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The Protocol is the real threat to the Belfast Agreement | Jonathan Buckley MLA

There is a very real threat to the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement and it is not what one may think it would be, or certainly not what the media would have you believe. It is not Brexit which poses the threat to the Agreement but in fact the Northern Irish Protocol.

I think it is important to say a preliminary word about terminology, lest there be some suggestion of conversion by the DUP to the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

For the purposes of this debate, I consider the reference to the Good Friday Agreement, not to relate to the specific text of the agreement reached on 10 April 1998, but more broadly to institutions that were created by the Agreement and have evolved over the last near quarter century.

There are many misconceptions about the Good Friday Agreement, not least in relation to Brexit.

For this, the Irish Government must share some of the blame.

As Roderick Crawford, in his analysis, ‘The Origins of the Current Crisis’ points out, the EU - at the behest of the Irish Government - adopted an entirely one-sided ‘understanding’ of the Good Friday Agreement by elevating the north-south relationship and ignoring the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK.

The acceptance by the EU of this foundation error is the basis for many of the problems we face today.

Such hostility to the unionist position was not a one-off aberration.

In 2018 the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar used the IRA bombing of a customs post (and presumably the future threat of such a reoccurrence) to further an argument against a hard border on the island of Ireland.

It has also been reported that Irish officials said in 2017 that they could not believe that the UK had accepted the text (of the Joint Report) and they knew it would not be acceptable to unionists.

Of course, it is not the Irish Government’s responsibility to look after the interests of unionists in Northern Ireland, but by adopting the position that it has, it has given up any moral authority to be claiming to defend the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts.

It is even sometimes incorrectly asserted that Brexit constitutes a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, though no specific provision which allegedly has been breached can be pointed to.

You need not rely on my opinion in this regard.

Lord Justice McCloskey in a judgment of the High Court in Belfast in 2019 held,

“Neither the Belfast Agreement [nor this suite of provisions] was predicated on the basis that UK membership of the EU would continue forever.”

He went on,

“Neither of them can be construed as requiring a Customs Union or continued regulatory alignment.”

To say that we all want to avoid a harder border on the island of Ireland is a political fact; however, it is not one which is based on a provision of the Belfast Agreement.

The suggestion that Brexit itself is a threat to the Good Friday Agreement also fails to reflect the reality on the ground.

It is a matter of historical record that it was not Brexit but the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that made power-sharing impossible.

A subsidiary argument that is often deployed is to conflate the Northern Ireland Protocol with Brexit as though one inevitably followed the other.

While sequentially the Northern Ireland Protocol came after Brexit, that tells us nothing about causation.

Indeed, the protracted period between Brexit and the Withdrawal Agreement and the range of potential alternative approaches that could have been taken breaks any credible argument about causation.

By analogy, it would be absurd if it were argued that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was brought about because of the collapse of the USSR.

Perhaps more realistically it could be argued that the EU Single Market and Customs Union – or how they are being operated are a threat to the Good Friday Agreement!

The Northern Ireland Protocol was not an inevitable consequence of Brexit - there were any number of alternatives that could have been - and still could be taken.

Those who assert that the UK signed up to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Withdrawal Agreement are stating a fact, but this does nothing to address the ongoing problems.

Given the fact that the key institutions of the Belfast Agreement - the Executive, the Assembly and NSMC are not presently functioning it cannot seriously be argued that the Northern Ireland Protocol is not a threat to the Good Friday Agreement.

And this is not simply the view or position of one political party in Northern Ireland but as evidenced in recent polls is supported by the overwhelming majority of unionists.

Professor Alan Boyle, Emeritus Professor of Public International Law at the University of Edinburgh, recently argued that the absence of power-sharing more than justifies the use of Article 16 and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

Of course, one hardly needs to quote a distinguished academic to make the point that the preconditions for triggering Article 16 have long since been met.

Next April we will mark 25 years since the Belfast Agreement.

The real question will be whether the Protocol can be “fixed,” and whether the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can be restored.

The Prime Minister, Liz Truss said recently that her preference was for a negotiated solution but significantly went on to say, “it does have to deliver all the things we set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.”

If this outcome – one way or another - can be achieved, then the institutions created by the Belfast Agreement will once again function successfully with the United Kingdom outside of the European Union.

Brexit itself is no threat to the Good Friday Agreement.

1 Comment


On the view of Mr Jonathan Buckley, and his apparent stance on the protection of the '...thin end of the wedge to a United Ireland by stealth', Good Friday Agreement:

First of all, Mr Buckley, let me remind you that myself and almost 30% of the Ulster Electorate voted NO to any formation of the GFA - we detested that so-called 'Agreement' then, and we still faithfully detest it, and the Pro-Irish Nationalist/Republican advantages it has produced as part of the PROCESS, still.

In fact, I remember well the campaigning I undertook, PERSONALLY, in full unity with the leading members of the Democratic Unionist Party of the time, to shout the warning about the dangers the GFA posed t…


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