Northern Ireland Protocol: Non-unionists should set aside Brexit anger and focus on finding consensus, says Mick Fealty

Non-unionists should set aside their anger with the DUP over Brexit and knuckle down to finding a consensus solution to the NI Protocol problems, according to one commentator.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 17th May 2022, 6:59 pm
Updated Sunday, 29th May 2022, 6:56 pm

Eight months ago the leaders of Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and Green Parties published a joint statement calling for the “the rigorous implementation of the Protocol”.

Now the DUP has collapsed the assembly on foot of demands that it will not go back in until its ‘seven tests’ have been met. (The seven points are listed below).

Mick Fealty, editor of the Slugger O’Toole website, is one of a number of commentators the News Letter asked why there is such apparent opposition among non-unionists to the NI Protocol being amended.

Protesters at an anti-Northern Ireland Protocol rally in Ballymena, County Antrim on April 30, 2022. Photo: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

Mr Fealty replied that non-unionist have primarily decided to trust the formal UK-EU talks process where Protocol negotiations have been ongoing for several years without resolution. 

He added that before the election, “everybody convinced themselves that hitting the DUP was a popular thing to do, because most of their voter bases don’t like the DUP”; this was also because anti-Brexit parties and their voters “are just angry about Brexit”.

However he believes non-unionist parties should now put this anger aside and knuckle down to hammer out a consensus on the protocol problem. “For me that is what they should do” but instead they are “certainly” carrying on with their pre-election campaign of “hitting the DUP,” he adds.

He also accused a wide range of non-unionist players of using rhetorical tricks to continue the attacks - but at the cost of a power sharing assembly.

”This whole talk of neo-majoritarianism is something we are seeing coming from the Alliance Party as much as Sinn Fein, the [Irish] Department of Foriegn Affairs and even the European Commission. But that is irrelevant because it is a power-sharing executive, you have to have a dual mandate to get anything done.”

Commentator Alex Kane says that because some DUP members gave the impression they wanted a hard Irish border, the pro-protocol parties were “unlikely to have any sympathy” for the DUP when something like the protocol arrived. 

“Indeed, most of the reaction seemed to consist of a variation of ‘suck it up, you brought this all on yourself’.” he said.

Non-unionists also like the “best of both worlds” view of the protocol and believe it is better for preserving the Good Friday Agreement than any other alternative, he says.

“There may also be an element of republicanism which is happy to bank the protocol as a useful dimension of a possible border poll campaign,” so they can argue that NI is no longer a full part of the UK, he says.

“There’s also a fear in the pro-protocol parties that any unilateral action by the UK - and it is a fear shared by a lot of businesses on both sides of both borders - would lead to the sort of trade wars which would leave NI is a very difficult position.”

Asked to detail what objection he might have to the EU meeting the DUP’s seven tests for going back into the Assembly, SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole declined to give any criticism or approval of the seven points. 

The Protocol “protects Northern Ireland and this island as a whole from some of the worst consequences of Brexit and ensures that our internal border remains unaffected”, he replied.

“Where there are specific issues around the Protocol they need to be solved via the already agreed channels and the recent EU legislation around medicines has proved this can happen if good will exists alongside engagement from both sides.”

He added: “We have acknowledged there are a small number of issues around the Protocol that need to be resolved, but this must be done through an agreed process and not by denying Northern Ireland a government during a cost of living crisis and while our health service is at breaking point.”

Asked what objections - if any - it might have to the EU meeting the DUP’s seven tests, if it meant the restoration of the assembly, the Alliance Party insisted it was flexible.

“Alliance is flexible and open minded on solutions to challenges related to the Protocol provided they are mutually agreed, sustainable and legal,” a spokesman said. “The Protocol cannot be scrapped as it provides the legal basis that keeps NI in the Single Market for goods and all the comparative advantages that flow from that. “This involves continuing to align with EU law and retention of jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”

Former IRA prisoner turned academic and blogger Anthony McIntyre suggested that the DUP’s seven tests were irrelevant and that what the DUP really wants is to delay going into an Assembly as Deputy First Minister with Sinn Fein.

“I think there is a weariness with perceived unionist intransigence at this stage and a feeling that if it were not this seven they would find another seven,” he said. “A dance of the seven veils: delaying and deferring. The DUP jumped on the wrong horse and wants to blame everybody else because it caught its foot in the stirrup. Not too many unionists seemed to prioritise the Protocol in the recent election.”

Sinn Fein was also invited to comment.

:: The DUP says it will judge any new Protocol arrangements against its seven tests to determine “whether they respect NI’s position as part of the UK”.

They are;

1. Fulfil Article 6 of the Articles of Union, which requires that everyone in the United Kingdom is entitled to the same privileges.

2. Avoid any diversion of trade.

3. Not constitute a border in the Irish Sea.

4. Give the people of Northern Ireland a say in the making of the laws that govern them.

5. Result in “no checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.”

6. Ensure no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom unless agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

7. Preserve the letter and spirit of Northern Ireland’s constitutional guarantee requiring the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland for any diminution in its status as part of the United Kingdom.