Northern Ireland

Cambridge academic says senior Tories are 'woefully and willfully' misunderstanding the protocol's impact on the Good Friday Agreement

Cambridge University's Dr Niamh Gallagher. Picture by Alice Boagey
Cambridge University's Dr Niamh Gallagher. Picture by Alice Boagey

SENIOR Tories are "woefully – and perhaps willfully – misunderstanding the Good Friday Agreement" and its relationship to the Northern Ireland Protocol, according to a Cambridge University academic.

Dr Niamh Gallagher, a Co Armagh-born author and historian, concludes that there is no evidence ?based on recent ministerial pronouncements ?to support the claim that the post-Brexit trade arrangements threaten the 1998 peace accord.

Instead, she argues that Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and other ministers are in "flagrant violation" of the ?Conservative Party's commitment in the Downing Street Declaration to have "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland".

Her meticulously researched paper published on the History and Policy website is a searing takedown of the current British government's rhetoric around the Irish Sea border. It comes against the background of ongoing efforts by the Conservative administration to legislate to disapply elements of the deal the UK and EU signed off little over 18 months ago.

The Cambridge University associate professor in modern British and Irish history, who was a member of the independent advisory panel on the Northern Ireland centenary, says it is the Tories who in their political representations as to why the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill must be introduced, have broken their commitment to the peace process that their predecessors of the 1990s did so much to bring about.

The paper looks at separate aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and asks if the accord is threatened by the protocol, as claimed.

It investigates the "alleged disruption to power-sharing" and concludes that the key pillar of the Stormont institutions is not under threat but that the "problem lies exclusively with the DUP and its actions over the protocol". She argues that power-sharing in the region has always been "rocky" and there is no evidence of "wider political disengagement which should cause concern about governance in Northern Ireland".

Dr Gallagher argues that many senior Conservatives are using the principle of cross-community consent as a "politically expedient tool" and questions whether there is any legal basis to "protest the protocol on a consent basis".

She believes there has been a "considerable misunderstanding" by the prime minister and foreign secretary about what cross-community consent is, noting how Strand One of the agreement is exclusively about "democratic institutions in Northern Ireland". In all of this strand's clauses, the Stormont assembly, not Westminster, has exclusive authority over cross-community consent.

"Cross-community consent is therefore the preserve of the Northern Ireland Assembly and concerns internal relations," her paper states.

"It is not for the UK government to interfere with nor any other co-guarantor. It is exclusively about institutions, not policies."

The academic also highlights numerous instances where the Westminster government ignored cross-community consent to pass legislation, including the outworkings of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the introduction of abortion legislation in 2019, and the recent Legacy and Reconciliation Bill.

Of the latter Dr Gallagher says: "It is one of the few policies opposed by all groups in Northern Ireland without exception, yet the government presses ahead with the legislation, railroading over consent... On none of these occasions did ‘consent’ matter to the UK government in its setting of policy. This is fundamentally because consent does not apply to policy."

She also notes that the UK government originally made the provision that a simple majority, rather than a cross-community majority, would suffice for an assembly vote every four years on the protocol

The paper also highlights the "misunderstanding" of east–west relations as detailed in Strand Three of the agreement.

The author notes that rather than relating to Northern Ireland and Britain in the manner interpreted by Liz Truss, Strand Three's focus is on the relationship between the Republic and Britain.

Dr Gallagher told The Irish News last night that her scrutiny had revealed that "no one has done their homework on the Good Friday Agreement".

"No one's opened up the document and looked at it thoroughly and compared it to the rhetoric that's coming out of the government ministers' mouths – I think that's especially important because we're now in the committee stages of the bill," she said.