Owen Polley: Finally DUP does something to show gravity of Protocol predicament

The DUP made two decisive moves this week in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

An anti protocol sign in Newtownabbey. The UUP is right to say that the DUP should never have accepted a regulatory border in the Irish Sea but these things happened and cannot be undone
An anti protocol sign in Newtownabbey. The UUP is right to say that the DUP should never have accepted a regulatory border in the Irish Sea but these things happened and cannot be undone

First, Edwin Poots ordered officials to stop checking food and animal products at Northern Ireland’s ports.

Then Paul Givan resigned from the first minister’s post, collapsing the Executive Office and deposing his deputy, Michelle O’Neill, in the process.

Unionists with different outlooks immediately started debating whether these tactics would work. That argument will only be settled, in the public’s mind at least, by what happens next.

Some commentators also raised legitimate questions about how the DUP’s twin gambit fits together. Does Givan’s resignation improve the chances of checks stopping and remaining stopped?

Again, that’ll be determined in the next few weeks, starting with an important court case.

It is undeniable that these were drastic decisions and rival parties are entitled to ask if they were wise. At the same time, Jeffrey Donaldson and his party have finally done something that reflects the gravity of the Protocol’s threat to the Union.

Rather than acknowledge the unique circumstances that led the DUP to act like this, Doug Beattie quickly accused the party of creating ‘another manufactured crisis’. This is an unconvincing line.

If there is a crisis in Northern Ireland, and I believe there is, it did not start on Thursday. It began the moment that the government and the EU agreed to cut Northern Ireland off economically from the rest of the UK. This is a Protocol crisis, not merely another impasse at Stormont.

The DUP’s timing is certainly questionable and it miscalculated badly in the months before the sea border was introduced.

The agriculture minister could have refused to implement controls at Northern Ireland’s ports in the first place and his party could have pulled down the Executive if he had been forced to act.

The UUP is right to say that the DUP should never have accepted a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

When Arlene Foster agreed that EU product standards would apply here rather than British rules, our place in the UK internal market was compromised. Unfortunately, these things happened and cannot be undone. They explain why the DUP is on its third leader in less than a year, with polling results that give its election strategists night-sweats.

The party’s opponents are understandably cynical that it has chosen to collapse the executive office so close to a scheduled election. It’s quite possible that Donaldson calculated that the DUP could not risk going into a ballot with the Protocol unchanged, unless it registered some sort of serious resistance.

Unfortunately, though, while the UUP has coherent arguments against the DUP’s line, it is less convincing outlining its own position on the Irish Sea border.

It claims, for example, that economic barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can only be removed through negotiation. That analysis may seem self-evident, but the endless talks between the UK and the EU do not take place in a vacuum. Both sides claim they want political stability in Northern Ireland and that is clearly not being delivered by the Protocol in its current form.

Then there is the misguided notion that, if it were not for the DUP’s decision, the Executive would be getting on with all kinds of important work. This idea ignores how little devolution has achieved since it was re-introduced in 1998.

Both the larger unionist parties are guilty of over-emphasising the importance of Stormont. Yesterday, in his resignation speech, Paul Givan described himself as a ‘convinced devolutionist’. Unionism could do with fewer convinced devolutionists and more reluctant devolutionists.

The merits of having a power-sharing Executive are not self-evident. In a devolved UK, it is something that we must probably accept, but maintaining our place in the Union is far more important than preserving Stormont at all costs.

In another context, the UUP is not afraid to say that the current system is not working. Yet, when the institutions are threatened, this ‘dysfunctional’ Executive that ‘no longer delivers good government’ becomes a vital safeguard to Northern Ireland’s success and prosperity.

If unionists do not see opposing the Irish Sea border as their foremost political task currently, their thinking can only be explained in one of three ways.

Firstly, they do not truly understand the seriousness of the protocol or its potential to gradually erode the Union. Secondly, they are so fatalistic about the future that they believe unionists can only manage the process of NI being gradually detached from the rest of the UK. Or, thirdly, they’re fairly comfortable with Northern Ireland being distanced from GB and becoming ever more a ‘place apart’.

The Protocol is an indefensible and unnecessary attack on the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Whether or not the DUP has chosen the right strategy, unionists have every right to take serious action to oppose it.

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