Aaron Edwards unpacks different unionist perspectives on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, suggesting that a pragmatic approach with wide appeal and within the framework of the Agreement offers unionists the most effective path to strengthening the Union.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has cast a long shadow over Northern Ireland politics since it was signed twenty-five years ago.
For Northern Irish nationalists, it is something to be celebrated as it created ‘institutions which respect diversity but ensure that we work together in our common interest’, in the memorable words of John Hume as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.
Ulster Unionists, on the other hand, remain sanguine about the Agreement, with Hume’s co-recipient of the Peace Prize, David Trimble, telling unionists they had to ‘give things a chance to develop’ while accepting they had to start from where they were, not from where they would like to be.
In his book Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland Christopher Farrington divided Unionism into four political positions on the Agreement, under the headings of principled yes, pragmatic yes, a pragmatic no and principled no.
Those who adopted a principled position in support of the Agreement saw it as a positive outcome for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just for the unionist community. They saw the transformative potential of the Agreement in breaking down decades of division and sold it on that basis. Pragmatic supporters of the Agreement, including Trimble, saw it largely through a narrower single identity lens in terms of it being a good deal for unionists and, perhaps, the best possible outcome achievable at the time.
By way of contrast, pragmatic opponents of the Agreement viewed it as containing more negatives than positives and that it was, therefore, a bad deal for unionists. The principled no camp – by way of accentuating these negative qualities – saw the Agreement as a ‘sell out’, for it corrupted democracy by allowing terrorists into government. Crucially, they drew no distinction between republican or loyalist paramilitaries – as far as they were concerned, it was the worst of all possible worlds.
Since the Agreement was signed, principled and pragmatic unionist support for it has been politically routed by its pragmatic and principled opponents.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which had been the dominant political party in Northern Ireland since partition, was replaced by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in elections held in 2003 and 2005.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that scepticism and hostility towards the Agreement grew in the years since.
Surprisingly, the DUP – that had done so much to undermine the Agreement – appeared to shift from a principled to a pragmatic opposition position when they agreed to form a power-sharing government with their long-time opponents in Sinn Féin in 2007. The arrangement lasted for a decade before Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned, citing the DUP’s involvement in a scandal surrounding a renewable energy scheme.
For years, however, the relationship between both parties had shown signs of considerable strain, particularly when the Provisional IRA, the group McGuinness had once headed, was blamed for carrying out a retaliatory murder in response to an earlier killing of one of its own members.
The restoration of the institutions in 2020, therefore, was more about resetting the calculus of trust between both parties.
As Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher rightly observe in another article in this series, Unionists have continued to harbour a ‘predominant lack of trust in all political institutions’, something that has, arguably, grown worse in recent years.
In many respects the DUP’s opposition to the Agreement still informs its approach to politics in the region. In a recent interview, the party’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said he felt there were ‘significant flaws in the that agreement’, including the involvement of paramilitary-tied parties in the local Assembly and Executive.
Interestingly, other DUP politicians drew on their principled opposition to the Agreement in their support for the Leave campaign during the EU Exit Referendum in 2016 and the resulting oppositional politics surrounding the subsequent Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework.
Such unbroken lineage is a constant barrier to a unified unionist position on the Agreement and, arguably, reflects continuing divisions within Unionism on a range of political issues.
This begs the question as to where those principled and pragmatic unionist supporters of the Agreement have now gone.
Here we might look no further than to the UUP. Its current leader, Doug Beattie, has talked openly about the need to amend the Agreement, specifically in relation to mandatory coalition, though he stresses tweaks rather than a fundamental rewrite. Beattie has also spoken about the need for unionists to sell the union to a broader constituency, although he has not articulated a strategy for doing so.
As Andrew McCormick has alluded to in another article in this series, the unique arrangements under the Agreement provide ‘as firm and clear and expression and guarantee of the Union with the rest of the United Kingdom as is possible in a territory where over 40% do not identify with it’.
Unionists, therefore, need to abandon any notion of governing Northern Ireland based on the narrow sectional interests legitimised by majoritarian ethnic interpretations of democracy. As the most recent census figures demonstrate, Protestants have lost their ethno-religious dominance in Northern Ireland.
Unionism must, therefore, sell a vision for the continuation of the Union that appeals to the greatest number of people. That means going beyond listing a series of socio-economic benefits – whether that is the subvention between London and Belfast or, indeed, the NHS – at a time when austerity and Brexit have ravaged ready access to these. It also means going beyond flag-waving nostalgia and, crucially, zero-sum attempts to dominate ‘the other’.
As a recent Supreme Court ruling on the legal challenges to the Northern Ireland Protocol has underscored, the old norms of equal citizenship upon which Unionism rested – established initially in the Acts of Union (1800) – are contractual political rights based on the King in Parliament’s constitutional primacy and not unalterable, inalienable rights.
It should not be too difficult to achieve this more pragmatic form of unionism in Northern Ireland. At its core, as Arthur Aughey has argued, the Union is ‘a remarkably enduring constitutional arrangement’ built on its ‘capacity for adaptability’.
Unionists could do worse than look to the Belfast Agreement for inspiration, for it represented a ‘truly historic opportunity for a new beginning’ based on the principles of ‘reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all’. Working within the spirit framework of the Agreement, therefore, offers unionists the most effective way of strengthening the Union.
By Dr Aaron Edwards, Senior Lecturer in Defence and International Affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, an Honorary Research Fellow in Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester and the author of the forthcoming book, A People Under Siege: The Unionists of Northern Ireland, From Partition to Brexit and Beyond.
This piece forms part of a series reflecting on twenty five years of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.