Northern Ireland baulks at the panda in the room
Similarity between Belfast Agreement and Hong Kong handover is great unmentionable
Last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten at handover ceremony in 1997. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Arlene Foster is on a four-day visit to China this week, prostrating herself before the Dragon Throne. Her progress has been tracked by cringe-inducing Stormont press releases extolling how Northern Ireland (population: 1.8 million) and the People’s Republic (population: 1.4 billion) can offer each other “endless mutual benefits”.
Chief among the benefits discussed so far is Chinese financing to rebuild Belfast’s main transport hub, because the Northern Ireland Executive – that diplomatic colossus bestriding the globe – cannot issue bonds or just go the bank like almost any town council on earth.
However, everyone is far too polite to point out that.
Nor are Foster’s hosts mentioning the absence of Martin McGuinness, who pulled out of the trip two days before departure citing “unforeseen personal circumstances”. Neither Sinn Féin nor the Executive office will elaborate, beyond saying Foster is travelling with the Deputy First Minister’s “best wishes”.
McGuinness was at his desk in Stormont on Monday and tweeting about the London Brexit trial on Tuesday, leaving Foster very publicly alone to meet Chinese vice-premier Liu Yandong, the third most powerful person among those 1.4 billion people. Incredibly, Liu has been to Northern Ireland – she visited in 2012 while touring the UK and met McGuinness along with Foster’s predecessor Peter Robinson.
HumiliatingThe Sinn Féin man’s failure to return the courtesy is so humiliating that he could only make it worse by taking a call from the president of Taiwan.
Yet all of this is a mere sideshow compared to the great unmentionable between Northern Ireland and China. The panda in the room, of which no one speaks, is the striking similarity between the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong.
The famous name common to both deals, Chris Patten, is a coincidence. Hong Kong’s future had been decided long before he became its last governor, let alone before he fished up in Belfast to create the PSNI.
Both settlements were negotiated by different politicians and officials under different British governments well over a decade apart – but that only makes their parallels more instructive. There is clearly a deep pattern in how London approached, and thus presumably saw, each case.
First, it tried to have the UK, China and Hong Kong represented at negotiations. Beijing rejected what it called this “three-legged stool” – the disputed territory would have no say in its own fate.
In Ireland, London had more luck with its “three-stranded approach” – Dublin accepted Northern Ireland within the totality of relationships.
There then followed two years of formal talks, but mostly on detail. In each instance, permanent constitutional compromise was ditched from the outset, with sovereignty recognised as an indivisible power that could only be transferred from one state to the other.
In Hong Kong, this was smoothed by a 50-year limit on the concept of “one country, two systems”; in Northern Ireland, by a seven-year cycle of Border polls under the consent principle.
It is the parallels within the details that are perhaps most revealing. Each territory received the interim arrangement of a toy-town parliament, with odd forms of democracy to placate internal or external mistrust.
Sectoral interests were formally represented: in Hong Kong’s case by constituencies for business and the professions; in Stormont’s case by a civic forum.
Mini-constitutionFundamental freedoms were protected by a declaration of rights, overseen by an independent judiciary. The whole lot was then wrapped up in a treaty, to be enacted in a law that functioned as a mini-constitution.
In Hong Kong this is called the Basic Law and it is invariably referred to as “the mini-constitution”. Only since Brexit have lawyers in Northern Ireland started using similar terms for the Belfast Agreement.
The lack of interest in any of this is bizarre. You can see why unionists would find it ominous but, by the same token, republicans should be raising it at every opportunity. Sinn Fein mercifully ditched its postcolonial rhetoric when it entered the peace process – in a European context, the implications of decolonialism amount to ethnic cleansing. However, Belfast has an army of academics still inclined to that analysis. So where are their papers and conferences? They cannot all have been seduced away by the funding and fashion for “transitional justice”.
Northern Ireland had Europe’s first ethnic Chinese elected representative, Alliance’s Anna Lo, who was born in Hong Kong and who said she supported a united Ireland because she was “anti-colonial”. Yet even she seemed to baulk at a direct comparison.
Beijing will have noticed the similarity too, to the extent that it notices Northern Ireland at all, but in all the ups and downs of its relationship with the UK it never mentions it either.
Why this should be so is a genuine mystery. Is it possible we all feel a loss of face?