Peter Robinson: Unionists might face a choice between keeping Stormont or scrapping the Irish Sea border

At my age staying composed is more than a virtue it’s a requirement.

By Peter Robinson
Friday, 12th February 2021, 12:34 pm
Peter Robinson, a former first minister and DUP leader, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter on alternate Fridays
Peter Robinson, a former first minister and DUP leader, writes a bi weekly column for the News Letter on alternate Fridays

Yet when I listen to politicians from the Republic proclaiming that the arrangements, they and their EU mates imposed, will not be changed and pontificating to the people of Northern Ireland on what we can have, or not have, all my composure vaporises.

I am never sure if they are deliberately trying to inflame the situation; deaf to the impact of their sanctimonious diktats, or so bent on appropriating Northern Ireland that they really don’t care.

For generations I have heard those who are content with the status quo proclaiming that there will be no change or, at best, only an inconsequential easement.

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You can’t try to ditch the protocol and also administer it, writes Peter Robinson. But is the scrapping of the protocol more important than the continued operation of the Stormont?

Those who offer that rhetoric as a response to genuine concerns should look at how often it is followed by wholesale change — with or without extensive upheaval.

What is becoming obvious to those who are trying to operate within the new Brexit arrangements is that they are not working and are not satisfactory. Change for operational reasons alone is needed.

Yet, for unionists it is the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol on our constitutional position that cries out for change.

The more time passes, and the outworking of the protocol demonstrates that goods are costing more, the processes are time-consuming and confusing, some suppliers are not even prepared to deliver goods here and we are increasingly being treated as separate and distinct from the rest of the kingdom, the more unionist discontent will grow.

At present only the pandemic is suppressing the outpouring of frustration and the protests that accompany that dissatisfaction.

How infuriating it is to hear people, some of whom should know better, recite the mantra that a land border on the island of Ireland would have been a breach of the Belfast Agreement.

While they struggle to show where in the agreement such a stipulation exists, they, at most, rely on the scrawny defence that it is contrary to the spirit of the agreement.

Naturally they ignore the equally valid truth that a border in the Irish Sea is contrary to the spirit of the agreement.

Given the events of the past week, how laughable all the faux-anxiety and posturing about not having a border on the island now appears.

As soon as it suited the Republic, they commenced border checks and placed the Garda on the border to keep out any ‘Northerner’ who strayed across.

I am not an elected representative so I am not going to choose the course to follow but I will sketch out the main choices open to unionists and the difficult decisions that accompany those options.

It’s quite simple really either suck it up in its present or minimally changed form or resist it.

This is where it becomes more difficult.

Boris Johnson’s government may seek to negotiate improvements but a modest “extension” or longer “grace period” will not soothe the tension within unionism and will only long-finger the harm that is looming.

It may be possible to force some slight change or trifling concession that may reduce the mischief the protocol will cause but it is unlikely under present circumstances that either the UK government or the EU will go much further.

In time, with carefully documented evidence, it is possible that the economic and other damage to Northern Ireland will provide incontrovertible justification for the suspension of aspects of the protocol’s operation under Article 16.

It is, after all, the purpose of the article to allow unilateral suspension of relevant parts of the protocol if its application “leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”.

How far-reaching that suspension might be cannot be judged at this stage, nor is there any certainty that the prime minister can be relied upon to run with the ball.

One lesson learned after decades of dealing with governments is that they don’t yield unless life has become uncomfortable.

Statements and speeches will not turn them nor, frankly, will petitions and debates (though I do not dismiss their worth as part of a campaign.) But if this is all that is on offer, then unionists should sue for the best improvements they can get.

If there is the stomach for defiance then, in truth, you cannot try to ditch the protocol and administer it at the same time. How comfortable are unionists with that and the consequences that may flow from it?

Is the scrapping of the protocol more important than the continued operation of the Assembly? A choice may have to be made. How would the collapse of the Executive impact on the fight against Covid and its plethora of variants and mutations? Alternatively, can those opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol gain a majority in the Assembly and withhold the democratic consent required under Article 18?

Lurking in the background is the potential for violence stirred up by opposition to the Protocol. Such an outbreak linked to a campaign to ditch the Protocol would be hugely damaging. Yet history shows, and it is my experience, that unionist leaders have had little success in controlling those who may opt for such activity.

What is needed is a pan-unionist response that all unionist parties can support. The inclination to out-do or criticise others who have the same objective must be overcome.

The options are few and they all have dangers associated with their implementation, but the greatest danger is allowing drift and dither to become the strategy.

• Peter Robinson is a former first minister and DUP leader

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