Ben Lowry: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it

Recently I wrote that most current Irish nationalist goals had some unionist support.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 16th January 2021, 11:50 am
Empty shelves at Sainsbury’s store in Bangor this week. Unionist Brexiteer denial about Boris Johnson’s betrayal over the Irish Sea border is ending as the problems become stark
Empty shelves at Sainsbury’s store in Bangor this week. Unionist Brexiteer denial about Boris Johnson’s betrayal over the Irish Sea border is ending as the problems become stark

Here I want to expand on a related but different trend: muted unionist reaction when those goals are conceded.

Reg Empey in this newspaper this week (see link below) said there had been no apology or regret from the DUP after their concession of a regulatory Irish Sea border Sea led to a customs one too (Arlene Foster rejects that criticism on page 6 of the print edition, see link below).

Jim Allister has written about Edwin Poots protesting against the Irish Sea border but not stopping his department from building it.

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There is an air of indifference to the war of attrition against unionism, such as the bid to end automatic UK citizenship or Julian Smith ignoring the three strands.

For all the tough DUP rhetoric about the Irish language there was little resistance to the planned powerful language commissioner (achieved by the blackmail of shutting Stormont, until it was agreed).

There is also a reluctance to query whether Stormont is viable if a party that wants Northern Ireland to fail must always hold office.

This was evident in the failure to criticise the Bobby Storey funeral, until public outrage became clear.

Incidentally it was remarkable to see the PSNI chief constable on Thursday beside Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, warning people that his officers would not hesitate to issue fines for Covid breaches. His police force, like Belfast City Council, facilitated a huge IRA funeral. For months all other mourners in NI had small funerals to comply with social distancing. That IRA breach came after months of Sinn Fein sanctimony on lockdown.

Meanwhile unionists (with exceptions such as Doug Beattie) have not challenged, or maybe grasped, how legacy is being used to destroy UK state forces and justify the IRA.

Despite all these setbacks, no hardline unionist politician has thought to follow through on the logic of their rhetoric and join forces with critics of the stream of concessions such as Jim Allister.

It is particularly disagreeable when people talk tough and act in a way that is soft. If unionists see no alternative to concessions they should say so, rather than add to confusion among the unionist population by denying it has happened.

This week the unionist response to the Irish Sea border did belatedly toughen, as its scale became clear.

Owen Polley (see link below) wrote on these pages that some unionists who hated Theresa May’s backstop backed Boris Johnson’s border. They liked him but not her, he suggested.

I also think they were so closely entwined with English Brexiteers that the scale and speed of the betrayal, and the lack of compunction over it, and indeed the indifference to the betrayal in the rest of the UK, led to a long period of denial,

That is coming to an end now that we have empty supermarket shelves, cancelled deliveries and other barriers that few people foresaw such as pet movement.

When I have pointed out how the Tory Party casually accepted the new border, some people have accused me of being unrealistic, and unfair on MPs. The UK would have lost Brexit entirely, they say, if MPs had not accepted the Boris betrayal.

(Betrayal is an emotive word, but it is hard to think of a more apt one, given how Mr Johnson told the DUP what it wanted to hear in November 2018, to undermine his party leader and to get her job, and when he got it agreed to the very border that she at least did somersaults to avoid).

The leading economist Graham Gudgin is a long-standing and dedicated friend of Northern Ireland, but he did not help things when he wrote in the Spectator magazine, after the betrayal, that “there can be no doubt of the strength of Boris Johnson’s sincere unionism”.

That Tory MPs agreed to divide the UK to avoid losing Brexit reflects how leaving the EU became almost a mania. As recently as 2016, only a minority of Tory MPs wanted to leave the EU (in 2010 it was an even smaller group of them). Many of those who did support Brexit back then would have accepted a soft exit, until it became a Tory article of faith that only the fullest Brexit would suffice, regardless of damage to the nation’s integrity.

Imagine, for example, that the current 360 or so Tory MPs were asked to choose between either Brexit or keeping an untouched UK.

If only a third went for the latter, 120 MPs, that would be appalling.

And if it was far less, only 10% (36 MPs), that would be so much worse.

In the end it was none. Not one.

Ah, not quite — Owen Paterson abstained on the recent Brexit deal to show his support for NI.

Barely a Brexiteer has said that with hindsight Brexit is not worth the Union or that they wish they had sought a Norway compromise (in which all UK was in the single market, removing a regulatory Irish land border) so the UK stayed one.

Some people say we have to deal with reality, that unionists should ‘own’ the sea border. There is also a view that being too blunt, such as in this article, demoralises unionists and helps nationalists. I understand these views, but reject them.

Unionism should oppose it not least so that the historical record shows that it stood by its core principles, as nationalism did post 1921.

We should make clear that we cannot stop these things but they are being imposed by a Conservative and Unionist Party that is invariably weak amidst Irish grievances.

Unionists who examined the grim vote tally in the first reading of Mr Johnson’s Brexit bill in October 2019 were dismayed to find that Kate Hoey MP (who like Dr Gudgin is a dedicated unionist) had abstained. But this week she accused the Tories of betrayal in their favoured paper, The Daily Telegraph.

Most unionists now want Article 16 invoked (which mitigates the NI Protocol).

This growing turn against the government is welcome. It disabuses London of the notion that unionists will accept anything.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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