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The last few years have proved difficult for unionism, some would have you believe the most difficult. Some would have you believe the threat to the union is existential and must be resisted in all its working to the nth degree.
Nearly 40 years ago I heard the same rhetoric as I hear today, indeed from some of the same voices. Then I listened, I followed, I marched, rallied, plotted, planned and acted as my leaders required. In the end not one comma in the Anglo-Irish Agreement was changed. Yet, I am as British today as I was 40 years ago.
No doubt we shall hear a lot of rhetorical jingoism from some in reference to the “Stormont brake” and I am reminded of another speech made about Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. This time by the late Harold McCusker MP in the House of Commons in November 1985 after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The full speech is worthy of note but specifically I recalled this section.
“I shall not argue with the Secretary of State about sovereignty because the House can change what it means by that. That came out in the debate yesterday. Sovereignty is what the Government decide it is.” Harold McCusker MP Hansard 28th Nov 1985
Thirty-eight years ago, Harold McCusker knew the truth about the United Kingdom, Parliament is sovereign, today some unionists still don’t understand or accept that reality.
For some in unionism action means inaction, boycott. A process that ultimately leads to more death, pain, discomfort, poverty, deprivation and lost life opportunities. It would be a brutal political strategy if the intention was to influence a Government committed to caring about the citizens affected by such a strategy. This Government doesn’t. Without a political outcome to such a brutal strategy the decision to continue it is an immoral one.
That doesn’t mean that unionism should accept the Windsor Framework or believe the spin promoted by the Government. This is modern Britain under the Conservatives, we live in Orwell’s world
“Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.” Orwell 1984
Brexit was a disaster for the UK, warnings about the impact on the union were ignored and those who raised concerns about the economic consequences were pointed to slogans on the side of a bus. The Protocol was a failed negotiation by a UK team who did not understand the complexities they were meant to address and a unionist leadership in the DUP happy to devolve the issue to the Conservatives. Their initial support for Boris and the Protocol allowed the ink to dry before they were alerted to the dangers.
The EU had one objective in dealing with Brexit, the protection of the single market, it was a concept the UK didn’t fully understand nor make any effort to understand, especially the consequences for NI, speed was the motivation for every UK decision. The offer of dual access to markets, while offering some opportunities also brings some risks, but the starting point is that the UK has signed a binding international trade agreement, walking away is not an option. Indeed it is likely that surreptitiously the Government will move closer to the regulations prevailing within the Single Market, business is already doing so. A future Government will move even closer, not out of any politically pro-EU motivation but due to the practical necessity of providing access to the large market on the UK’s doorstep. The Windsor Framework is simply a step along that road, little to do with addressing the concerns of unionists.
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In that context I believe that Unionism should not indicate support for the Windsor Framework, as such support is a meaningless action for something we have had no input into nor decision making authority for. It provides a fig leaf of respectability for a Government that deserves no such cover. The results of the Frameworks outworking will be complex and challenging, the interrogation of rules and regulations, deep negotiations and a level of understanding on impacts hitherto not a feature of local politics for any party. Rejection may be the choice of some, especially the DUP, but again it’s a meaningless fig leaf, unionists either acknowledge the sovereignty of Parliament or they don’t.
So, what do I think unionism’s position should be, first, further infliction of morally questionable boycott tactics should end. This Conservative party is not swayed by increasing death rates, years of pain and suffering by our citizens, defunding of our schools, collapse of infrastructure or lost life opportunities for our citizens.
Secondly, applying a simple principle, both in Brussels and Westminster, “nothing about us without us” the earliest engagement with Northern Ireland over proposed changes to anything which affects us under the Windsor Framework. Rather than trying to dissect the intentions of changes after the fact include representatives from NI in the initial engagement. This will be challenging for unionism as engagement won’t be on a veto basis, (Sunak hasn’t delivered a veto no matter the spin), being better politicians is the key to using the system to NI’s advantage.
Thirdly, the action of unionist leaders to challenge the Protocol through the courts highlights the challenges the UK has without a formal written constitution. Basing the challenge on Article 6 of the Act of Union highlights the significant changes already existing due to devolution, notwithstanding that in respect of trade the Act of Union predates railways and East – West trade was limited to what was carried on sailing vessels and by horse and cart.
“That all Parts of the United Kingdom, for ever, from and after the Union, shall have the same Allowances, Encouragements, and Draw-backs, and be under the same Prohibitions, Restrictions, and Regulations of Trade, and liable to the same Customs and Duties, and Import and Export.” Article 6 Act of Union 1800
The Government apparently is offering to amend the Northern Ireland Act to reassure unionism, I could not accept any reassurance from this Government, what can be amended once can be amended again, my identity is not in the gift of Conservatives. I believe that unionism can however make a significant request for the betterment of the UK as a whole. A request for the establishment of a constitutional convention, to provide within 5 years a written constitution to be accepted or rejected by referendum. A constitution which details the rights of citizens, the responsibilities of Parliament and the limitations of Government.
Finally, what of our relationship with the Conservatives. In the run up to the 2010 election I spent a year working with the Conservatives on the UCUNF project (named before I was involved). At that time there was a belief in the development of a centre-right socially aware conservatism, that iteration of conservatism no longer exists. Instead the Conservatives, controlled by the ideology and authors of Britannia Unchained, represented by the faux working class of Gullis and Anderson, the faux aristocracy of Rees-Mogg and the buffoonery of Boris have stepped far outside the tram lines of a caring society.
There will be those who believe that unionism should stand with them still, the DUP have many who share this view, happy to stand in the shadows behind the Tories believing they too are in the limelight. In the coming weeks there will be those who articulate the need for unionism to stand united with conservatism with banners and flags flying. This is a venture the Ulster Unionist Party has no need to
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be involved with. There may still be honourable Tories, I can name a few, but too few and Conservatism today has nothing to offer society. Individuals may be enticed by baubles, a bended knee at the Palace, a rare chance of the ermine. True belief in creating a better society cannot be set aside or bought off by mere trinkets or titles. As for working closely with the DUP, the difference between us is the difference between those who passionately believe in creating a better society and those who will sacrifice lives, inflict poor health, justify poverty and limit the life chances of our citizens in the pursuit of power. Those beliefs go in different directions, at no point do they cross.