Henry Hill: If Johnson wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must act to restore unionist confidence in it

8 Apr

Last month, I wrote about what the appointment of Lord Frost signalled with regards to the Government’s intentions over the Northern Ireland Protocol. This week’s loyalist violence shows the importance of Boris Johnson getting this policy right.

The division inside the Government is not between people who like or dislike the Protocol. Nobody likes it.

Rather the divide is between those such as Michael Gove, who believe that the Protocol can be made to work (and has striven to sand off its roughest edges), and the likes of Frost, who don’t. The latter camp maintain that because the Protocol is a ‘living document’ rooted in EU law, it is almost certainly going to metastasise rather than stabilise, and lay a heavier and heavier burden on Ulster’s connections with the mainland.

Of course there is no avoiding the fact that the Prime Minister signed up to it, but the defence offered for that is that after the passage of the Benn Act the Government didn’t have the leverage to get rid of it before leaving the EU. Nor was the mistake his alone.

For all that some commentators like to talk up Theresa May’s alternative approach, in truth the critical mistakes on Northern Ireland – especially allowing Britain’s rhetoric about no return to “the borders of the past” to mutate into a commitment to an invisible Irish border which is not in the Belfast Agreement – were made when she was in office. Ireland and the EU deliberately pushed a maximalist line on Ulster and credulous British ministers swallowed it whole.

The Protocol isn’t the only factor contributing to the violence. The visible refusal of the PSNI to act on blatant lawbreaking by senior Sinn Fein politicians is another. But they are part and parcel of the same trend of unionists and loyalists feeling that the structures and processes of the post-1998 settlement are being stacked against them.

There is no plausible reading of the Belfast Agreement that could offer the nationalist community a right to an invisible border with a neighbouring state but not protect unionists from a visible border inside their country. Yet that is how it has been defined, if not in court then by the political debate around the Protocol. The Agreement is supposed to guarantee Northern Ireland’s British status, yet the Government will not fly the flag there. Some people even thought the Democratic Unionists propping up the May Government – i.e. participating in their national government – a breach of the deal.

As a result, the loyalist paramilitary groups have already withdrawn their support for the deal and there is an increasingly real prospect of political unionism following suit. If the major parties get spooked into collapsing Stormont, it may not come back.

This is a test for both sides. The EU has been keen to talk up the importance of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement and ‘the peace’ when doing so meant maximally enforcing the EU’s interests. Will it continue to prioritise them if it means going against its perceived interests? It would be a surprise.

But it is even more a test for the Government, because Northern Ireland is British and thus ultimately our responsibility. That means that yes, Johnson needs to back Frost to the hilt if he has a long-term strategy for delivering fundamental changes to the Protocol. But he should not stop there.

As I wrote in the News Letter last week, he should overturn the decision to exclude the Province from the new policy of putting the Union Flag on UK Government buildings and authorise Brandon Lewis to undertake root-and-branch reform at the NIO to get rid of the entrenched neutralist attitudes that rule there. He should also task whoever is in charge of formulating constitutional policy to sit down and develop a proper British vision of the Belfast Agreement and its obligations, to help prevent future generations of lazy and/or uninterested ministers getting memed into terrible decisions by those selling the myths that seem to comprise the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

For too long, the Government has relied on the old trick of staging interminable rounds of talks and then basically bribing the local parties back into Stormont for a bit. If the Prime Minister wants to save the Belfast Agreement, he must demonstrate to unionists that its guarantees of their British status – including the ability to participate fully in British political and economic life – are real.