Dire circumstances might soon force unionists into some sort of united approach to events

Simon Coveney's explanation of Ireland's uncompromising line on the Irish border last October has held true. It seems London is about to accede to the demand that Dublin laid out so explicitly then
Simon Coveney's explanation of Ireland's uncompromising line on the Irish border last October has held true. It seems London is about to accede to the demand that Dublin laid out so explicitly then

To get a sense of how serious events are for Northern Ireland, you only need to look at the top of this page (in the print edition).

Sammy Wilson’s quote (listed as one of the quotes of the week) is taken from an article that appeared in the News Letter this week, in which he made clear that the DUP was not bluffing in its preparedness to block a border in the Irish Sea.

The tweet, top right (reproduced as one of the tweets of the week), from Nick Boles MP, reveals the thinking of a pro Brexit (but also mainstream and well connected) Tory in response to any perceived threat from the DUP to the Conservative Party (“A word in your shell-like [Sammy Wilson], Conservative leaders are chosen by Conservative MPs & Conservative Party members. Not by MPs of any other party. And we respond no better to threats than proud Ulster men or women do.”)

Needless to say, this is not a good position for unionism to be in.

For days there has been increasing speculation that the government is going to agree some sort of regulatory border in the Irish Sea, regardless of what the DUP thinks.

It will also agree to the whole UK staying in the customs union.

To understand how we have ended up in this extraordinary position, you need to go back not merely to the December ‘backstop’ on the Irish border, but a bit before it — to when the Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney spoke to an SDLP breakfast in Belfast on November 22.

What he said there gave a chilling (to unionist ears) description of how uncompromising Dublin was going to be on the land border.

It is worth quoting at length, because everything he vowed has so far held true, and so his comments are set out in the panel below.

If you read Mr Coveney’s comments, one thing becomes clear. The Irish government is not accepting regulatory or customs divergence at the land border, full stop.

The backstop, agreed weeks later, gave Dublin comfort on that point (even though a subsequent clause was inserted that prevented a border in the Irish Sea).

So this is not, repeat not, just about checks, as Mr Coveney made clear in his comments last year.

Even if there was wide acceptance of a technological solution to the land border and even if checks were carried out in farmyards in Bangor or Ballyclare or Bushmills, to spare the sensitivities of nationalists who live in border areas, Dublin would not accept it.

That means that as far as the Irish government is concerned, Northern Ireland must always be in the EU custom and regulatory zone.

You could even say that this whole saga has shown Irish acceptance of the principle of consent to be conditional (albeit conditional on the avoidance of a scenario that no-one in fact foresaw in 1998, that one or other party would no longer be in the European Union).

Now plenty of unionists reading all of the above, and Mr Coveney’s comments below, might think: fine, Ireland can think or say whatever it wants with regard to Northern Ireland, but that doesn’t mean it will get its way.

That is all very well if you have a British government that agrees. But it has become gradually apparent that we might not have such.

Because, it seems, London is about to accede to the demand that Dublin laid out so explicitly last year. It is reported to be seeking a solution in which the whole UK stays in the customs union and NI stays in the single market until another deal can be struck (if it is).

That ensures that the Irish demand is fully met, of no land border divergence, and the British vow to have no border in the Irish Sea is only partially met (in terms of tariffs, but not in terms of regulations).

It is a remarkable outcome, but it is also one that has been staring us in the face for months.

Perhaps it won’t happen.

Perhaps Downing Street will retreat. Perhaps Boris Johnson will prevail (read his essay written for us today). Perhaps there will be no deal. Perhaps the UK will decide not to leave the EU.

But it is looking like it might happen. A well informed source told me this week that London had already decided to face down the DUP on this — as it did with the second version of the backstop in December (after the DUP had blocked the first one and when the DUP still wasn’t happy with the revised version until Theresa May, I am told, finally said: “Tough, I’m off to agree it”).

Even if Brexiteers take charge and a Canada style free trade deal comes close to clearing parliament and the EU says no to Northern Ireland being part of it (as it does), the Brexiteers will have to be willing to stand up to that.

Will they, or will they cut us adrift for a deal?

Unionism is in a very bad way: on legacy (IRA triumphant), on competence issues (RHI), on Brexit, on friendship (a young generation and chunk of the UK that dislikes it).

Dire events might force some sort of unionist unity on it quite soon.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Simon Coveney’s 2017 comments below:

Last November, Simon Coveney spoke to the SDLP about how the border had changed over 30 years.

He said: “ ... that painful journey that many of you have been involved in, the success of it essentially has been largely invisible ... It is a seamless relationship, livestock moves around, product moves around, people move around. And I, for one, am not going to be part of an Irish government that allows that progress to be reversed. And I will make that promise here, just like I will make it in Dublin and I will make it in Cork.

“Anybody who thinks that we see this issue purely in trade terms, in terms of trade numbers, fundamentally misunderstands the depth of feeling in the context of the politics of the border and of course the politics of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) ... And so what we have insisted upon, which seems to have raised the hackles of some, is a language which now says that it seems essential for us that the UK commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland can be avoided by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence in those rules of the internal market and the customs union which are, and in our view will be in the future, necessary for meaningful north south cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the GFA.

“That is the language of the EU task force that we have absolute solidarity on in relation to this and that is now why are in an awkward impasse, if the truth be told ... If you have a different rule-book by which business operates in Northern Ireland versus Ireland, there is no way of avoiding border checks. That is the reality, whether those border checks happen on the border, or in business premises or in farmyards is a different issue, but as far as I am concerned that is all border infrastructure preventing free movement, preventing trade, undermining the relationships that have been built up over the last 20 years, and it’s about building barriers rather than bridges on this island and we won’t stand for it.”