Ben Lowry: Now above all, when unionists are winning the argument on the Protocol, is time to stand firm against it

There has been a curious coincidence of timing with regards to changing attitudes towards the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Saturday, 12th June 2021, 9:26 am
Updated Saturday, 12th June 2021, 10:06 am
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson in Cheshire in 2019, where they agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol. Either the UK did not know what it agreed or it did understand, but agreed it under great political pressure

In recent weeks unionist concern at the Irish Sea border has had more sympathy than ever before.

Yet at the same time, the unionist negotiating political position has become very weak.

So what has happened?

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The first thing that has gradually become of benefit of Northern Ireland unionists is that it took a long time for people to absorb the Irish Sea border.

There was only minor protest over it in the first days of this year, much to the dismay of some business figures. Mark Cosgrove, who runs a freight business and who knew that the protocol was a major barrier to trade as soon as it was agreed in 2019, told this newspaper five months ago, in early January, as the protocol kicked in, that the NI secretary Brandon Lewis was talking “nonsense” when he claimed there was no Irish Sea border.

In fact, Mark Cosgrove said, there was “massive time and complexity to even be able to do a compliant paperwork”.

Mark is an Ulster Unionist councillor, and I actually bumped into him at the Ulster Tower at Thiepval on the centenary of the Somme in 2016, days after the Brexit vote, and he was in despair, thinking it would turn out disastrously for unionism.

But few members of the public had his insights.

It did not take long this year for many people to begin to have serious concerns about the new frontier, as they came to see its impact on the delivery and availability of favoured goods that had hitherto arrived in NI without impediment.

More recently an even larger group of people have begun to have concerns about the Irish Sea border. Informed people, particularly in Great Britain, who had not paid close attention to the NI Protocol, because it was all agreed quickly and because it was complex, have had time to absorb it and think about its impact.

Take for example aspects of the Irish Sea border that even took me by surprise, despite covering the Brexit story for years.

I did not know the scale of the barriers to pet movements, to standard plant imports, or that there would be a complete ban on chilled meat imports or approval issues with drugs.

A meat dish that I have been buying at a supermarket for 20+ years ( a convenient-to-make dish which is somewhere between raw meat and a prepared meal), has been out of stock since late February (which one of the phasings ended). It is not coming back.

The loss is hardly a major inconvenience in my life but it is the principle of it that is rankling with me — and many other people who have suddenly been unable to get long established products.

And many influential people in England are beginning to understand that such obstacles are unacceptable within the UK.

The Spectator magazine, which is influential in conservative circles, this week wrote an editorial about the problems with the Irish Sea border and said: “Sooner rather than later the protocol is going to have to be revisited.”

Some people in parts of the EU including Dublin are seeing this too. I was talking this week to a commentator there who had gone from being instinctively pro protocol to, on reflection, seeing it as a threat to the consent principle of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

This, perhaps, mirrors something I noticed about the Irish land border. Some unionist inclined observers who had not in 2016 thought the frontier would be much of a problem, came on reflection to realise how complex and fraught a major regulatory and customs land border would be.

So many people of influence are now concluding that the UK has given the EU a concession too far.

But that is the problem. It has been conceded. The EU now has the law on its side and by goodness it is not relinquishing that.

This is not the first time that I have seen the UK, or indeed unionists, agree something that is then regretted. I have yet to see nationalist Ireland ever do the same.

The Spectator asks just that: “But what did the UK government expect when it signed up to the protocol?”

It then speculates that either the prime minister and his team did not understand some of the perils or else did understand them but agreed it anyway under the extreme pressure of a needing a deal in 2019.

All this concern over the protocol, however, is happening at a time of great unionist vulnerability.

Unionism is split in multiple ways, its recent electoral vote has declined (although Dr Graham Gudgin writes on the opposite page about encouraging border poll findings, see web link below), and it is under pressure from Sinn Fein to press ahead with uncomfortable reforms such as the Irish language act.

Last Saturday and on Monday, I had a minor back and forth exchange on these pages with Doug Beattie about the relative political priorities of health the protocol (see links below to June 5 article and Doug Beattie reply).

I realise that unionist leaders such as him are under great pressure to present a personable side to unionism, which is demonised. For such a leader to tell an interviewer that they prioritise the protocol over the NHS would be seized upon by those who always depict unionism as nasty.

But even so, now is the time for unionism — above all Edwin Poots as DUP leader — to be making clear the partial repeal of the Act of Union, to facilitate the Protocol, is a step too far.

The many open minded non unionists who are coming to see the profound problems with the protocol will hardly be encouraged in their sympathy if they think that mainstream unionists have in effective already thrown in the towel on the matter.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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