Alex Kane: Unionism’s fight is with Boris Johnson, not the protocol

Life is full of little ironies. In 1921 unionists had to accept a border as a condition of remaining within the United Kingdom. A century later and it looks like they’ll have to accept another border as a condition of remaining within the United Kingdom.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 12th July 2021, 1:02 pm

Yet if it’s true that Northern Ireland really does remain within the UK and that the constitutional status quo cannot be altered without a border poll, then shouldn’t unionists/loyalists tone down the anti-protocol rhetoric and prepare for the inevitable? The inevitable being the protocol will remain in some form or other. Unless, of course, they’re relying on Boris Johnson to save them.

I’ve written several times about the ‘perception’ problem with the protocol. While it’s true its continuation doesn’t really make a huge difference to the everyday lives of most unionists, it’s also true – even if they’re not making a particular song and dance about it – it unsettles many of them. A sense, if you like, something has changed in the nature of the relationship between NI and GB.

But not so much of a change they’ll be willing to take to the streets in huge numbers to register their concerns. I remember the tens of thousands who gathered in Ormeau Park and the grounds of Stormont in 1972 to protest the closure of the parliament. I remember the huge numbers who supported the protest to destroy the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974. I remember the quarter of a million or so who gathered in the centre of Belfast in 1985 to roar opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Boris Johnson lied to the DUP again and again and, just for good measure, again

Unionism hasn’t done the big numbers since then. The middle and professional classes haven’t offered tacit support, either, as they did in 1972, 1974 and 1985. Perhaps they’ve realised numbers alone don’t deliver much in the way of change for unionism. Perhaps the shock of unionism losing its overall majority in the Assembly in 2017, along with the DUP now reduced to second-party status in terms of seats, has made them understand there are other, bigger problems for unionism. Or, more worryingly, perhaps they just accept the fact unionism/loyalism doesn’t seem to be very good at winning battles.

So, I’ll make a prediction about the protocol. Whatever unionists think about it (and a mixture of polls and anecdotal evidence suggests a considerable majority of them oppose it) there won’t be massive rallies to protest against it; there won’t be power cuts; NI will not be ground to a standstill; there won’t be a rerun of the UWC strike in May 1974; there won’t be an attempt to make NI unworkable or ungovernable at societal or political level; and most unionists will not pick a fight they reckon they can’t win.

Yes, I hear the noise. The noise of some voices in unionism/loyalism accusing me of defeatism. The noise of others battering their keyboards and tweeting their accusations of Lundyism to my Twitter timeline. I don’t care. I really don’t. I have lived too long and seen too many Grand Old Duke of York battles (even the ‘Sham’ on July 13 is often more realistic) to be taken in by another right now.

I can’t stand the EU. It’s why I voted Leave. Its behaviour since has confirmed my decision. Some of the stuff the Irish government has done since June 2016 (especially Leo Varadkar’s truculent, petulant, grossly insensitive, and monumentally stupid waving of the newspaper headlines about border violence) has really angered me. The nose-poking-into interventions by Joe Biden have been crass and unhelpful. And Simon Coveney doesn’t seem to have an off-button when it comes to random inanities.

But here’s the thing unionists need to bear in mind. The Irish, EU and US are all doing what they think is required to protect and promote their own interests. It’s what governments and international commissions do. I get that. I accept that. It’s Boris Johnson who is not acting in the interests of unionism: although he would counter that he’s trying to solve the ‘NI problem’.

It is Boris Johnson who lied to the DUP: again and again and, just for good measure, again. It is Boris Johnson who signed off on the protocol. And, if the accusations of some unionists/loyalists are correct, it is Boris Johnson who rolled over to threats of republican violence. In other words, it is Boris Johnson who is the root of the present crisis for unionism. Which means if unionism want to pick a fight with someone, they will need to pick it with him.

How do they do that? Some argue he should be forced to choose between the protocol and the GFA; and if he makes the wrong choice then unionists should bring down the Assembly until he makes the right choice. Hmm. Some argue for a process of increasing instability. Hmm. Some argue unionists should keep the Assembly and accept the protocol won’t be removed, although it could be tinkered with. Hmm. Some argue the protocol should be seen as a curate’s egg, with unionists focusing on the best bits. Hmm. Some think it’s time to upend the GFA and entire structures of the ‘peace’ process. Hmm.

I concluded last week’s piece with the prediction that unionism will probably end up learning to live with the protocol – albeit slightly changed – if only because it strikes me the leadership of the UUP and DUP are mostly leaning that way. That remains my view.