Peter Robinson: The prime cause of recent loyalist trouble is undoubtedly the Northern Ireland Protocol

When will we ever learn?

Friday, 9th April 2021, 7:30 am
Peter Robinson, a former first minister and DUP leader, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter on alternate Fridays

As Yogi Berra once remarked, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

The street violence was both predictable and predicted.

It is an oft-repeated pattern. To be condemned, for sure, but let’s have less of the faux bewilderment and handwringing.

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There will from time to time be issues that cause outrage, but the underlying cause of recent flare-ups is undoubtedly the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The failure of Sinn Fein leaders to follow the rules they impose on others and the Nelson eye being turned to their refusal to comply with the law, just plays into the prevailing sense of anger and frustration.

Over recent months the inevitability of reaching this point had allowed the government, the EU (and local politicians if they were to be allowed to participate) the space to provide an alternative that would have settled community tensions, protected past agreements, assisted our hard-pressed businesses and maintained the integrity of a settled process that only allows constitutional change to occur if it is based upon the principle of consent.

However, the desire to hold on to an unwarranted and unjustifiably partisan deal was, for some, greater than the desire to avoid conflict or seek a fair compromise.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is unacceptable to unionists. That much is clear.

The protocol itself, in Article 16, recognises, and allows for its suspension, if its application leads to serious societal difficulties that are liable to persist.

This is a specific and well-defined stipulation in what, we are told by its adherents, is a binding international treaty. This too is clear.

That serious societal difficulties exist is also manifestly clear and I judge they will persist. Would anyone dare to question that judgement?

Of course, we could delay further and judge the level of persistence in a month … six months … a year … or more, but the cost will be great and not just on those impacted by the potential of sustained protests and violence or even — if history repeats itself — what may develop from them.

The “societal difficulties” are also expressed in the further disintegration of our society and the consequential loss to our economy.

You see, Northern Ireland’s dark past screams out at us warning of the consequences of dithering or digging-in when faced with these circumstances. Let us not blindly slide into that historic groove which leads to long-term division and instability. Instead let us leapfrog those nasty and costly phases and move directly to negotiating the alternative.

Yet, here’s the rub. There is no mutually agreeable pain-free solution.

The Northern Ireland Protocol does not meet that test, nor will any future set of terms, however cleverly drafted they may be. There is only compromise.

The protocol is one method of dealing with the problems arising from Brexit, but unionist leaders attest to it not being balanced and determine that it inflicts constitutional damage along with economic and administrative hardship. But removing the protocol will not remove the need for arrangements to deal with the issues that flow from leaving the EU.

However, I would contend there can be better and more balanced alternatives.

I am not impressed by the juvenile taunt that none of the protocol’s detractors have suggested an alternative. Why would they? Only an idiot would publish a proposal to resolve a problem that his or her opponents do not yet admit exists.

Proposals emerge in the context of negotiations. Proposals offered outside the confines of such a process will be trashed and wasted. Indeed, the pig-headed refusal to accept that there is not sufficient consensus among those affected by the provisions of the protocol for it to be a suitable and lasting instrument to manage the process, is what is holding us back from progressing to the inevitable and necessary negotiating phase.

Which brings me to the negotiating process whenever it does occur. It will not resolve our difficulties if it is negotiated solely by people who do not live and work here. Nor will it succeed if some of those negotiating want to use the negotiations to undo the outcome of the referendum or punish those who voted to leave the EU.

Moving forward requires Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), the EU and non-unionist parties to accept that an alternative that can gain cross-community support is urgently needed and that an outcome which does not enjoy the support or acquiescence of a very significant section of the community will not last and cannot be sustained.

For the unionist parties there is the need to disabuse any within their fold who harbour the belief that removing the protocol is all that is required. The protocol will have to be replaced by another set of arrangements.

We share this island, and in Northern Ireland we have a divided community. If we argue the protocol must fall because it does not have our support, we should accept that its successor must have both unionist and non-unionist support.

Northern Ireland teeters on the rim of history repeating itself. Surely after all the years of division even the slow learners have discovered that you cannot govern without consent. Residing in a state of self-induced denial will only prolong the agony.

We all need to realise that compromise is the best way forward and its day will come.

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