Ben Lowry: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it

The disaster for unionism of the Irish Sea border is that it is both a massive political change towards all island economic arrangements, and that it will be hard to shift.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 17th April 2021, 11:58 am
Updated Saturday, 17th April 2021, 4:07 pm
Arlene Foster, right, told the influential Institute for Economic Affairs in London that Boris Johnson "is beginning to realise" the scale of the protocol problems. Really?
Arlene Foster, right, told the influential Institute for Economic Affairs in London that Boris Johnson "is beginning to realise" the scale of the protocol problems. Really?

Stormont does get to vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol in 2024. It will be a struggle to get a majority of MLAs against the new trade barrier, but not impossible if there is an effective electoral campaign.

But even if there is such a vote in the assembly, the UK-EU Joint Committee London has discretion as to how to proceed.

Think of new border as a sudden shift in the frontline of the ‘cold war’ between Britain and Ireland over the constitutional status of the island, which has seen barely any movement over the last century (but numerous skirmishes).

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To extend the analogy, this sudden shift in the line towards a position favoured by nationalist Ireland happened by stealth and negotiation, so that unionism was not aware of it — despite some lookouts shouting warnings. Unionism was even at points led to believe that it was a wise tactical manoeuvre and no real movement in the overall boundary at all.

But it was.

And the new frontline has become heavily fortified almost as soon as it has been drawn — by moderate nationalists, republicans, the Republic of Ireland government, the EU and the political centre in Northern Ireland, with backup support from America.

It is by no means clear that unionism will have any support even from its main sponsor, the UK.

That there is unlikely to be any real EU retreat from the new frontline was apparent again yesterday when talks between the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and Brexit minister Lord Frost to resolve differences over the protocol ended without agreement.

Brussels said: “The vice-president reiterated the EU’s commitment to the protocol, which is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market.”

The UK said that Lord Frost sought solutions “consistent with the overriding commitment to respecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions”.

This is London trying to say that the Belfast Agreement is not just the plaything of Irish nationalists, but a document that enshrines the principle of consent as to the constitutional future of NI.

Welcome though it is to hear such talk, it is woefully late.

The UK and unionists should have been saying that from June 2016, but surrendered the narrative. The UK — the world’s sixth largest economy — agreed that putting even CCTV at its own frontier was a threat to the 1998 deal.

The excellent young Tory commentator Henry Hill wrote in recent days: “There is no plausible reading of the Belfast Agreement that could offer the nationalist community a right to an invisible border with a neighbouring state but not protect unionists from a visible border inside their country.”

But Mr Hill has been saying this sort of thing for years and his warnings have been ignored.

Instead, Boris Johnson made a disastrous appointment, Julian Smith, as secretary of state.

While Dublin determinedly, even ruthlessly, pursued its own interests after 2016, allying with the EU entirely in taking an utterly uncompromising stance on the Irish land border, indeed on almost every UK request in the EU negotiations (remember people such as Leo Varadkar sighing about the UK’s lack of realism?), London installed a man who gushed about UK-Ireland relations.

Just when some steel was needed towards Dublin, Mr Smith joined with Simon Coveney to tear up Stormont’s three strands (unionists let him do so).

It is hard to think of a more damning illustration of the prime minister’s neglect of Northern Ireland, and of the unionism that he claims to share, than that he made such a personality his NI secretary at such a critical time.

And Mr Johnson has now agreed the NI Protocol and the EU will hold the UK to its obligations.

The DUP has a major dilemma in how to respond to this shocking, disgraceful state of affairs.

Since 1998, the party has had an influx of people from the Ulster Unionist Party who tend to be pragmatic politicians and fond of governing.

There is a very powerful case to be made that it is best for unionists to work with the existing political structures and try to control them from within, and minimise the influence of nationalists.

Unionism is now the only significant movement in Northern Ireland that ever seems to defend the status quo. If there was not a unionist education minister, for example, academic selection would be gone.

If unionism was to go entirely into political opposition, there would be radical change on a whole range of social and economic issues.

But while there are compelling arguments for unionism to be at the heart of government, there is also now a growing case to be made that unionists can no longer acquiesce in all the attrition against unionism and traditional trusted ways of running society.

Eye rolling scolds always tell unionists that they must agree to concessions or worse will be imposed.

But how can unionism plausibly accept the logical outworkings of this sort of thinking? That it has to keep conceding things because they are going to happen anyway.

If they are going to happen anyway, is it not better to have dignity and principle and oppose it?

The ‘must-concede’ argument was tested to destruction with the Irish Sea border. Any talk of it being ‘the best of both worlds’ is now treated with contempt by the full spectrum of unionism.

Lord Morrow writing opposite (see link below) is justified in his criticism of Irish and EU inflexibility. And he makes clear that the UK must deliver on a seamless Irish Sea.

But that seems to leave open the idea of NI staying within the EU regulatory orbit, with all its constitutional ramifications, so long as there are no checks or limited ones.

Arlene Foster told the influential Institute for Economic Affairs in London that Boris Johnson “is beginning to realise” the scale of the protocol problems. Really?

The danger is that London knows it has been able to inflict this betrayal and that there is no stomach for a political fight left in unionism.

The DUP recently told the BBC Nolan Show that it would block an Irish language act over the protocol, then retreated within hours.

Yesterday it seemed to boycott a North-South ministerial meeting, then seemed to say it was not a boycott but a diary clash.

Such confused signals will not cause Downing Street the slightest concern. As Peter Robinson said on these pages some weeks ago (see link below), the party will have to choose its course.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor (other articles by him below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter)

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