Saturday 16 February 2019

Dissecting North agreement for all it's worth


A CENTRAL fear among those who support the objectives of the Belfast Agreement is, and has always been, that the agreement would become just another means for pursuing the same old struggle, between unionism and nationalism. As a result, the historic compromise between these two opposed forces would in due course disintegrate.

Most people would argue that this position is clearly to be preferred over any that involves continued violence. Whether it works in harmony or disharmony, the old quarrel continued by tribal leaders using legal rhetoric and academic proxies is infinitely preferable to the use of bombs and bullets.

Unfortunately, the few who do not really favour the concept of the Belfast Agreement as an essential compromise include those who have depended on the armed struggle in the past, and are holding their weaponry in reserve as a threat if things do not go their way.

It is this that places the operation of the Belfast Agreement under a cloud, rendering more distant and more fragile the achievement of the genuine consensus with which much of the debate was conducted.

In his book, The Belfast Agreement: A Practical Legal Analysis, Austen Morgan has produced all the weaponry one could possibly require, either to use or misuse the Belfast Agreement, according to political objective. It is a massive and scholarly work analysing antecedents and embracing various interpretations of history.

It attempts to arrive at judgments on these, which in themselves are fascinating. But the real focus of the book is on this international agreement, or treaty. This fact itself is one which has not been adequately recognised or analysed.

The Belfast Agreement is frequently used, quoted, presented for what it is not, rather than for its intrinsic elements.

We lump together with it the increasingly body of legislation which has derived from its objectives, and treat them as Belfast Agreement when in fact they are separate instruments of one or other of the governments which signed the international treaty.

At its heart, Austen Morgan says, the Belfast Agreement is a partitionist settlement. It follows the constitutional arrangements deriving from 1920-22, which embraces the creation and continued recognition of the 26-county state.

And it does not extend greatly the historic achievement of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave to the Irish Government a right of consultation in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

This does not, of course, detract from the historic nature of the achievement of the Belfast Agreement, nor from it as an important event in Irish and British history. What it does do, or attempt to do, is define its legal and constitutional relevance.

This definition is as free as possible from the personalities involved, and the political motivations including terrorism as part of politics which have so far dominated consideration of the relevance of what was voted upon in Belfast on April 10, 1998.

Other domestic legislation, in both jurisdictions, has widened considerably the scope and impact of the Belfast Agreement; but, says Morgan, it is entirely fanciful and an instance of nationalist appropriation of the agreement to try and infer that it provides for joint sovereignty or authority in Northern Ireland.

One is slightly surprised to find that this weighty analysis is the work of a Derry Catholic who came late to the profession of law, is his own publisher, and has a website specially designed for the book. It needs it.

Austen Morgan's parents were both Catholic, his father from the country north of the city, his mother from Derry. She was an Inland Revenue tax officer, her employment in this capacity in part based on the perception that, since most of the small businessman in Derry were Protestants, she would be reliable and persistent in pursuit of them.

Morgan left Derry and studied sociology in Bristol University, returning to Northern Ireland after that international year of student revolution 1968 to support Civil Rights, march in the Burntollet marches, and then to study politics. Briefly he entertained revolutionary aspirations never nationalist ones and then went on to academic work which took him to Warwick, Oxford and the Sociology Department in Trinity College.

It was not until the early 1990s, in part influenced by his brother, a barrister, he turned to law. This kept him in London during the mid-1990s, but by 1997 he was back in Northern Ireland, doing legal research work into Irish constitutional law. This brought him close to the processes by which we arrived at the Belfast Agreement.

Many versions of this story will be told. Few will be as comprehensive as Austen Morgan's book, which of course has the permanence of law as its backbone, rather than the transience, the shifting uncertainty, of politics. We are all interested in politics, and in the survival or otherwise of the individuals who seek and exercise power. But the logic and integrity of how they do it is of the greatest importance.

The Belfast Agreement: A Practical Legal Analysis is concerned with the legality of things, and in particular one reads with great interest Chapter Nineteen, which, in contrast with the very short section in the Belfast Agreement on the subject, is a lengthy analysis of decommissioning law.

THUS WE have the key question, What is the law on decommissioning? Initially, this is answered simply enough: both the organisations and their arms are illegal, and membership and ownership carry serious legal penalties. That always was the law, and still is. It is sensible to be reminded of the fact.

The temporary interregnum in this state of affairs is by way of amnesty, hopefully a short-term measure over which hangs the supposedly reliable authority of our own Constitution and that of the United Kingdom.

The Belfast Agreement reinforces this in the long run, but we have yet to reach the long run.

On this and many other issues, Austen Morgan's book, as well as his site makes clear, there are rich and stimulating legal details to be discovered or rediscovered.

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