Owen Polley: Anti protocol violence will hinder campaign against Irish Sea border

If the anti-Protocol violence we saw last week is repeated, it will be self-defeating and is likely only to undermine the broader campaign against an Irish Sea border.

Monday, 8th November 2021, 8:26 am
Updated Monday, 8th November 2021, 8:34 am
The remnants of a bus burnt out in Newtownards last Monday. Loyalists can’t fail to have noticed how the spectre of violence worked for republicans. But even a tiny number of extremists will chip away at the resolve of less politicised pro-Union people

Early on Monday morning, a bus was burned in Newtownards by two armed and masked men, who may have links to the UVF. Then, more ambiguously, an attempted protest against the Protocol at Lanark Way in Belfast descended into a riot, with police officers reportedly coming under attack from “both sides of the interface”.

You can see why some people might conclude that these incidents strengthen the case against cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK.

The Protocol’s emergency brake, Article 16, can be triggered if it leads to serious “societal difficulties” that are likely to persist. These difficulties are not defined in the text, but it would be hard to argue, in a society like Northern Ireland, that disorder on the streets or political instability would not qualify.

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Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, pro-EU liberals across the UK and, in particular, the Dublin government repeatedly raised the spectre of republican violence during the Brexit negotiations, as a negotiating tactic. Infamously, Leo Varadkar produced a press cutting about an IRA attack on a customs post at an EU meeting, to support his argument against new checks and infrastructure at the Irish land border.

As recently as 2019, the SDLP MP, Claire Hanna, told Business Inside, ‘If 60% of people do not want a border on the island, and you say “tough shit we are putting you inside a hard border,” you cannot expect people to just choke that down and get on with their lives...You cannot imagine that people would take that without civil disobedience at a very minimum.’

Loyalists in Northern Ireland, who feel that they have been being cut off from the rest of the UK as a way of placating nationalist threats, cannot fail to have noticed the success of this strategy.

If a few cameras at an existing international frontier is considered an incitement to republicans, then how much more provocative to unionists is a new economic and political border separating them from Great Britain and the dismantlement of the act of parliament that created the United Kingdom?

While there’s logic to this way of thinking, it doesn’t follow that violence is justified and it certainly doesn’t mean that it will achieve anything positive. If the campaign against the Protocol becomes associated with disorder, inevitably it will alienate moderate pro-Union opinion and undermine unionism’s united front against the Irish Sea border.

You can see this starting already, with loyalist activists squabbling online with representatives of the unionist political parties. They claim they have been misrepresented by people like Mike Nesbitt MLA, who was outspoken in his criticism of the Lanark Way protest.

I can understand why loyalists find the tone adopted by some politicians patronising. Many were consistent in their opposition to the Protocol, grasping instinctively how it recast Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, even when the parties were slow to respond. Loyalism is acutely sensitive to being “talked down to” by people at Stormont with comfortable jobs and salaries

At the same time, the strength of the coalition against the Protocol is that it spans all shades of unionism. The most moderate unionist cannot accept being prevented from buying goods from part of his own country, or a foreign power, rather than Westminster, having the ultimate say over important aspects of NI’s internal affairs.

Even if violence is perpetrated by a tiny minority of extremists, it will chip away at the resolve of less politicised pro-Union people.

Already, you hear some unionists asking whether devoting so much energy to the Protocol has caused unionism to become mired in negativity. This is a naive argument. Positive unionism is inherently about playing a full role in the United Kingdom, and the Protocol prevents people in Northern Ireland from doing that. But it shows how tempting it is for unionists to step away from a problem that can seem insoluble.

Disorder will also destroy the genuine sympathy that many people in the rest of the country feel for Northern Ireland’s predicament. On the mainland, there is widespread acknowledgement that it is wrong to carve up the UK economically because Brussels says it is necessary to protect its single market.

This sentiment explains why the government is making at least some attempt to sort out a mess that it played such a significant role in creating.

Unionists, irrespective of their exact political hue, have every right to be hurt and angry about the Protocol. Indeed, it’s most remarkable that their actions and rhetoric have so far been so restrained.

It may be a blatant double-standard, given the success of republican threats of violence, but it’s a fact of life that disorder on the streets will only undermine the campaign against the internal UK border.

• Owen Polley Oct 30 (within this there are links to other articles by Owen): Unconvincing poll was twisted to support protocol

• Other comment pieces below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter

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