May’s speech not as one-sided as DUP might like

Posted By: July 26, 2018

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, July 26, 2018

It is slowly dawning on unionists that Theresa May’s speech in Belfast last Friday was far from a one-sided reassurance to the DUP.

Headlines were initially grabbed by the prime minister’s promise of no customs sea border – an excerpt of the speech that leaked out the day before.

This caused an outbreak of hysteria about London rejecting the border backstop, either as allegedly agreed or in any form.

Accusers missed the word ‘customs’ in May’s speech. She did not rule out a regulatory sea border, which would enable Northern Ireland to effectively remain within the EU single market.

Combining such a sea border with London’s (admittedly dreadful) customs-sharing plan for the whole UK means the British government has not ruled out or significantly retreated from EU proposals for the backstop.

May has never accepted those proposals but her reaction when they appeared last December – that “no British prime minister could ever agree to them” – is beginning to recall her predecessor John Major’s words, while talking to the IRA, that talking to the IRA would turn his stomach over.

The actual sop to unionists in May’s speech was her claim that “a new border within the United Kingdom” would breach the Good Friday Agreement by threatening the constitutional integrity of the UK, thereby denying parity of esteem and just and equal treatment to the unionist community.

This was a bit of a head-scratcher. The Agreement’s provisions on constitutional change relate to the transition from full British sovereignty to full Irish sovereignty. They would not be invoked by new checks on shipments of widgets at the Port of Belfast.

Alliance leader Naomi Long summed it up: “The prime minister is escalating the issues of the backstop and the customs union to issues that are about sovereignty. These are not sovereignty issues – the Good Friday Agreement settled sovereignty.”

Long’s comments, which followed a meeting with May, received widespread approval.

However, Alliance, along with most of nationalist Ireland, has been guilty of the same inaccurate escalation over a hard land Border.

Extra checks on widgets at Newry are not a constitutional issue either, yet the prospect has been portrayed as a self-evident breach of the Agreement.

When it is pointed out to nationalists that nothing in the Agreement precludes Brexit or any Border checks it might require, the usual response is to say this may be true in letter but it is not true in spirit. It would presumably take a Ouija board to locate this spirit, as no court case has managed to find it.

Many nationalists also believe the DUP is pursuing a hard border to breach the spirit of the Agreement on purpose, although it seems clear the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland has caught even the DUP’s ultra-Brexiteers on the hop.

All attempts to debunk or de-escalate these nationalist concerns have fallen on deaf ears and in truth if one side to an agreement believes it is broken it hardly matters if they are mistaken.

So May took a different approach.

In her speech, she agreed with nationalism, ruling out any form of infrastructure “because the seamless border is a foundation stone on which the Belfast Agreement rests, allowing for the just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities. Anything that undermines that is a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement”.

Although the sea border section of the speech was leaked first, the hard border section was delivered first. To her Belfast audience, the prime minister was clearly using identical terms and arguments to rule out both, explicitly saying any new frontier within the UK would “be a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement, and for exactly the same reason that a hard Border would be.”

The News Letter was the first to report this was the spirit without the letter.

Former UUP leader Lord Empey, who attended every day of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, noted: “There’s nothing in the Agreement that references any of that.”

On Sunday the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson appeared to choose his words carefully when saying “that would be our view as well.”

May’s assurance to unionists was spelled out from her own Ouija board, and only then after summoning up nationalism’s Brexit demon.

The ‘spirit of the Agreement’ has now been fully unleashed upon political reality, recognized by the British government as an endlessly flexible justification for whatever it needs to do.

Precedent strongly suggests it is Unionists this will end up haunting.