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Belfast Agreement is the darling of Remainers and poison to Brexiteers

Sarah Creighton: In 1998 a challenge was set: sell the union. Make Northern Ireland work. And yet unionism has never effectively sold the agreement

If anything has exposed the mistake of the past 25 years it is Brexit. Here unionism finds itself walking on sinking sand

My memories of 1998 are blurry. The Belfast Agreement arriving through our letterbox in a big envelope. My mum pouring over it as we watched kids’ TV. My grandparents discussing it as they watched the news. A school lunchtime where a classmate points up at the nearby hills, a large, white painted ‘NO,’ on the grass.

Some 57 per cent of Protestants voted for the agreement; my family included. A significant minority voted No. The fractured nature of the vote was a source of pride for anti-agreement unionists like then DUP leader Ian Paisley, who said the document was “the greatest betrayal ever foisted by a unionist leader on the unionist people…”

People voted for different reasons. Fear. Hope. Anger. Caution. Few thought the agreement was perfect. The release of prisoners in particular was a bitter pill for many to swallow. Some couldn’t, and still can’t, countenance a future where nationalists and republicans are given any say over Northern Ireland’s future.

The landscape was utterly changed. The agreement hardened the resolve of many Protestants. Others, safe in the knowledge that the union was secure, became content and willing to work in a new landscape. For some the agreement and cessation of PIRA violence marked the moment when they detached themselves from unionism.


Now, 25 years after the agreement was signed support for it is falling. It is the darling of Remainers and poison to Brexiteers. It is a meme, carelessly thrown around like confetti. Ian Paisley’s party quotes the agreement in court to fight against the Northern Ireland protocol. Unionism is divided, weak, losing ground to the centre, and no longer speaks for the country it founded. Some declare that the agreement is dead.

We are back in 1998, the divisions once again laid bare. How can the agreement be dead if it never got to live? It remains standing, battered, and bruised because a collection of governments and politicians, nationalist and unionists, have damaged it. If people are willing to toss it aside it is because it has failed them. Unionism can’t abandon something it never used.

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What the most ardent opponents of the agreement can’t admit: the agreement contains significant wins for unionism. It affirms Northern Ireland’s place in the union. It legitimatises British sovereignty in Northern Ireland by consent. The union is secure…if people want it to continue.

In 1998 a challenge was set: sell the union. Make Northern Ireland work. And yet unionism has never effectively sold the Belfast Agreement. It has done very little to appeal beyond the borders it set for itself. It has wasted an opportunity for a quarter of a century. Since 1998 the narrative has been one of loss, republican gain and the promise of an Ulster that has not and never will exist.

The DUP exploited fear and anger within the unionist community, seizing upon issues like decommissioning and the Stormont spy ring to sow doubt in people who had voted Yes. When the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was replaced by the DUP as the leading unionist party the narrative that the agreement was a win disappeared. The DUP finally went into the executive under the St Andrews Agreement, a document that tore the purpose of the original Agreement to shreds.

For all the talk of giving ground to nationalists the post-agreement era saw unionism triumph at the ballot box. It had a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. At one point the DUP had enough MLAs to wield the petition of concern on its own. Not a single opinion poll put support for Irish unity above 20 per cent.

All of it was forgotten at election time. The union is always in peril at the ballot box. Safe and strong when a unionist MLA sits in the First Minister’s office.

Unionism knows that a red, white and blue strategy will not convince people to vote for the union in a border poll. It knows that it can’t attract people to its cause by falling back on narrow, outdated tropes. And yet, at every opportunity for a pivot, it slips back into comfortable clothing.

Take the flag protests in 2012. Days before Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag on designated days then DUP leader Peter Robinson told his party that it needed to appeal to Catholics and promote positive unionism. On the day of the flag vote he told party members they needed to appeal to the middle ground. All was abandoned that evening, the DUP seeing an opportunity to take back Robinson’s East Belfast MP seat from Alliance’s Naomi Long.

While many people across Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, have organised to tackle sectarianism within their own communities, the political class has failed to catch up. The agreement does very little to tackle and address sectarianism. It allows attitudes to fester and mutate. Civility matters more than changing attitudes and challenging historical wrongs.

Unionism has not reflected on its past. There has been no examination of the legacy of partition or 70 years of unionist rule. As Northern Ireland has grown more liberal, unionism has failed to adapt and change. The UUP has started to promote its version of positive unionism but conservative elements within the party remain.

Politicians in Northern Ireland, unionist, nationalist and republican, have presided over widening inequality. The Belfast Agreement has brought wealth and prosperity to Northern Ireland’s middle class. High-rises loom over inner-city communities. Jobs have arrived from overseas, the wages low, the contracts insecure. Austerity in the UK has hammered public services, the NHS and the welfare state. The peace process was supposed to be for everyone.

If anything has exposed the mistake of the past 25 years it is Brexit. Here unionism finds itself walking on sinking sand.

Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the European Union. The vote was a broad coalition of nationalists, republicans, others and 30 per cent of unionists. The Leave vote, however, was not insignificant. Most unionists voted to leave the European Union. They found themselves in broad step with the rest of the UK but out of sync with Northern Ireland. Notably the Brexit vote in the Protestant community split on class lines. Remain voters were most likely to be middle class. Leave voters more likely to be working class.

It was not Brexit itself that lead the way to the current impasse but the hard Brexit chosen by right-wing English nationalists in the Tory party. Once the UK left the customs union and the single market the Border had to go somewhere. In hedging their bets to the ERG, the DUP put Brexit before the union and put Northern Ireland at the mercy of people who would happily hand it over to the Republic and not lose a wink of sleep. In one fatal swoop they antagonised nationalists, republicans and the middle ground. Unsettled Remainer unionists and Protestants who had been content and at ease within the UK. Thousands of apathetic voters were galvanised.

Brexit has made a mockery of the Belfast Agreement. It has been weaponised and misused carelessly. The document says nothing about trade borders on land or in the sea, yet its existence is the justification for the Northern Ireland protocol.

The protocol is the most significant change to the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland for 100 years. Britain is a third county for trade purposes and a border lies down the Irish Sea. Unionists believe their place in the union has been damaged.

British and Irish governments have handed anti-agreement unionists a gift. If the protocol must exist to protect the agreement, they now argue, the agreement must go. The division now is whether unionists should return to Stormont. The DUP and TUV support a boycott while the Ulster Unionists oppose.

There is little sympathy for unionism. Appeals for nationalists and others to support cross-community consent are ignored because Remainers were told to put up and shut up when this path was forged. The DUP sidelined Northern Ireland. Now Northern Ireland sidelines the DUP.

Enter the Windsor Framework. The protocol is diminished, Stormont has been given a greater say over EU regulations. Northern Ireland has access to dual markets. Rishi Sunak says it is “the most exciting economic zone in the world”. The leader of the TUV, Jim Allister, holds the line on the boycott. All eyes turn to the DUP.

In Britain people are slowly realising that Brexit is not going well. Sunak has begun a more positive relationship with the EU. The framework could make Northern Ireland more prosperous. It could provide the best opportunity to address the peace dividend in a generation. If Britain starts to align more closely with the EU, the sea border should fall way.

For some the promise of prosperity under the framework is as worthless as the promise of peace under the agreement. Loyalist activists state that the agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on. They believe they have bought into a process that has delivered little for their communities. The protocol offers nothing because the European Union offered nothing as well. If Stormont must go, who cares? They have nothing to lose.

Since 2016 unionism has lost its majority in the Assembly. Its vote declines with every election. It is small fry in the Westminster parliament. A significant section of Protestants and unionists have abandoned political unionism for the middle ground and are unlikely to return. The generation coming forward is less likely to be unionist, Protestant and identify as British. If Stormont does not return where does unionism go?

Sarah Creighton is a solicitor, writer and political commentator