Ben Lowry: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland and the EU

Some strategic supporters of unionism believe that unionists should try to be upbeat about events.

Saturday, 30th January 2021, 11:57 am
Updated Monday, 1st February 2021, 11:44 am
Lorries await checks at Belfast harbour this month. The biggest disaster for unionists has been Boris Johnson’s new Irish Sea border. On Friday it got worse: the army will have to fill out EU forms and give 15 days notice of moving equipment to Northern Ireland. Then suddenly Brussels over played its hand over vaccines

Don’t demoralise unionists, they say. Don’t give succour to republicans. Don’t assist those who want to depict unionism as sour, and so on.

It is a reasonable point of view. Yet I still think unionists cannot plausibly deny that it has been through a disastrous 12 months.

Unionism was already suffering multiple major setbacks by the start of 2020. Some were global trends such as a youthful ‘woke’ outlook that is hyper liberal on social matters such as abortion, and furiously opposed to the status quo.

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And in Northern Ireland, the uncool status quo is the Union, and its only defenders now are unionists (unlike when the Alliance Party was pro Union but not ‘unionist’).

In the last year, unionism has been under subtle and overt attack (see examples below).

But the biggest disaster of all for unionists has been Boris Johnson’s Irish Sea border.

The idea that unionists should be positive and ‘own and work’ the new frontier was already hanging by a thread before yesterday’s report about the new barrier to military movements since January 1.

That news came after almost daily new examples of the dire impact of Northern Ireland being partly removed from the UK economically (as a result of Great Britain leaving both the EU single market and customs union at the end of last year, and Northern Ireland in effect staying within them).

Even the most pragmatic unionist will have been troubled by the scale of the new barriers to hitherto untouched movements, from pets to store goods to parcels.

Sam McBride last week reported the obstacles to gardeners bringing potted plants and seed varieties in from Great Britain.

And more obstacles will emerge as this disaster slowly reveals itself.

The grace period for goods coming into NI is yet to end, so there are further looming problems, particularly with chilled meats.

But there was a flash of luck for unionists yesterday. Just as it emerged that the army will have to fill out forms and give the EU 15 days notice of moving equipment to Northern Ireland, Brussels over played its hand.

EU ruthlessness had already been evident recently in the EU-China investment deal, reached despite Beijing’s systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

But by invoking Article 16 of the NI Protocol to ensure that no Covid vaccines could be shipped from the EU to Great Britain via NI, Brussels made itself seem so mean that even its most slavish defenders in Northern Ireland condemned it.

Article 16 can be invoked by the UK or EU to implement safeguard measures if either side experiences “serious economic, societal ... difficulties [or] diversion of trade”.

When unionists called for it to be deployed by London this month, the notion was dismissed. Those who had demanded “rigorous implementation” of the Irish Sea border said such usage of Article 16 was inapprorpriate.

Now that argument lies in tatters even though the EU last night was (as this paper went to press) retreaing from its vaccine bullying.

Now the UK must set aside its reflexive weakness in the face of the EU/Ireland alliance. Unionists also have cover to move away from their own weakness of the last year.

The UK should have invoked Article 16 yesterday both in retaliation against the EU, and on the grounds of the “serious” difficulties caused to goods and to military movement.

The BBC political editor Enda McClafferty yesterday in an online analysis cited a military source who said much of the equipment needed is already here, and so it will not affect operation.

But that source’s assessment (later confirmed in a full MoD quote) is beside the point. The military should be able to move in whatever it wants to move to NI at 11pm tonight, 5am next Monday, or whenever it chooses. Freedom of manouevre for the armed forces is a non negotiable part of sovereignty.

News that this freedom had been removed was the development that gave unionism definitive reason finally to say we are not working this disgraceful new system any more.

The coming weeks will be time to examine ways to do that. Jim Allister has put forward proposals.

I have long advocated a more moderate course, of the Ulster Unionists going into opposition (I thought that after NDNA, and then said that the summer lull in Covid gave Robin Swann an opening to stand down with honour). See links below.

But unionists can no longer acquiesce in the constitutional outrage of the Irish Sea border.

• Other setbacks to unionism include:

The New Decade New Approach (NDNA) deal to restore Stormont was full of snags that will be used to dismantle the status quo, including ‘equality’ provisions to get rid of gramar schools (some of the best state schools in the UK are Catholc grammars in NI yet now only unionists defend academic slection).

And a Bill of Rights, which was also mentioned in last year’s Stormont deal, will — if it comes to fruition — be used to make Northern Ireland even more of a place apart in the UK, and to further constrain London’s ability to govern it as such.

But above all it was obvious when NDNA was signed last January that rewarding Sinn Fein for collapsing Stormont it would set a precedent for it to happen again.

The ransom of an Irish language act (in all but name) was nonetheless paid. We will gradually seet the tribal outworkings of those laws.

And then unionists suffered the setback of a surprise commitment (from Julian Smith) to delight Sinn Fein by including in NDNA a commitment to advance controversial plans to examine legacy.

Those plans will greatly damage the security forces but never lead to proper scrutiny of the sectarian murder campaign against border Protestants, to which the Rev David Clements refers in the letter opposite, and which took his father’s life.

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

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