Owen Polley: Unionists still seem muddled about the harm done by the Northern Ireland Protocol

For many months, the two largest unionist parties (in terms of current representation at least) have struggled to maintain effective, consistent positions on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Monday, 13th September 2021, 6:27 pm
Updated Saturday, 18th September 2021, 2:20 pm
Unionists who think Theresa May’s backstop, which established the idea of an Irish Sea border, was acceptable for Northern Ireland, did not read or understand that proposal. All the objectionable aspects of Boris Johnson’s Protocol were possible under May’s plans

For businesses and consumers, there was no summer holiday from supply chain disruption and higher costs, but politicians seemed to take a break from these issues nonetheless.

The schools are back and things are lumbering back to life at Stormont, so last week the UUP and DUP launched their anti-Protocol policies.

For the Ulster Unionists, the watchword was supposedly ‘pragmatism’. The party repackaged a previous set of proposals, claiming it will, “strive for a common-sense solution to the problems caused by the protocol”.

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You will notice that this was not necessarily a plan to abolish its provisions entirely. Indeed, the UUP says it wants to “address concerns about protecting the EU single market”, despite the fact that Brussels has failed to show that trade between Great Britain and NI threatens its market in any way.

The Ulster Unionists claim they are advocating constructive solutions, while their rivals oppose the protocol without offering alternatives. The problem with this argument is that it concedes the idea that this extraordinary EU land-grab is at some level necessary in the first place, or that it answers a question that was in need of resolution, which is the founding lie that underpins the Irish Sea border.

The UUP’s actual suggestions range from the commonplace, “for UK sale only” labels on goods, for example, to the contentious. It proposes a new “cross border compliance body”, to add to existing aspects of north-south cooperation included in the Belfast Agreement.

The revamped document now cites the government’s ‘command paper’, which sets out a far more practical and direct set of suggestions to remove the protocol’s worst features.

At La Mon Hotel on Thursday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson gave a speech setting out his party’s plans to oppose the Brexit deal.

He announced that DUP representatives will withdraw from north-south bodies immediately, unless they are dealing with issues related to health.

He promised that his ministers will refuse to implement new or more strenuous checks, as the outstanding aspects of the protocol are introduced.

Significantly, he also said, “If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the Protocol in its current form, then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold that office.”

This commitment opens up the possibility that DUP politicians may resign from the Stormont executive, which would make an early election likely.

Sir Jeffrey’s plan wasn’t exactly new, but it was at least relatively clear. All of the proposals have been discussed or suggested before, but this speech put them on record as party policy. Notably, though, he did not set out precisely which circumstances would lead ministers to resign and his speech, like the UUP’s document, demanded solutions to the problems associated with the protocol, rather than its outright abolition.

Donaldson’s approach appeared to be hardline, but it left room for negotiation and ambiguity.

Given the gravity of the protocol, this could be a worry for unionists.

The government’s command paper in July made suggestions that would allow goods to move freely from GB to NI and ensure UK regulations for goods were recognised here. It was a surprisingly good paper, but it was the minimum unionists could accept. If it’s simply a starting place for negotiations with the EU, then the final outcome is unlikely to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, there are signs that unionists still get muddled about the protocol and its effects. For example, why do some of them repeat the nationalist nonsense that Brexit made an Irish Sea border inevitable?

If you do not accept that Northern Irish voters had a right to take part in a nationwide referendum on the same basis as those in the rest of the UK, and have its outcome applied here without any qualification, then, frankly, there’s not a shred of unionism in you.

Likewise, if you think that Theresa May’s backstop, which established the idea of an Irish Sea border, was an acceptable solution for Northern Ireland, you did not read or did not understand that proposal.

All the objectionable aspects of Boris Johnson’s Protocol were possible under May’s plans, with the added complication that we were expected to leave the UK’s customs area officially.

The protocol poses practical problems but, for unionism, its constitutional repercussions are even more serious. Any solution must fully and convincingly restore NI’s place in the UK’s internal market, so that goods, including medicines and food, move without additional checks or paperwork and British standards and regulations are accepted here.

If, after the government’s negotiations with the EU, products can move unencumbered to every corner of the UK and Britain’s authority is not impaired by Brussels, few unionists will complain if the protocol’s ghost lives on in some form.

However, the High Court confirmed that its implementation effectively dismantled important parts of Northern Ireland’s UK status, by repealing sections of the Act of Union.

The protocol was a blatant and direct constitutional challenge, designed to dilute British sovereignty. The unionist parties have to address that fact directly.

For many months, the two largest unionist parties (in terms of current representation at least) have struggled to maintain effective, consistent positions on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

For businesses and consumers, there was no summer holiday from supply chain disruption and higher costs, but politicians seemed to take a break from these issues nonetheless.

The schools are back and things are lumbering back to life at Stormont, so last week the UUP and DUP launched their anti-Protocol policies.

For the Ulster Unionists, the watchword was supposedly ‘pragmatism’. The party repackaged a previous set of proposals, claiming it will, “strive for a common-sense solution to the problems caused by the protocol”.

You will notice that this was not necessarily a plan to abolish its provisions entirely. Indeed, the UUP says it wants to “address concerns about protecting the EU single market”, despite the fact that Brussels has failed to show that trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland threatens its market in any way.

The Ulster Unionists claim they are advocating constructive solutions, while their rivals oppose the protocol without offering alternatives.

The problem with this argument is that it concedes the idea that this extraordinary EU land-grab is at some level necessary in the first place, or that it answers a question that was in need of resolution, which is the founding lie that underpins the Irish Sea border.

The UUP’s actual suggestions range from the commonplace, “for UK sale only” labels on goods, for example, to the contentious. It proposes a new “cross border compliance body”, to add to existing aspects of north-south cooperation included in the Belfast Agreement.

The revamped document now cites the government’s ‘command paper’, which sets out a far more practical and direct set of suggestions to remove the protocol’s worst features.

At La Mon Hotel on Thursday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson gave a speech setting out his party’s plans to oppose the Brexit deal.

He announced that DUP representatives will withdraw from north-south bodies immediately, unless they are dealing with issues related to health.

He promised that his ministers will refuse to implement new or more strenuous checks, as the outstanding aspects of the protocol are introduced.

Significantly, he also said, “If the choice is ultimately between remaining in office or implementing the Protocol in its current form, then the only option for any unionist minister would be to cease to hold that office.”

This commitment opens up the possibility that DUP politicians may resign from the Stormont executive, which would make an early election likely.

Sir Jeffrey’s plan wasn’t exactly new, but it was at least relatively clear. All of the proposals have been discussed or suggested before, but this speech put them on record as party policy.

Notably, though, he did not set out precisely which circumstances would lead ministers to resign and his speech, like the UUP’s document, demanded solutions to the problems associated with the protocol, rather than its outright abolition.

Donaldson’s approach appeared to be hardline, but it left room for negotiation and ambiguity.

Given the gravity of the protocol, this could be a worry for unionists.

The government’s command paper in July made suggestions that would allow goods to move freely from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and ensure UK regulations for goods were recognised here.

It was a surprisingly good paper, but it was the minimum unionists could accept. If it’s simply a starting place for negotiations with the EU, then the final outcome is unlikely to be tolerable.

Unfortunately, there are signs that unionists still get muddled about the protocol and its effects.

For example, why do some of them repeat the nationalist nonsense that Brexit made an Irish Sea border inevitable?

If you do not accept that Northern Irish voters had a right to take part in a nationwide referendum on the same basis as those in the rest of the UK, and have its outcome applied here without any qualification, then, frankly, there’s not a shred of unionism in you.

Likewise, if you think that Theresa May’s backstop, which established the idea of an Irish Sea border, was an acceptable solution for Northern Ireland, you did not read or did not understand that proposal.

All the objectionable aspects of Boris Johnson’s Protocol were possible under May’s plans, with the added complication that we were expected to leave the UK’s customs area officially.

The protocol poses practical problems but, for unionism, its constitutional repercussions are even more serious. Any solution must fully and convincingly restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market, so that goods, including medicines and food, move without additional checks or paperwork and British standards and regulations are accepted here.

If, after the government’s negotiations with the EU, products can move unencumbered to every corner of the UK and Britain’s authority is not impaired by Brussels, few unionists will complain if the protocol’s ghost lives on in some form.

However, the High Court confirmed that its implementation effectively dismantled important parts of Northern Ireland’s UK status, by repealing sections of the Act of Union.

The protocol was a blatant and direct constitutional challenge, designed to dilute British sovereignty. The unionist parties have to address that fact directly.

• Other articles by Owen Polley below, beneath that information on how to subscribe:

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