Ben Lowry: Unionists are very divided but will need to co-operate amid so many huge challenges

The British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference and a possible Irish Sea border are big challenges
The British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference and a possible Irish Sea border are big challenges

Any reconvening of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference (BIIGC) would be a major psychological blow to unionists, an influential political figure once told me.

Now it has suddenly been called, for July 25.

To get a sense of the mood among unionists to this news yesterday, I talked to a number of politicians. Our reporter Philip Bradfield did likewise and his report is on pages four and five.

Unionists seem to be relaxed about it, saying that its scope is limited and will not stray into devolved matters, that it is good politics at a time of tension, that it has been carefully announced amid extra spending that shows the DUP-Tory pact is working, that it could not be avoided, etc, etc.

I still wonder why it has been announced before any announcement on direct rule. It reeks of fear of one of the most partisan, pro nationalist Dublin governments in decades.

Meanwhile, there is a looming crisis on the Irish border.

The Daily Telegraph Europe editor Peter Foster released tweets yesterday in which he mentioned how aggressively the EU is seeking an Irish Sea border. “EU sources tell me they will focus on ‘de-dramatising’ the Irish Sea issue,” he says.

When I talk to informed people in unionism or London, they again seem relaxed, insisting there will be no Irish Sea border. As mentioned last week, even the Remainer MP Dominic Grieve dismissed the idea.

Pro Union observers also point to paragraph 50 of the EU-UK deal last December, that “the UK will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”.

One source told me that the tough EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier now regrets agreeing that clause, which offset the pledge to avoid a hard land border.

But unionists must not forget that the first draft in December had no such assurance against an Irish Sea border, just the land one.

And even the revised version gives some comfort to nationalists by saying that the pledge against a border in the Irish Sea stands “unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the NI Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland”.

There is already an assembly majority for a border in the Irish Sea. This could become a cause celebre if Stormont is restored, with republicans at some stage bringing down the institutions on the basis that there is an assembly majority for a border in the Irish Sea, and therefore paragraph 50 is no barrier to such.

The cry will go out that London is denying fundamental rights.

Again we are in the same situation: London will never utter criticism of Dublin or nationalists, and above all seeks to reassure them.

This is why we are in political and administrative paralysis here.

The government will not even hint at criticism of Sinn Fein’s de-stabilising conduct of the last 18 months, let alone take action to alleviate its consequences.

Consider legacy, the subject I planned to write about this week until the BIIGC development.

The government has intermittently referred to the legacy imbalance, but is cowed when such references cause uproar: note how James Brokenshire dropped the suggestion of imbalance after he wrote an article referring to it.

On Wednesday I was in Bangor at the South East Fermanagh Foundation event on the NIO consultation on the proposed Stormont House legacy structures.

Despite some of the best June weather in history, there was a full audience including many security force members and terrorist victims.

When Jim Allister addressed the event from the floor and merely began to refer to the attempt to rewrite history to justify the IRA he was interrupted by applause.

I think people across Northern Ireland are beginning to realise how successful that narrative now is.

The implication of widespread collusion is this narrative’s most important aide.

That is why I felt incredulity when studying the legacy consultation document after its recent release and found that the coming Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) is going to be handling hundreds of misconduct cases against an RUC that killed only 55 of the 3,700 Trouble dead.

HIU is the part of the coming structures likely to bring balance to the current legacy imbalance against the state (the web version of this article will have a sidebar detailing the disputed imbalance) yet this huge element of the HIU workload raises serious doubts as to whether HIU will do any such thing.

These misconduct claims will, like the current Police Ombudsman reports, not be judged to the criminal standard but the civil one.

Brexit, legacy, British weakness amid relentless Irish pushing — these are profound challenges facing unionists at every turn.

There is also demographic change and culture wars, on which unionists are, among under 40s, far on the other side of public opinion.

And there is a further coming onslaught: Sinn Fein is trying to change Northern Ireland internally so that ultimately it is unrecognisable as part of the UK and the only British element that is unchallenged is the lavish funding (which is in fact furiously demanded).

An Irish language act is a core part of this strategy as are other things such as the court case that seeks to make flying the Union flag at courts unacceptable even on designated days, on equality grounds — the same grounds that any advantage given to veterans seeking border force jobs was ruled out here, unlike in Great Britain.

Unionists of every hue will struggle to combat these challenges in any scenario, let alone the current one of two deeply divided main unionist parties.

Some people in the DUP reacted badly to the news that Mr Grieve’s critical comments about their party at an Ulster Unionist dinner were met with cheers. But ex UUP members of the DUP must at least be able to sense why there is resentment about a party that is not shy to crow over its mandate.

That mandate includes at least 100,000 people who are not natural DUP voters who are frightened — actually frightened — at the almost surreal things that are happening in Northern Ireland.

They have put their trust in that party to stop it — and nothing else. It is not a mandate for MLA posts or council committee posts to be held for their own sake.

Imagine that the people who tell me I am wrong to fret about, for example, an Irish Sea border are wrong and that there is such chaos in London ahead of ‘no deal’ that it is simply imposed.

As people began to realise that this ultimately meant something akin to joint authority (EU control over NI trade and regulations with Dublin as the nearest EU authority) we would be in a situation where, out of necessity, unionists united.

But should we wait until then?

There are talented people on either side of the unionist divide of indistinguishable views who could work together now.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor