Brexit deal a double disaster for Northern Ireland unionists — first the deal itself, second the muted opposition to it

The EU Withdrawal Agreement is a bigger constitutional change for Northern Ireland than the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, above. Picture Pacemaker
The EU Withdrawal Agreement is a bigger constitutional change for Northern Ireland than the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, above. Picture Pacemaker

Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union is a double disaster for unionists in Northern Ireland.

In the first instance, the deal is a self-evident disaster for anyone who wants NI to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom, because it introduces a partial Irish Sea internal trade border (and perhaps one day a full trade border).

That much was clear on November 15, within hours of the Withdrawal Agreement being published.

But the second disaster is the more problematic one for unionism. It is the almost complete lack of uproar as to what has happened.

There has been a failure by influential pro Union figures who are not themselves politicians to denounce what has happened, which has contributed to the mild reaction among the unionist voting public.

This is astonishing because the Withdrawal Agreement is a more significant constitutional change than the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, which led to years of protests, disorder, strikes and boycotts.

Part of the reason for the lack of reaction is that the whole thing is so complex, and is easily disguised by misleading and smooth language from Downing Street about protecting the Union. But if more business people and commentators were explaining what has happened, there would be much more vociferous public reaction.

To anyone who still does not know what has happened, this is it: The EU has made clear since last December’s backstop that Northern Ireland must in effect remain in the EU customs and single market zones, although it never puts it in this way (and deliberately not).

It would be easy for anyone who is not paying close attention to think that this might one day perhaps be solved by some dazzling, but as yet unforeseen, technology.

But it won’t be, because this is not merely about technology or checks at the land frontier. As Simon Coveney explained in detail last November, Dublin will not accept different EU rules on the island of Ireland, even if there are no checks. The EU has supported the Irish government fully in its stance.

One reason why this setback for unionists has not become fully clear before now is that Theresa May insisted that she rejected the EU-Irish interpretation of the backstop earlier this year, so it seemed as if London was resisting the Brussels-Dublin position. Only last week did it become clear that Mrs May has caved in fully.

Worse, paragraph 50 to last December’s Joint EU-UK report, added to please the DUP and which supposedly prevented an Irish Sea border, has been abandoned. Britain has not even tried to apply it.

The UK climbdown is not the most surprising feature of this saga. Mrs May has climbed down on most of the Brexit red lines that she talked tough about since 2016. I have written four columns this year warning of an Irish Sea border. Some influential supporters of Brexit said I was wrong. I wasn’t.

The more surprising thing is the meek reaction to this deal. Do the many unionist farmers who voted Leave realise that not only will they not get Brexit in NI (other than in name), our position within the UK has been diluted?

If the Ulster Farmers’ Union is happy to support a deal that gives greater weight to EU economic links than UK ones, why did it not campaign hard for Remain in the 2016 referendum?

Not only will there be a regulatory Irish Sea border, so that Northern Ireland stays mostly aligned to the single market, there might be a customs border too. The agreement has a so-called ‘review mechanism’ for exiting backstop commitments such as the single EU-UK territory.

But while the EU might allow Great Britain to do so, it is clear from its tactics since 2016 it will never allow the Province to do so.

At every turn, supporters of this deal (or similar proposed deals) come up with supposedly clever points such as: we won’t notice any regulatory divergence, because there is little divergence in standards for goods in western nations in the 21st century.

But have they not noticed that the EU and Ireland never accept the same argument in reverse? If so they would be relaxed about possible regulatory divergence between NI and the Republic, because in practice it would be minimal.

Instead, they insist their position is tied down in legal text.

It is the same as the EU hypocritically dismissing any technology solution to the land border and then insisting the technology could ‘de-dramatise’ an Irish Sea border.

Even informed people fall for this. On a recent BBC Sunday Politics a ‘unionist’ commentator dismissed any idea that such checks threaten the Union, saying: “How do they? It is just scanning a bar code.”

The EU was similarly happy to agree a new political declaration with the UK, that supposedly gives reassurance to unionists and other sceptics, because it is not binding.

You would expect after something as momentous as the Withdrawal Agreement, after such a victory for the Irish government, there to be fierce debate for and against. But no. On the BBC’s The View 10 days ago, Jeffrey Donaldson was the sole voice against the deal.

On this week’s show, not for the first time it was left to an English Tory to speak out against capitulation to Dublin, as Peter Lilley and Jacob Rees Mogg have done on that programme. This time it was Andrew Bridgen MP, whose contribution was dismissed as “nonsense” even by the Brexiter Alex Kane.

I opposed Brexit and wrote three columns in 2016 outlining my fears it might cause the UK to fracture. But like many unionist Remainers my opposition to Brexit did not reflect a diminution of my unionism.

Why do opinion polls, which appear to show massive support for ‘special status’ in Northern Ireland, not ask their sample: ‘In a choice between staying in the EU single market or the UK internal market, which would you opt for?’

They might find that support for ‘special status’ collapses.

I understand why pro EU Alliance Party supporters think Brexit such an act of vandalism that their attachment to the UK is reduced. Unionist support for Brexit always risked alienating moderates. But is no prominent member of that party concerned at its stance?

The SF-SDLP-Green-Alliance delegations to Brussels have probably strengthened EU resolve on Northern Ireland.

The parties’ joint demand that Stormont not get a definitive say on regulatory divergence helps explain why a promise that the assembly would have such a say (para 50 of last year’s backstop) has quietly been dropped by London.

I voted Remain, but think staying in the EU would be a national humiliation and would embolden a dysfunctional, arrogant, EU. Yet it would be better than this deal.

Even no deal, while hugely disruptive, would be better. But there is no stomach for the latter. At most 150 MPs would consider it, while 500 will do anything to block it.

The fate of Brexit is unclear, but an Irish Sea border is likely.

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