merely have a right to British citizenship.
In fact, however, the Agreement distinguishes between ‘identity’ and ‘citizenship’: while there is a right to ‘identify’ as Irish or British or both, it only refers to a right to hold ‘both British and Irish citizenship’.
It seems highly unlikely that unionist negotiators would have agreed to create a wedge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in relation to UK citizenship law and, when the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was passed to implement the Agreement it did not contain any such provision.
The second is the campaign to extend the franchise for Irish presidential voting to Irish citizens living outside the state, and thus including people in Northern Ireland.
Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement states that it deals with ‘the totality of relationships’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Within this ‘totality’ there is no provision for people in Northern Ireland to vote in Southern elections.
Indeed, one of the main planks of the agreement was the removal of the Republic’s territorial claim on Northern Ireland: this was supposed to be a gesture to unionism and mark a shift away from the irredentist politics of the past to a future in which the boundaries of the two jurisdictions on the island were respected.
Extending the franchise in this way has the opposite effect and becomes a tangible manifestation of southern irredentism, putting into practice the offensive notion that the whole island of Ireland is the natural territory of the Irish state.
There are significant implications for unionism of this newly energised irredentism, encouraging nationalists in Northern Ireland to look south and opt out of Northern Ireland — accelerating a process that has already begun in response to unionists’ cack-handed approach to politics both within Northern Ireland and at a UK level (support for hard Brexit).
There are no unionist voices objecting to either of these nationalist demands; no unionist voices arguing that the Belfast Agreement ought to prevent them from happening.
Instead unionists are allowing nationalists to colonise the Belfast Agreement as a tool to advance their ultimate aim.