Ben Lowry: Unionists have fully turned against the Irish Sea border because since January they have seen the scale of the disaster
There is a simple reason why unionism has turned against the Irish Sea border.
People have begun to understand the scale of this major trade barrier with Great Britain, and what it means for our place in the UK.
Prior to last month there was little understanding of what Boris Johnson had conceded to Leo Varadkar in October 2019.
Months after that UK departure deal, when unionists gathered at Stormont in January 2020 to wave Union flags at Brexit, I went along to ask why they were celebrating a small but significant step to wards a united Ireland (see link below).
They seemed untroubled by my question. A financial professional NI Tory among the crowd dismissed the notion that the Brexit deal was such a step.
There was a long fog around what was happening. There had been years of talk about backstops, protocols, internal and single markets, customs unions, tariffs, regulations, max facs, and alternatives.
Even those of us who followed it closely and who, from a unionist perspective, had long since seen that any such trade border in the Irish Sea would be a huge constitutional peril were not really sure how it would pan out.
We had to check with trade experts, economists, lawyers or political wizards to see what a particular detail or barrier actually meant.
Since January it has all begun to become horribly clear.
Apologists for the Irish Sea border, among them smart Brexiteers, tried to say that it did not matter, and that it was only a slight increase in what are known as SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks.
This was one of the most misleading claims — the suggestion that a tiny number of existing checks on livestocks had been upped slightly — yet was still trotted out by the government this year, when Boris Johnson and his secretary of state Brandon Lewis were maintaining there was no border.
But almost everyone who ordered parcels soon found what it meant to be in the EU single market and not the UK internal one. At best delays, at worst that they simply could not get the items.
Different people had different snapping points, depending on their lifestyles and interests.
Shortly after my colleague Sam McBride revealed in January that Northern Ireland gardeners had lost access to hundreds of seeds, an older relative of mine contacted me in dismay to say that the plant and seed company Thompson and Morgan had refused an order.
Dog lovers who had routinely taken their pets on ferries back and forth to the mainland now needed certificates and had to put medicines into their dogs.
My own snapping point came on the news that anyone who moves their belongings from Great Britain to NI would have to fill in customs forms. I had not foreseen such an impediment even though I had thought the idea of a border in the Irish Sea a constitutional travesty when I saw Theresa May’s first version of the backstop in late 2017.
I lived in London in the 1990s, as did a sibling, and we have another sibling who lives there now. To be able to move unhindered within a country is at the heart of citizenship of a nation. It does not matter if the customs paperwork is minor. The principle is an outrage.
I have a further sibling who lives in the Republic of Ireland and would face no barrier if moving back to NI. Thus a movement from outside the jurisdiction has privileges not accorded to one within it.
I have said for years that no other major nation state would tolerate an internal border which impinged on such core citizen rights and freedoms. The nuisance caused by the new internal barriers to UK purchases and movements shows why countries do not allow them.
The selfish and unscrupulous UK government that gave away these treasures is now running round talking about its commitment to the Union. What a joke.
The other reason this disaster of an Irish Sea trade border has begun to seep in is that people intuitively now see how hard it will be to shift.
They sense now the importance of the status quo and, how, extraordinarily, it has shifted to completely open all island trade.
Trade across the Irish Sea will remain by far the most significant in volume, but that is not the point. Relentless Irish political pressure, including repeatedly invoking the risks of a return to violence (ie a return to Irish terrorism), ensured that there is now a massive imperative to shift trade flows to all island.
How did we end up here?
The most charitable thing to say about the unionist response to events post 2016 is that it was stunned, first, by the unexpected Brexit vote, and, second, by how little support it got locally.
Note, for example, how few prominent people in Northern Ireland society dared to begin to speak up at once for our place in the UK the way that ‘civic nationalism’ did for an open land border.
NI has legions of retired civil servants, economists, lawyers and professionals with pro Union instincts yet their input and help was minimal.
All the main business groups including the Ulster Farmers’ Union threw their weight behind the backstop, which had as its central notion the idea that the land border must not change in any way. The UK signed away its right even to use CCTV at it.
Not a single major business or business group intervened to say: ‘We have no desire to see a hard land border but our main concern is keeping open the biggest flow of trade across the Irish Sea.’
The less charitable assessment of unionism after the referendum of June 2016 is it did not realise how it was being outwitted.
There was a long ‘phoney war’ after the Brexit vote, lasting more than a year, when the EU, its powerful supporters in the UK, and nationalist Ireland were marshalling their arguments and forces.
I was struck by how Brexit was often in the news and yet how little interest there was in it. Within months people were saying they were ‘bored’ with it.
Unionism was also lulled into a false sense of security by holding the balance of power in Westminster after 2017. More than once I heard Arlene Foster say NI had to leave the EU single market and customs union like the rest of the UK.
Well we didn’t, and are in the early stages of seeing what that means.
There is much more to come.
The EU is clearly in no mood to relinquish the legal powers over NI it got from Boris Johnson.
Some years ago an EU official was said to have said the price of Brexit was Northern Ireland. Whether or not that was said, it is certainly how it now looks.
And meanwhile, the nationalist push for Northern Ireland representation in the EU, perhaps via Dublin, and all the further constitutional damage to the Union that flows from that, has barely begun.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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