Owen Polley: The Irish Sea border is a calamity yet unionist response to it is timid

As the repercussions of the Northern Ireland Protocol become more apparent daily, its proponents are reduced to new levels of dishonesty, aggression and slavishly anti-British, pro-Brussels rhetoric.

Thursday, 8th July 2021, 12:53 pm
Updated Thursday, 8th July 2021, 1:00 pm
Internal UK checks at Belfast port. The Irish Sea border is reshaping Northern Ireland in ways that we haven’t even begun to understand. It exists only because British politicians would rather dismember their own country than risk the ire of Irish nationalists

Their most Kafkaesque trick, of course, is to pretend that they’re not proponents of the Protocol at all. This is irrespective of the fact that they demanded its ‘rigorous implementation’ and insisted throughout five years of negotiations that Northern Ireland’s links to Dublin and the EU must take priority over its place in the UK.

Last week, the high court in Belfast ruled that the Protocol repealed important sections of the Act of Union.

The relevant provision, Article 6, determined, “The subjects of Great Britain and Ireland shall be on the same footing in respect of trade and navigation, and in all treaties the subjects of Ireland shall have the same privileges as British subjects.”

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Mr Justice Colton stated that, “It cannot be said that the two jurisdictions (Great Britain and Northern Ireland) are on an equal footing with regard to trade.”

The Acts of Union 1800 effectively created the United Kingdom and laid out how it should work in broad terms. They are the definition of ‘constitutional statutes’ — the name for foundational laws that underpin our nation state and its political system.

Isn’t it surreal then that the EU, Dublin, even, on occasion, our own government, spent months lecturing unionists that the protocol affects trade, but not the constitution?

Even after a judge contradicted this view explicitly, the North Down MP Stephen Farry, whose Twitter account reaches new depths of absurdity with each post, claimed the case showed that it was, “Time to stop reacting to the protocol in constitutional and economic terms.”

You will remember that Brussels advised supermarkets quite specifically to source goods from the EU and the Republic of Ireland rather than Great Britain and they were granted ‘grace periods’ to complete this transition.

Clearly, we shouldn’t understand this attempt to realign Northern Ireland’s economy in ‘economic terms’, just as we shouldn’t understand the protocol’s alterations to the UK constitution in ‘constitutional terms’.

By now, unionists are used to being assailed by such nonsense. Farry’s party leader, Naomi Long, recently dismissed concerns about the protocol by noting that, “where you get your sausages from doesn’t define your identity”.

This may, in itself, appear to be a reasonable claim. But nobody on the pro-Union side ever claimed that the origin of sausages determined their identity. Long’s statement revealed more about Alliance’s attitude to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK than it did about unionism.

The province’s Britishness is not just an ‘identity’ and it never has been.

It is underpinned by citizenship and our constitutional position. Importantly, it is not a personal feeling; it is bound up with our ability to participate fully in the nation’s political, social and economic life.

It strikes me as staggeringly disingenuous to present an internal border, displaced trade and the promotion of an all-Ireland economy as irrelevant to these rights.

Last week, it emerged that the government’s Trader Support Service advised private individuals that they should employ an ‘intermediary’, ie. a customs agent, to ship personal belongings across the Irish Sea with a haulier. This protocol is reshaping Northern Ireland in ways that we haven’t even begun to understand.

Perhaps the most ridiculous allegation levelled at unionists, as they come to terms with a border dividing up their nation state, is that they are manufacturing grievances or ‘dialling up the rhetoric’.

The government is hugely culpable for the protocol, but let’s not kid ourselves, it exists only because British politicians would rather dismember their own country than risk the ire of Irish nationalists.

This arrangement is the biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union since the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

It confirms that people here have a second class form of British citizenship and they are not “on the same footing” as their counterparts in Great Britain.

The ‘principle of consent’ that was supposed to protect our place in the UK is being trashed.

It seems that Northern Ireland can be cut off economically, with substantive aspects of policy-making handed over to Brussels, without any form of accountability.

In this context, the unionist reaction to this calamity has been relatively moderate, even timid.

Aside from loyalist protests, and a brief spell of disorder that was prompted partly by other factors, the reaction from the political parties has been lethargic.

It’s unclear how the DUP will challenge the protocol more effectively under Jeffrey Donaldson, while Doug Beattie and the UUP have been more vocal about other issues.

Jim Allister offers a strident voice against the Irish Sea border, but other Brexiteers who are now critical initially welcomed Boris Johnson’s deal.

It’s difficult to overstate the seriousness of this situation.

If the protocol is allowed to stand, the Belfast Agreement and other safeguards that ensure Northern Ireland remains British will effectively mean nothing.

Our place in the UK will consist only of a certain amount of symbolism and a cash transfer from Westminster.

In John Larkin QC’s words, the ‘principle of consent’ will cover only “the final removal of the last vestige of (British) sovereignty” from Northern Ireland.

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