Northern Ireland news

PUP: ‘No basis' for unionists to continue to back Good Friday Agreement

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson
David Young, PA

The Progressive Unionist Party, which is politically aligned to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, has said there is “no basis” for unionists to continue to support the Good Friday Agreement peace accord.

The PUP said the consent principle, which is central to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, has been undermined by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Apart from the protocol, party leader Billy Hutchinson said the peace process flowing from the agreement has not faithfully observed the text of the accord and has instead led to an incremental weakening of the union by delivering repeated concessions to nationalists.

The principle of consent means there can be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the backing of a majority of people in the region.

Loyalists angry at the Brexit protocol claim the imposition of economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has changed the north's constitutional position within the UK.

The support of the PUP and other loyalist representatives was crucial in concluding the Good Friday Agreement deal that largely ended decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.

Read more: Bus burned near loyalist estate (premium)

Mr Hutchinson said the principle of consent has been exposed as “little more than a deceptive snare”.

“It is my view that if, as is currently the case, the constitutional guarantee is not as was promised to the unionist community, then there is no basis for unionist support for the Belfast Agreement,” he said.

Mr Hutchinson insisted the PUP remains a “firm and dedicated” supporter of peace in Northern Ireland.

In March, an umbrella group representing three loyalist paramilitary groups – the UVF, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando – announced they were temporarily withdrawing their backing of the Good Friday accord.

They also cited concerns about the contentious arrangements governing Irish Sea trade post-Brexit.

However, they stressed that unionist opposition to the protocol should remain “peaceful and democratic”.

Ian Knox cartoon 6/11/21 

The PUP has limited electoral strength in Northern Ireland.

The party has no MLAs at Stormont and three local councillors out of a total of 462 council seats in the region.

Mr Hutchinson said the principle of consent in “practice has failed to protect the substance of the Union” and instead has led to its “incremental weakening”.

He said the protocol is a “real and present threat to the substance of the Union”.

And he said the “peace process” was not based on a faithful reading of the 1998 accord and rather a vaguer concept of the “spirit” of the agreement – a spirit he claimed has only delivered concessions to nationalists.

“If the ‘process’, as it seems, is little more than a vehicle to incrementally dismantle the Union we cherish, then the Progressive Unionist Party will be champions of peace, but firm opponents of the process,” he said.

He added: “The core basis that I have set out for the Progressive Unionist Party’s support for the Belfast Agreement, namely that the principle of consent secured the Union, means the Union in substance can no longer be said to apply in any meaningful way.

“It follows therefore that it would be to perpetuate an act of intellectual deceit upon our party members, and the unionist and loyalist people whom we represent, if I, as party leader, did not honestly and forthrightly call attention to this most serious of issues.”

Mr Hutchinson went on: “A Belfast Agreement which is based upon a deception on the core constitutional protection that was said to exist for our community is not the Belfast Agreement I signed up to and urged others to support in 1998.”

He set out a plan for restoring unionist and loyalist confidence.

He urged the UK Government to initiate a review of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which gave legislative effect to the agreement, with a “view to strengthening the principle of consent”.

He said the cross-community consent mechanism in the Assembly, which requires proposals to achieve the support of both a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists, must be applied to any vote on the continuance of post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The vote on the continuance of the protocol, due in 2024, is currently based on a straight majority vote.

Mr Hutchinson also called for the restoration of the concept of “equal citizenship” across the UK. He said key to achieving that is restoring commitments in the Acts of Union that all parts of the UK be on an equal footing in matters of trade and treaties.

He added: “I will continue to work constructively with leaders of all other unionist parties, and key stakeholders within the unionist family, to secure the removal of the intolerable and constitutionally damaging protocol.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has called on the PUP to reconsider the decision.

He said: "What I would say to the PUP and others (is) to reconsider that decision.

"They have been a party supportive of the Good Friday Agreement.

"I would not agree with the comments that have been attributed to that party this morning in respect of the the agreement itself, or in terms of the issue of consent.

"There's been a transformation in relationships north/south, within Northern Ireland, over time."

Read more: Bus burned near loyalist estate (premium)

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