At Westminster, the Conservative Party is breaking apart and the prime minister’s Brexit plans are in turmoil. However, the most serious casualty of this crisis could yet be the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It’s practically impossible to tell what will happen next, but none of the likely outcomes will give unionists much confidence about their future.
There are strong arguments that ‘no deal’ could damage our place in the Union, but the biggest threat is still the EU’s ‘backstop’, which sets out concrete plans to tie Northern Ireland more closely to the Republic of Ireland and loosen our links with the rest of the UK.
There are enough contradictions and hypocrisies from both sides of the debate in Westminster to keep satirists going for decades, but the irony this week was richer than chocolate fudge cake.
Many of the MPs who accused Boris Johnson of perpetrating a ‘constitutional outrage’ or an ‘anti-democratic coup’ when he prorogued parliament the week before, defied precedent to take control of the House of Commons’ timetable, then airily dismissed the PM’s call for an election.
By taking this approach, they’ve removed any incentive for the EU to compromise on the backstop, just as discussions got underway on alternatives.
Their attempts to ensure that ‘no deal’ is impossible may have sabotaged the best opportunity for some time to reach an acceptable agreement.
These antics will dismay anyone who genuinely values Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
In Wednesday’s News Letter, Lord Empey asked “what unionist could stand over goods from GB being treated as though they are from a ‘third country’ once they cross the Irish Sea?’ He’s absolutely right, but there are even deeper problems with the backstop than technical matters about checks on goods, even if those details are critically important.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal included a UK-wide dimension, but Northern Ireland was bound to remain in the EU customs union and parts of the single market, while Great Britain left.
There is potential in the backstop for the mainland to move away from Brussels’ rules, while we have no such option.
Unionists are being asked to accept the risk of being treated differently from the rest of the UK, gradually separated from its economic, social and political life and placed under the jurisdiction of decision-makers over whom they have no control.
In addition, for businesses, politicians and lobbyists, Dublin would inevitably become our interlocutor with Brussels, so there would be an ever greater all-Ireland dimension to our public square.
The idea that the backstop, while not ideal for unionists, is ‘better than the alternatives’ isn’t credible. The threats associated with ‘no deal’ are theoretical.
If mishandled, it may lead to a ‘border poll’, it may persuade some voters to back an all-Ireland republic, it may even encourage terrorism. In contrast, the effects of the backstop are set out in a legally binding text from which we would be unable to escape.
You can understand why nationalists, whose political energies, since the Belfast Agreement, have been dedicated to eroding British sovereignty in Northern Ireland by stealth and erasing differences between the two jurisdictions on this island, are delighted with the backstop.
For the eurocrats and many remainers, even some who were formerly quite unionist, it is simply an inescapable consequence of Brexit. ‘You started it, you sort it out,’ they say, oblivious to the concept that the UK has a right to determine the future of its whole territory, without having its authority undermined.
There are conflicting versions of the prospects of Boris’s attempts to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU and the Dublin government claim the UK has offered no viable alternatives. Rumours from London suggest there was some progress toward agreeing a single regime for plant and animal health.
This sounds a little like replacing a full border in the Irish Sea with a partial border in the Irish Sea, but it hints that compromise is possible, despite claims to the contrary.
Michel Barnier was expected to visit Northern Ireland again next week but has cancelled his trip. So far, he and his allies have been allowed to imply that support for the backstop in practically unanimous. Unionists have spoken out against it, but their response has been muted in comparison.
Back in November 2017, a month before Britain agreed a ‘joint report’ with Brussels that was subsequently used to justify the backstop, I wrote that an Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be the biggest reversal for unionism since the Anglo-Irish Agreement (see link below).
I argued that ‘unionist parties should not rest until every potential ... voter was aware of the magnitude,” of this proposal.
As the backstop gained momentum, the most substantive political arguments against it came from Lords Trimble and Bew, who published excellent reports through the think-tank Policy Exchange, and latterly the prime minister himself, who critiqued it in uncompromising fashion in a letter to Donald Tusk. A tiny number of commentators and columnists have made the case too.
Events at Westminster this week make getting rid of the backstop even more difficult. Long ago, unionists should have spoken out about this threat far more clearly and loudly.